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Cover Story (49). Van Morrison and the Chieftains: a great collaboration remembered

Cover Story: (48) Carrickfergus by Van the Man, the Dubliners or the sublime Allison Moorer?

What a great Irish ballad Carrickfergus is. How strange then, that it cries out to be better still and, for all we know, once was.

On the face of it, we have a gorgeous song with striking, mournful lyrics of lost love and impending death set to an impossibly beautiful melody.

Look into the history of Carrickfergus, however, and it all becomes more


Image: Stewart  / Carrickfergus Castle, reflections at sunset

The origins, though far from clear, may be in events from the 18th century. One verse talks about Kilkenny, a town nearly 200 miles from Carrickfergus. The opening lines mention Ballygran or Ballygrand and there is lively dispute as to whether this refers to a location near Kilkenny, one of the places called Carrick elsewhere in Ireland or nowhere at all, in other words an invention.

In relatively modern times, the song reportedly became popular from the mid 1960s after Dominic Behan, brother of Brendan and a formidable songwriter, learnt bits of it from the actor Peter O'Toole and added some lines of his own. The Clancy Brothers followed his lead and countless other artists - the Dubliners, Joan Baez, Bryan Ferry, Van Morrison with the Chieftains among them - have performed their own versions.

"Carrickfergus is a great but possibly incomplete song," says the Irish Music Daily website. "Whether the O’Toole link to its discovery is right or not, it seems likely that what has now become the generally accepted lyric is in fact an inaccurate recollection of a fuller and more consistent earlier version."

One writer, Robert Gogan, has suggested the ballad derived from three separate songs, not an uncommon feature in traditional music, and perhaps explaining the disjointed narrative and geographical uncertainties of the surviving three verses.

"For all their faults," Irish Music Daily concludes, "the lyrics still conjure up a sense of sadness and nostalgia and when coupled with such a beautiful, soaring melody, the effect is quite magical."

So magical, in fact, that the song absolutely demands a great singer. For that reason, I reluctantly exclude Van Morrison's version, liked by many, from this edition of the Cover Story series. I saw him sing it with the Chieftains at the Royal Albert Hall, loved the concert and respect Van the Man as a major fixture of rock. I just don't regard his voice as the kind I want to hear on Carrickfergus.

I offer three alternatives, all live recordings, among the many available. But I am, as ever, open to challenge.

* Jim McCann with the Dubliners, at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin in 2003:

** Joan Baez, in concert in Bratislava. 1989 (she heard the song first on a Van album, possibly the one he made with the Chieftains):

*** my own current favourite, the American country singer Allison Moorer, a woman who has had to overcome devastating loss of her own (she awoke aged 14 to the sounds of her father shooting dead her mother and then himself). Recorded for BBC 4's Transatlantic Sessions:



Bill Taylor

For me, Van Morrison sets an impossibly high bar with his rendition of Carrickfergus, especially the version he did with The Chieftains on “Irish Heartbeat.” (As an aside,there isn’t a bad song on that album.) He finds a gut-wrenching depth in the song that I haven’t heard anyone else come close to. A shame (perhaps even a sin?) that you didn’t see fit to include it. The Dubliners and Joan Baez are hardly even worth consideration and Allison Moorer, good as she is, falls well short, too.

Colin Randall

I did praise the Van and the Chieftains and say why I didn't include his version. I naturally expected dissent from Toronto!

Bill Taylor

It wasn’t a very good explanation...

Kate Clarke

(Via Twitter): Yep. Allison Moorer owns this song

Brendan Hanrahan

(via Facebook) Well, we could debate this to the end of song. For my part, apart from versions off the cuff by strangers in a pub, I've never heard better than this:

Colin randall

Bill Taylor will have his say in the next few days. I feel I am entitled to the view that Van does not have the great voice - the vocal purity undoubtedly possessed by the three singers I cite - that the song demands.

Bill Taylor

Vocal purity has nothing to do with it. Vocal integrity has everything. Two very different qualities.

Tim Sinclair

As something of a music ignoramus, didn't know this song. But listening to these different versions have to disagree with Bill with views on "vocal integrity" (whatever that is). Whatever genre (and my tastes catholic), music has to stir my heart. Morrison certainly didn't.
Complicated, as Colin says, who'd be the author(s), but in my head Carrickfergus is a woman's tale, best told hauntingly by a female voice. Yep, agree with Kate Clarke that Allison Moorer the one to almost bring tears to the eye.

Gavin Martin

Shout out for Dexys cover from Play Irish and Country

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