Tuesday, April 7, 2015

First World War audio recordings



I was intrigued to read in the Irish Times last week of a collection of audio recordings made in German prisoner of war camps during the First World War.  Amongst them were a number of recordings of Irish soldiers singing songs or reciting poems and stories.  One such contributor was Private James McAssey from Leighlinbridge, Co. Carlow.  He was a pre war regular soldier with the 2nd Battalion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers and was captured in Belgium in December 1914 and imprisoned in Giessen, 70 km north of Frankfurt. Also in the same camp was Private Kelly from Athy, of the Royal Irish Regiment whose Christmas postcard from the camp survives in the collection of the Athy Museum Society.

Soldiers of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers captured earlier in the war included  three Athy men from McAssey's battalion -  Michael Bowden, Martin Maher and Michael Byrne -  all imprisoned at Limburg, close to Frankfurt. The soldiers in both Giessen and Limburg were ministered to by Fr James Crotty, a Dominican who was the Prior of the Dominican Community in Athy for two years from 1900.

It is very moving to listen to the song of a man long dead but with a distinct Carlow accent singing the plaintive lament ‘No-one to welcome me home’.  It was a popular tune amongst Irish emigrants to America and Canada in the late 19th century but it is very much forgotten now.  Perhaps further researches in the German archives may unearth a hitherto unknown recording by a soldier from Athy.  But if not what is the earliest recording of a Kildare native that survives? 

To date the earliest recording of a Kildare native that I can identify is that of the polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton.  Shackleton made two recordings following his return from his British Antarctic expedition of 1907-1909.  The first recording was made in New Zealand on 23rd June 1909 and released as a 78' record (a format which will be well remembered by older readers) by HMV.  The recording does Shackleton little justice as it is a recitation by him of the main achievements of his expedition under the title ‘A description of the dash for the South Pole.’  Shackleton was famed for his oratorical and lecturing skills, but there is scant evidence of that in the recording. The stilted nature of his delivery is probably a combination of his lack of familiarity with the technology and (to the modern ear) the crude quality of the recording.

On his return to the United Kingdom he made a further recording in London on 30th March 1910 entitled ‘My South Polar Expedition’ on an Edison Blue Amberol cylinder. Amberol Records was a company established by Thomas Edison which manufactured the cylinders in the United States from 1912 to 1929. The cylinders could hold a recording lasting 4 minutes and 45 seconds. The content of this recording varied slightly from the recording made in New Zealand but interestingly you can just about hear at the very end Shackleton asking the Engineer whether the recording went okay.

If there is an earlier recording of a Kildare native available anywhere one possible source might be the audio archive of the National Folklore collection held in University College Dublin.  This collection houses in excess of 1,000 wax cylinders  recording old folk narratives, music and song from the earliest days of recording.  The earliest recordings in the collection date from the 1890s and are of the first national Feis Ceol competitions which were held in Belfast and Dublin.  The majority of the recordings in the collection are the result of the tireless work by the full-time collectors of the Irish Folklore Commission in the period 1935-1971.

I am hopeful that further delving in the archive will uncover some early recordings from Kildare but time will tell.  The digitization of these archives is an important piece of work and perhaps does not get the recognition it deserves but a visit to the website www.bealbeo.ie will allow you to listen to a sample of the recordings which have been digitised to date.

As to James McAssey from Leighlinbridge little is known about his life after the recording was made. His comrades in arms from Athy would not survive captivity. The last of them to die was John Byrne, who had been a gardener employed by local vet John Holland, who would pass away on the 27th September 1918 less than two months before war's end.

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