Eleanor Shanley on life with De Dannan, John McGahern, and Ronnie Drew

Eleanor Shanley.

Eleanor Shanley.

KESHCARRIGAN IN Co Leitrim is nestled between the Shannon and Lough Erne. Its landscape has been farmed for thousands of years and has also provided the inspiration for the novels of the late John McGahern.

The village is the home of traditional Irish and folk singer Eleanor Shanley, who for many years was lead vocalist with De Dannan. She returns to Galway on Wednesday March 25 and Thursday March 26, at 9pm both nights, to play The Crane Bar, Sea Road.

From a very early age Eleanor was exposed to music.

“I grew up listening to The Dubliners and John McCormack and sean nós” she says. “My mother’s family were all traditional singers and they would’ve been very much influenced by the Irish ballad singer Delia Murphy.

“As I got a bit older I would’ve gone to De Dannan gigs and I remember both Dolores Keane and Mary Black singing with them. When I was starting out as a performer I collaborated a few times with fellow Leitrim native Charlie McGettigan. Even to this day we meet up every so often and have a bit of session together.”

Shanley moved to Dublin briefly in the late 1980s and worked with the state recruitment agency FÁS. During this time she regularly sang at traditional sessions in the capital and it was around this time she was offered the opportunity to work with De Dannan.

“At the time I was singing songs like ‘Sweet Forget Me Not’ and ‘Sonny’ and other traditional songs,” she says. “De Dannan discovered me in Dublin and I started singing with them in 1989.

“It was a little bit daunting to be stepping into the shoes of Dolores and Mary but they never ever made me feel like I was second best. Up to that point I’d done sessions but I’d never done any major gigs so joining De Dannan was a real education.”

De Dannan were opening up the realms of Irish folk music and were exploring avenues into jazz, country, and blues. In 1990 they had a hit single in Ireland with their version of The Beatles classic ‘Hey Jude’ and their Half Set In Harlem album was very well received around the world.

“I used to hate talking to audiences during a performance but when I was with De Dannan I realised the audience was your friend,” says Eleanor. “Now I love chatting to audiences and it has become a case where they can’t shut me up!”

After five years with the group Eleanor decided she wanted to make a much greater connection with her audience and so she departed to pursue a solo career.

For a short period she returned to her native Leitrim and took stock of her life and career. During this time she came into contact with Keshcarrigan-based novelist John McGahern and his writing was to have a profound effect on her.

“You’d see him around doing normal things like getting petrol for the car or going to the shop,” says Eleanor. “I remember reading his novel Amongst Women and I could put actual names in the village to the characters in the book. People were always coming up to him wondering if they were in there.

“I think he describes Leitrim so well and he really captures what it’s all about. He liked the simple kind of life and he wasn’t somebody who wanted a lot of money or a lavish lifestyle. He just wanted to write.”

Over the last 20 years Eleanor has pursued the course of her musical journey with stealth and has worked with some of the biggest names in Irish music. Her eponymous debut album in 1995 was produced by Donal Lunny. She then went on to have a very successful collaboration with The Dubliners and Ronnie Drew. When Drew lost his long battle with cancer in August last year it was a body blow to Eleanor.

“I was in Spiddal when Ronnie rang me and told me he had cancer,” she says. “I don’t think even he realised at that stage how serious it was. I always admired Ronnie’s honesty and I admired that he wouldn’t be nice to people for the sake of being nice.

“If he liked you he liked you and if he didn’t like you then he’d let you know straight away. We had a good way of working together and we did two albums together and toured on and off for about 10 years. I miss him desperately.”

For more information and tickets contact The Crane on 091 - 587419 or go to www.thecranebar.com


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