Acclaimed Irish singer, songwriter and storyteller Declan O’Rourke has just landed in Western Australia ahead of his two special performances for the first ever Fenians Fremantle & Freedom Freedom Festival. Having spent much of his childhood in Australia and having a passion for recreating important stories of Irish history in song, the commemoration of the landing of Hougoumont, the last ever convict ship to arrive in Australia from Ireland, was an occasion O’Rourke couldn’t help but want to be part of. BRAYDEN EDWARDS spoke to O’Rourke about the history shared between our two nations and shining light on some of the less talked-about stories of the past through his music, ahead of his shows at WA Maritime Museum on Thursday, January 11 and at John Curtin College of the Arts on Saturday, January 13.
Even though you’ve become so synonymous with Irish folk music you actually spent a fair amount of your childhood living in Australia, what were the main differences between growing up in the two countries from your memory?
They are not as vast as you would expect! People are people everywhere. I love them both for different reasons but the main differences that stand out to me are the weather obviously, the landscape, plus I love the smell of the trees here in the morning air. Bird songs too. If only I could have the Aussie magpie, bellbirds, and the like in Ireland. But then it wouldn’t be Ireland.
Mixed schools when you’re a kid are different and as a teenager are much more interesting [laughs]. School is not half as disciplined here but has better facilities. Australia has got so many great assets, and it’s a great place to raise kids, but I think it still has some growing up to do in terms of tolerance, and harmony amongst its many cultures. I believe funding, and support for the arts has been quite butchered in Oz lately. That has to change. Lastly, from my present phase of life, I think music, and art are appreciated more nationally in Ireland. But you don’t want an essay right?
The Fenians Festival commemorates 150 years since the last boat of convicts arrived in Australia from Ireland. Do you think the diaspora of the Irish across the world, moving by choice or not to places like Australia has become part of Irish culture and identity?
Without a doubt. It defines us as a nation in many ways, in recent history. I just recently finished a record of songs I’ve written on the subject of The Great Irish Famine. The events of that time triggered an explosion of Irish immigration, and the trend has not ceased since. Our population at home is approximately 5 million, but around 80 million claim Irish heritage worldwide.
I’ve had Australian friends who have travelled much of the world say they felt more ‘at home’ in Ireland than any other country. What do you see that we have in common that would make them feel that way?
Well I think we are know for our hospitality, and for knowing how to have a good time.
Your music is often centred around real stories in history such as your latest album Chronicles of the Irish Famine you just mentioned. Why do you feel it is the role of the songwriter to bring these things to the forefront of popular culture when some would be content to leave them in the history books?
History books only reach so far. Even poetry. Music provides an emotional backdrop that illustrates better the feelings associated with the information being passed into the brain, and appeals to the heart. I write about about things that move me, and whatever is most interesting at a given time to me. I’m fascinated with history, and this particular collection of songs has been a labour of love, and was 16 years in the making, or thereabouts.
I learned around the year 2000 that my Grandad was born in a workhouse. That intrigued me, and I was determined to find out what that meant. When I stumbled upon a book some months later, The Workhouses Of Ireland by John O’Connor, my education on the famine commenced. Despite this being the most impactful series of events ever in the recorded history of Ireland, I had learned almost nothing of it in school. It was a footnote in our history books, and yet it only happened a few generations ago.
As someone who travels across the world performing, what was it about the Fenians Festival or Fremantle in particular that made you want to perform here?
Well a chance to visit sunny WA for a week in January, which is Ireland’s coldest month certainly didn’t hurt. But for someone like me who is an Irish Australian, and an artist, holding great affection for both places, their cultures and histories, I could not think of a better subject than the last ever convict ship to land in Australia carrying 62 Irish rebels on board, to sink my teeth into! What an incredible story is theirs.
I’ve heard you’ve even written a song in particular to perform to commemorate the arrival of the Hougoumont’s arrival in WA. Can you tell us about that and what history or message you are hoping to share in the song?
I could, but it’s best you come along and hear me sing it!
For those who haven’t heard you or listened to much Irish folk music before what can they expect that is unique about the kind of music you play?
Well I’m a sucker for a good story. I never plan anything beyond a list of songs before the show, and every concert is a unique experience for both myself, and the audience. It’s never one dimensional. What happens in that room will only happen in that room. Then it’s gone. Like all good things in life. I’m going to enjoy it for sure, and am very much looking forward to it!