Sean Burke

Thu, 12/03/2020 - 17:58
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It was the Wednesday at the Volunteer during Sidmouth FolkWeek 2005 – the festival that (nearly) didn’t happen. I had foolishly declared I would run the lunchtime sessions if no-one else would, and flying by the seat of my proverbial pants as a result! “Hello, George,” quoth a friendly voice I half-recognised, “I’ve brought some reinforcements!” It was Sean, passing through on his way to Dartmoor with Ted and Ivy Poole from Swindon. I was already familiar with Sean’s jocular style with songs like Blarney Stone and Take Me Back To Castlebar from previous years. One year around then, it was raining hard outside, so we stayed long after the session ended. “Tommy Dillon, sing us a song!” demanded Sean from the middle of the floor after yet another of his own ditties. The latter Guildford-based singer was, as usual, reluctant to do so, cradling his Guinness, before entreating us with his rich baritone. Sean’s demand has endeared himself to me ever since.

Andrew Bathe writes: “Sean was a Cork man who got most of his ‘old hearth’ songs from his family, especially Dan Hurley, his grandfather, and uncle John Hurley, who were both well-known Cork singers. Post-Second World War, while serving with the 2nd Inniskilling Fusiliers, he picked up other songs, but his ‘navvy’ songs come from his time on building sites. Sean also recalls childhood days in the Dunmanway district of West Cork where, at a tender age, he picked up music and song from his family in the time-honoured fashion of the oral-aural tradition. Around then, he encountered the legendary singer, Maggie Barry, before she left for England. Sean himself emigrated at 16, moving with his young family in the 1950s from London to take up a job at Pressed Steel in Swindon, and he became a notable personality at Ted and Ivy Poole’s folksong club which welcomed singers of all backgrounds. Of Sean’s mixed bag of songs, the one which made the greatest impact on the folk revival circuit was The Green Fields Of Kerry, now usually referred to as Palm Trees – a rare item previously unknown and for which Sean himself could not recall his source. He also had The Green Bushes, The Old Woman Of Wexford (Marrowbones), and humorous texts on everyday topics, such as The Sick Note and Mrs T (i.e. Thatcher). His long-standing friendship with Swindon stalwart, the late Jim Coughlan of County Limerick, led to a famous singing partnership, which was in demand on the club and festival circuit.”

Gone is the sight of Sean removing his flat cap in mid-song to allegedly find his words. He will live long in the memory of we regulars at The Volly.

My thanks to Andrew for allowing me to share his homily with our wider audience and for the use of his photographs with permission.

George Frampton