Rosie Stewart Loves to Sing

Jenny Cathcart meets the lady keeping the Ulster singing tradition alive

Headphone Icon LISTEN to Rosie Stewart singing 'Rosalita and Jack Campbell'

Rosie Stewart is a singer and ambassador for traditional Ulster singing. With a style that is entirely her own, she picks and chooses her repertoire from songs that might be 200 or 20 years old.

Born Rosie McKeaney in the townland of Cashel in the parish of Garrison, Co Fermanagh, Stewart has music and song in her veins.

Like the other local singing families, the Gallaghers, the Timoneys, the Burnses and the Joneses, the McKeaneys were sought after performers at private house parties, pub sessions, ceilis, concerts and parochial nights.

Indeed it was on such an occasion in the parochial hall one Easter Sunday night that Stewart, then aged 9, gave her first public performance.

She remembers it well and is reminded of her schoolteacher at St Joseph's, Mrs Brady, who prepared her for the concert.

‘I am very grateful to her, for she taught me diction. "Open your mouth W-I-D-E", she would say, stretching her thumb and middle finger to show me how.

'That was the only training I got as a singer. I don't believe that technique can be taught; you either have it and can perfect it, or you learn it from other people.

'I think you absorb the art of traditional singing through listening. I had been listening to my grandfather, my father and my mother since I was a baby. I have six sisters and each one of them sings with a similar voice to mine though my voice is the deepest, probably because I smoke.

‘Before she married, my mother, Lena Fox, was a well known singer. My grandfather, Edward Keaney, a talented singer and fiddle player, lived with us until he was well over 90.

'Because he was crippled with rheumatism, he would sit in the corner and sing snatches of songs and when he no longer had a voice he would recite the words.

'He loved it when neighbours came to the house to sing. My father, Patrick Keaney, was best known as a step dancer but he was also a great singer with a vast repertoire of songs, some of which he probably took to his grave.

'He often surprised us with a song we had never heard before. In 2001, I organised a fundraising concert at the Glenfarne Ballroom of Romance for a Mencap walk I was doing in China, I invited Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and Dermot Byrne, of Altan, to perform.

'Afterwards we repaired to a pub in Kiltyclogher where my father, who loved to show off in front of such celebrities, sang two songs we had never heard before.’

Stewart says she came late to traditional singing, for it was 1983 when she entered a Fleadh Ceoil singing competition, progressing to the Ulster and All Ireland finals where she was awarded second place.

She disliked the rigid criteria and never pursued the top prize. When she attended a concert at The Metropole in Derry and heard Sarah Ann O'Neill and her brother Geordie Hannon (icons of the Ulster singing tradition) she was ‘blown away’ by their presence and their songs and knew she wanted to emulate them.

‘I don't speak Irish. I describe myself as "a traditional singer in English". In Ulster there is crossover with Scottish songs because of the Plantation. If you're wondering where I got my Scottish name, I married Joe Stewart, whose ancestors probably settled on an island in Lough MacNean.

'Traditional songs tend to have the same themes whatever their country of origin - love, loss, emigration and war. I find that singers are generous in passing on traditional songs because they are in the public domain.'

Stewart has appeared on radio and TV shows including The Pure Drop on RTE, The Corner House on the BBC and she recorded songs for a Channel 4 series about Irish history.

‘Driving along in my car, I listen to RTE radio and if I hear a song I like, I try to find it. The glory of the internet is that with a few words you can find any song.

'I'm attracted to satirical songs, or those with an unusual storyline. ‘The Errant Apprentice’, by Bill Watkin, is my kind of song. It's so amusing and the lyrics are reminiscent of older songs written by learned schoolmasters with a poetic turn of phrase.

'One of my favourite songwriters is Sean Mone, from Keady in Co Armagh. He wrote ‘Rosalita and Jack Campbell,’ based on his experience of living and working on the Ormeau Road in Belfast in the 1970s, when people went out for the night and did not come home because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

'The song vividly evokes the devastating effect of sudden violence on the lives of men and women trying to live out their dreams in exceptional circumstances:

When the sun set behind the black mountain, the street demons came out to dance,
Rosalita and Jack, in a roistering dance round the chippy cried
Yippy Ay Yippy and the crowd in the queue answered Yippy Ay Aye...
But then the slow car appeared, the gunman aimed at his victim and Jack Campbell fell to his knees...

'Mone wrote another brilliant song about the Rev William McCrea, MP for Mid Ulster, which says nothing derogatory about his Reverence but insists on his shortcomings as a politician.

‘Through singing I have made so many friends. Some people go to Festivals or Fleadhs but I don't run with any particular crowd. I have performed at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow, at the Whitby Folk Week and the National Folk Festival in Sutton Bonnington.

'Every year I teach international singing workshops at the Joe Mooney Summer School in Drumshambo. But I never go looking for work; if it comes to me I'll take it. Perhaps that is what keeps it fresh for me.'

Stewart played Queen Aeval, Queen of Munster in the Galway Druid Theatre's staging of the 18th century musical, The Midnight Court.

In 2004, when Stewart received a TG4 award for Best Traditional Singer, it came as a complete and wonderful surprise.

‘Frank Harte and Len Graham had previously won the same award, so I was in very good company.’

‘I will decide what to sing on the plane. I will sing Fermanagh and Ulster songs and some that have a link with America like the emigration songs, where some characters make good and others are pressed into the Union army and get shot. I will explain where the songs come from and what they mean to me.’

Rosie Stewart sings at the Traditional Arts/Folk Music lunchtime concert at the Library of Congress, Washington DC, May 9.