Frank Harte

Singer and collector of Irish songs

Frank Harte specialised in the songs of Dublin city and saw himself as a "storyteller in song". With Dominic Behan, Luke Kelly and Jimmy Crowley he represented a strand in the Irish tradition that originated with the 19th-century street singer "Zozimus". But there were other strings to his bow, and he wholeheartedly embraced the traditional ballads of loss and emigration.

Irish music first made an impression on him when as a young boy he heard a traveller, who was selling ballad sheets at an agricultural fair in Boyle, Co Roscommon, sing "The Valley of Knockanure":

It was the first song I heard that made me aware we had a tradition of songs telling about the joys and sorrows, the tragedies and battles of a people, in a way I found irresistible.

In time he became a great exponent of the Dublin street ballad, which he delivered with his trademark nasal twang. He was also capable of sensitive renditions of more melodic songs like "The Spanish Lady" and love songs such as "She's Like the Swallow".

He was at home in the company of singers from all corners of Ireland and Britain. He sang the praises of Eddie Butcher, Joe Holmes and Geordie Hanna, while the sean nós singing of Seosamh Ó hÉanaigh and Nioclás Tóibín won his admiration, as did the songs of Ewan MacColl, the Copper Family and the Watersons.

Born in 1933, in Chapelizod, on the outskirts of Dublin, where his family ran a pub, he was an architect by profession and taught surveying at the Dublin Institute of Technology. He was also a collector of songs and a recorder of their history, and assembled a database of over 15,500 recordings. He generally found singers happy to share their songs:

Probably they realise as I do, that the songs do not belong to them, just as they did not belong to the people they got them from.

He was introduced to the urban song tradition in the family pub where Catholics and Protestants drank, sang and recited verse for entertainment:

There was also a fair few of the old crowd knocking around – the Dublin Fusiliers who had come back from the First World War and they all had an input too . . . I would also hear a lot of the old music-hall songs and Victorian melodrama songs such as "She Was Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage", things that would tear your heart out, bring tears to your eyes.

Patriotic and political song had an honoured place in his repertoire – the fact that such songs were transmitted orally down the centuries was a measure of their worth. They endured, he believed, because they gave people hope. Notwithstanding his republican leanings, he insisted that the Orange song was as much a part of the Irish tradition as the Fenian song.

He was at his best in a live session, and regularly sang at Sunday-morning sessions at the Brazen Head. He was also an enthusiastic supporter of the Góilín Singers' Club. In 2003 he received the Traditional Singer of the Year award from the Gaelic-language television channel, TG4. He gave talks and conducted workshops in songs and singing at music festivals in Ireland, Britain and the United States.

Harte recorded several solo albums of Dublin songs and his book Songs of Dublin was published in 1978. While he preferred to sing unaccompanied, he enjoyed a fruitful collaboration with Donal Lunny. Their albums include 1798: The First Year of Liberty (1998), My Name is Napoleon Bonaparte (2001) and The Hungry Voice: the song legacy of Ireland's Great Hunger (2004).

His sleeve notes for these albums were scholarly and crammed with information; the notes for Napoleon Bonaparte run to 56 pages and constitute an outstanding contribution to Irish ballad lore. The critic and musician Fintan Vallely hailed the album as the "great triumph of Frank Harte's life work", which merited a doctorate for "making more accessible not only Irish song, but Irish and European history too".

P. J. Gillan

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