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Looking back on a life of music and song

FOR those who knew Robbie McMahon or who had the pleasure of hearing him sing, he needed no introduction.


The body of the late Robbie McMahon arrives at Kilraghtis Cemetery following his funeral mass at Clooney Church on Sunday.	 Photograph by Declan MonaghanHe was a singer, songwriter, master of the comic turn of phrase, expert lilter, entertainer and great traditional showman. To those in his native Spancilhill, he was a great neighbour and friend and it was with great sadness that the community learned of his death on December 13 after a short illness.

Robbie was born in Spancilhill and lived in the same house on the family farm all of his life. He, and many others, attest to him having sung all his life. He would sing out on the farm with his father as a young fella and make up songs in his head as he went, humming away, while thinking of words.
The first official recognition of his talent came when, aged 13, he won a medal at a feis in Crusheen, following his rendition of The Boys of Westwood.

Speaking to The Clare Champion in 2010, Robbie recalled that medal. “I treasured that medal. I had a lovely soprano voice back then, which was beautiful but, of course, I lost it and it’s far from a soprano voice I have now.”

The first song Robbie remembered writing was The Old Man in the Hob, which he won an All-Ireland Fleadh with. In it, he described himself as an old man recalling his youth.

Robbie was known as an expert lilter, who could imitate various instruments by lilting. He also played the mouth organ and told The Clare Champion, as only he could, how he played it so much his lips got “right sore and they did feel like turnips, so I had to pack it in and just sing away”.

It didn’t matter what Robbie would sing, just so long as he sang but his great favourites were My Home on the Hill, The Red Cross Social and The Fleadh Down in Ennis, which was written about the All-Ireland Fleadh of 1956 in Ennis. In it he mentions many characters and musicians who took part in the fleadh. However, he is probably most renowned for his version of Spancilhill. Although not one of his own compositions, Robbie made the Michael Considine song his own and, in doing so, brought it to a worldwide audience.

Robbie’s life and songs were documented on film and a DVD released this time last year, entitled Last Night As I Lay Dreaming, brought the legendary Spancilhill composer and singer a whole new set of fans from around the world.

Set against the backdrop of community life in rural Clare, contributors to the DVD highlight the important role the singer and songwriter has traditionally played in their local communities, recording significant events and keeping that memory alive for future generations.

In an interview with The Clare Champion, Robbie described himself as “just a normal man who loves singing”.

“I’ve made people happy with my songs and singing and I suppose they must like myself too. I’m always up to divilment and I have great fun wherever I go. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t sing. I sing at every occasion I can and people always ask me to sing when I’m at functions or parties. I do because I love it and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Robbie McMahon (1926-2012).

The funeral mass was held for Robbie McMahon on Sunday last at Clooney Church, with burial afterwards in Kilraghtis Cemetery.

Robbie is survived by his wife, Maura, and their four children, Donal, Dympna, Noeleen and Fiona.


Tributes paid to Clare icon
CHAIRMAN of the Cois na hAbhna branch of Comhaltas and head of the traditional music archives at Cois na hAbhna, Frank Whelan, said his good friend Robbie McMahon’s death is “a huge loss”.

“I knew him as a friend for a long number of years and got to know him very well with the making of the film Last Night As I Lay Dreaming, which I produced. He was a member of Comhaltas for a long number of years. He was a familiar face during the Fleadh Nua and acted as MC for us at the gig rig over the years.

“He proudly carried the Comhaltas flag back when the parades were big and he was always at the front of the parade as a flag bearer. Of course, through Comhaltas, he travelled around the world and brought his songs and humour to a wide audience.

“He was a good friend and he always had a great welcome. He had time for everyone. He did an awful lot for the singing tradition. There are a lot of young children singing now who wouldn’t but for him.

“He’d a powerful, unique voice. He loved songs to tell stories and he was a great storyteller himself. Through his songs, he contributed to the social history of the places he went and he really liked that. He’ll be a huge loss,” Mr Whelan concluded.

Robbie held a monthly singing session in his local, Duggan’s pub in Spancilhill, for the past 12 years and in recent times it became known as Robbie’s First Friday.

Speaking about the sessions and the many memories of Robbie in Duggan’ s, proprietor Michael Duggan said, “His singing sessions in Duggan’s attracted people from all over Ireland and the world and it was great that we were able to showcase him. He saw it as them coming to his home place. He always showcased Spancilhill and he was a very humble man.

“The sessions are going on 12 years. We are so proud that so many people turned up to them and that so many people got to know him. There was no pomp or ceremony about them or Robbie. He’d kick them off with a song and then he’d ask someone else to sing a song. It was an informal thing. He last sang with us on the November first Friday and we had arranged a birthday party for the December one, the Tuesday before he died but, unfortunately, he was in hospital. We went ahead with it and sang in his honour.

“We hoped to have him back in January but, sadly, his health took a turn. We will continue with the session and now, more than ever, it needs to be continued. It will remain Robbie’s First Friday and we will continue in full strength. He has passed on but he is not forgotten,” Mr Duggan concluded.

Mayor of Clare, Councillor Pat Daly described the well-known singer as “a true icon of Irish folk culture and one of the most celebrated Clare men”.

“Robbie McMahon was one of the pioneering figures who helped to reinvigorate Irish folk songs. In doing so, Robbie helped to preserve a central feature of Irish culture and also kept alive the traditions and stories of old.

“His unique rendition of Spancilhill and extraordinary performances as a traditional artist in his own right rightly earned him international acclaim. Clare County Council was delighted to award Robbie a civic reception in October 2010 in recognition of his contribution to the traditional arts.

“The considerable involvement of local people of all ages in the many traditional music festivals that take place each year throughout Clare is evidence of a flourishing Irish traditional music scene here. This is the ultimate tribute to Robbie, who has contributed so valuably to the promotion of traditional music in this county down through the years.”

Clare arts officer, Siobhán Mulcahy said, “We are greatly saddened to hear the news of Robbie McMahon’s death. We are delighted to have supported the film Last Night As I Lay Dreaming which was on Robbie’s life. His legacy will live on and no more so than in that film, which will afford future generations an opportunity to appreciate the man and his songs.”
Deputy Michael McNamara has described him as “a unique performer”.

“He represented the very best of the Irish ballad singing tradition and his passing is a great loss to his family, to Spancilhill, to Clare and to Ireland. He combined his rich singing inheritance with the skills of a consummate entertainer.

“Robbie was generous with his time, his talent and his smiling good-humoured personality. Although, he performed all over Ireland and in many parts of the world, he remained rooted in Spancilhill of the famous fair and close to the people from whom he drew his inspiration and in whose company he blossomed.

“With his engaging personality, he brightened the lives of everybody he met. When Robbie sang Spancilhill or another ballad from his extensive repertoire, which included his own compositions, he brought great joy to his audience. Spancilhill has been sung by many fine singers but nobody expressed the pathos and the lonesomeness of that emigrant’s lament quite like Robbie,” he said.

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