Newfound in the North

Newfoundland is a name that conjures hope – hope of the new, the sight of land at long last after the long journey across the norther stretches of the Atlantic. Landfall. A new place to build a new life. Newfoundland is the renewed vitality of a journey over the ocean ended and the journey on the new found land just begun.
It is a word that has special resonance for those of us from Ireland’s south-east. Newfoundland is sometimes called the other Ireland. Fishermen since the 18th century followed the cod as they moved through the North Atlantic and stayed several months of the year in settlements built there to fish the giant shoals of cod; eventually these settlements grew into towns like St. John’s. Soon their families came with them to stay during the fishing season and eventually they stopped returning over the ocean, making the Newfoundland their newfound home. In the word of Woodie Guthrie’s song of the same name, they began livin’ in the light of the morning.
Newfoundland is unique in the story of the wandering Irish. Between 1800-1835, thousands from a highly concentrated region of Ireland emigrated there consistently. It is this which accounts for the Newfoundland accents and dialect which still has strong hints of its Wexford, Kilkenny and Waterford origins.
They took over the waves not just their words, but with the same instrument of breath, their songs and stories. The music of Ireland has continued to live and breathe fresh against the breeze on the other side of that vast ocean over the centuries. Newfound ways for the old land’s songs and music.
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I first heard Newfoundland on a summery Saturday evening on Bailey’s New Street in Waterford city. Beneath the ruins of the Franciscan friary, across from the Munster Bar, the band sent sounds out into the cool evening air that gave a renewed vitality to songs heard often. Songs that you’ve heard a dozen times played in the same rigid style were dusted off, and driven to new heights. The playing was tight but still free and fluid. It was that best of combinations: honed as a fine craft but feeling improvised on the spot. It was music as art, not just as entertainment. Newfoundland do for the songs they sing and play what the new terrain did for the journeying south-easterners coming from Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries.
We are used to reading Irish history as bracketed between our bigger Anglophone brothers of the United States and the United Kingdom, but the story of Newfoundland – place and band – helps reorient the Irish story of travel and transience.
In Oslo, the capital of Norway, near the harbour there is a pub called The Dubliner. Newfoundland and its members have made this pub their second home. Like the fishermen who first set out to sea in the hunt for cod to Newfoundland, the band moor themselves to the Norwegian capital a month at a time, taking the songs of Ireland with them and planting them in the fertile ground of the Norwegian capital spreading the same magic that entranced me that summer night in Waterford city.
I began working in The Dubliner in September 2016, and could not believe my luck to see that Newfoundland would be coming to play soon after I started working there. It was, for a newly emigrated Irish person, a source of comfort to know a band whose songs I knew and whose style I loved would provide the soundtrack to my workdays. That is a special kind of luck. A band who moreover understood the tradition of our music was served best not by stale imitation of the old style, but that needed new life for new times. Exactitude, technique and feeling are not separate or opposed in the music of Newfoundland. The feeling with which they play, the emotional power of performance reinforces the care and skill with which the songs are played. The technical skill of the band imbued with understanding and feeling that is deeply rooted in a love of the life the music has – the journeys these songs represent, the journey that music goes on from conception to performance, from playing to listening, and finally to hearing. Hearing a condition of understanding the value of the songs.
Newfoundland, a group of musicians who hail from the same corner of Ireland that those old fishermen and the families of Canada’s Newfoundland did, with accents just the same, do something special when they get up on stage. Whether it’s near the banks of the Suir in Waterford, or in the front bar of The Dubliner at the top of the Oslo fjord, or on that other northern edge of the Atlantic from which they take their name, wherever they go taking their instruments and their musical skill, those who hear them hear something special. They hear a band who know that songs live longer lives than those who sing. Those songs have the ability to reach back in time, through the present, and can point to possible futures where music creates newfound lands each time we listen with ears tuned to the possibility that traditions don’t die but, in our hands, transform before us. If we catch even a glimpse of this, we are lucky. We are lucky to have guides on this journey through the musical traditions of Ireland in the shape of Newfoundland.
David Toms
Oslo, March 2017.