Hall of Fame - Len Graham

The career of the only full time professional singer in NI 

Len Graham is probably unique in being not just the first but almost the only traditional singer from Northern Ireland to be a full time professional at his art. And not only is he from this part of the world, but he specialises in songs from the area.

Born in Glenarm, Co Antrim, his father was a fine singer and Len began singing publicly as a young man, while working in a textile factory in Coleraine. After he won the 'all Ireland' in 1971 his reputation began to spread – and at the same time his own passion for the songs of Ulster was growing.

His interest brought him into contact with older singers such as Eddie Butcher and Joe Holmes. He developed such a strong relationship with the latter that they recorded an album, Chaste Muses, Bards and Sages in 1971. The record became an instant hit and Len’s assured singing coupled with Joe’s verve, and his huge store of songs, made them firm favourites in clubs, concerts and festivals. Sadly, Joe Holmes died just a fortnight after completing the recording of their follow-up LP, After Dawning, in 1978.

That album, on the Topic label, was produced by fellow Ulsterman Robin Morton, who was also in charge of Len’s first solo, Wind and Water, which was released (also on Topic) in 1977. A few years later, Len Graham decided to go professional and after a guest appearance on The Boys of the Lough’s Regrouped album he released his second solo offering in 1983. Do Me Justice, on which he was accompanied by Fintan McManus (guitar, bouzouki and whistle) and Ciaran Curran (cittern) cemented his reputation as one of the world’s foremost traditional singers.

Three years later, after another solo album (Ye Lovers All), Len teamed up with Gerry O’Connor (fiddle), Garry Ó Briain (mandocello, guitar and keyboards) and Andrew McNamara (accordion) to form Skylark. The band (which later featured Mairtin O’Connor on accordion) recorded four albums and became a major player on the international scene.

Over the years Len Graham has also toured and recorded with Fermanagh flute player Cathal McConnell and worked extensively with the singer Pádraigin Ni Uallacháin. An album of children’s songs recorded by the latter pair, When I Was Young, has proved to be an enduring favourite.

Another of his productions, It’s Of My Rambles, a book with tapes of some of his field recordings, won him the Sean O’Boyle Cultural Traditions Award in 1993. He also won the first TG4 Traditional Singer of the Year award in 2002. These honours are not only for his singing but also recognise the fact that he has passed the tradition on to many others over the years.

Among those who have sung or recorded songs from him are Altan, The Battlefield Band, The Boys Of The Lough, Karan Casey, Cherish The Ladies, The Chieftains, De Dannan, Dick Gaughan, Andy Irvine, Dolores Keane and the Voice Squad. His recent compilation album The One Tradition is a celebration of the diverse and shared song tradition of Ulster.

Len now lives in Mullaghbawn, Co Armagh, and for some years now he has been working with local storyteller and singer John Campbell. The pair’s enchanting mix of songs, stories and lilts has won them a large following around the world and they are in constant demand for concerts and festivals. They have recorded two albums together, Ebb and Flow and Two For The Road

Geoff Harden