Irish Pirate Ballads and Other Songs of the Sea

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Irish Pirate Ballads and Other Songs of the Sea, by Dan Milner. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Folkways, 2009. Thirteen tracks, $16.98 CD.

I came upon this CD of songs to which one might want to dance a jig, by Irish musician and musicologist Dan Milner, in an indirect way: I have been on a search for a pirate shanty for my historical novel about women pirates. This has several, one or two of which I particularly like for my purpose, as well as others that I enjoy for their own sakes.

I immediately zeroed in on one whose subject matter was most familiar: "Granuaile." She's Grace O'Malley, a real sixteenth-century pirate whose life was portrayed in the Broadway musical The Pirate Queen. It wasn't what I wanted for my book, although I liked the song. Milner's notes indicate that "Granuaile, historically, has long been synonymous with the Irish nation."

I decided to consider some other songs for use in my novel. "The Flying Cloud" seems a perfect choice. Sung by Dan Milner, it is a wistful ballad about the life of pirates on a ship, including a graphic description of the shackled slaves held below deck. The lyrics certainly capture the essence of pirate life. The song matches the descriptions I've encountered throughout my years of research about the exciting and sometimes bloodthirsty renegades.

A second song that I love because of its beautiful melody is "The River Lea," about a seaman "willingly" deciding to give up life at sea. During the 1700s, those pirates agreeing to follow the order of King George to give up the life of piracy and settle down on land were granted clemency; those who refused were hanged. "The River Lea" is not about a pirate, but it beautifully captures the conflicts in the heart of a longtime seaman deciding to resettle on the shore.

This CD is a collection of mostly Irish pirate songs, but some songs also touch on other law-defying citizens--not to mention those who were dispossessed by the government, or simply life. Dan Milner has an Irish background and "grew up in a singing family." Milner's autobiography begins with his hardscrabble childhood, which is reminiscent of Frank McCourt's. …