Home' Rhythms Magazine : 2018 Jan-Feb Contents 40 Rhythms
local hero shane howard is looking forward to
presenting Exile at the Port fairy folk festival in march,
the show he premiered in a capital city tour last year.
How did exile evolve and what was your primary
It’s been a dream of mine since the Clan album in 1996.
It took this long for all the elements to come together.
There was so much research, so much history, so many
songs and tunes, so much literature, so many journeys to
and through Ireland and so much to comprehend. The
Australian Irish history is complex and, like all history,
it’s filled with contradictions. But I really wanted to tell
this story. I felt that I’d tried to make a contribution to the
Aboriginal story of this country and it was time to tell the
story of my ancestors: how they came to be here and what
happened when they were here. Knowing your history,
your story, reveals so much. The lessons of history often
show the pathway forward. In a practical sense, it took
years of learning just to understand how to put a show of
this scale together. I learnt much from the Black Arm Band
productions. Also from Goanna’s Spirit Returns concerts
in 1998, the Tarerer Cultural Festivals from 1996, the Other
Side Of The Rock concert at Uluru, and others.
With exile, to what extent do you draw on your own
It gave me the starting point. I grew up in a family of
predominantly Irish descent, in a region that had one of the
highest concentrations of Irish settlers in Australia, near
Port Fairy. My Irish ancestors were exiles from An Gorta
Mor – The Great Hunger – and like so many others in the
Port Fairy region and Victoria, were mostly ‘free settlers’.
Growing up in this area was a bit like growing up in Belfast,
Ireland. As Irish Catholics, we knew we were second-class
citizens. Aboriginal people were below us on the social
ladder. It was socio-economic and it was pretty harsh. All
that began to change through the 1970s and 1980s.
My great grandmother was only an infant when her family
perished in Tipperary. Distant relations raised her until
the opportunity arose for her to sail from Cobh harbour
to Geelong and then by Cobb & Co coach to Port Fairy.
She then walked the 27 kilometres to Orford, to her closest
living relative. They were very hard times for the Irish. As
we know from places like Syria, it takes a lot for people
to leave everything they’ve known behind. Ireland was
haemorrhaging and dreadfully oppressed. As one of the
lines in the show says, “The Famine killed everything”. It’s
hard to imagine now. A million died and over a million left,
in a handful of years. I didn’t want Exile to be a shamrocks
and leprechauns show. Exile tells the truth, as best we can,
and we don’t shirk the hard parts of that history. There are
plenty of joyful mysteries, too! In fact, that’s what the music
and the tunes and the dancing did, they lifted people up.
Unlike Victoria, NSW has a predominantly convict history
and a history of political prisoners, as does Tasmania or
Van Diemen’s Land. Western Australia and Queensland
have different histories again. We tried to honour all those
aspects of the national story.
How was the show received around the country on its
maiden run last year and what were the highlights, from
Opening night in Melbourne to a sold out Hamer Hall
was both uplifting and terrifying. It was a great relief and
a delight that the idea of the production had captured
the imagination of audiences all over the country. In
Brisbane the 100-voice QPAC choir joined us at the end
for John Spillane’s rousing, ‘Hey Dreamer’. It felt like an
angelic chorus. Adelaide’s Festival Theatre was equally
remarkable. Paul Kelly and I duetted on ‘Farewell Dan And
Edward Kelly’, a song we had both recorded separately. The
highlight really, though, was being able to bring together
historical and contemporary songs and tunes and meld
them into a cohesive narrative. All of the performances from
all of the artists were stunning.
Did the end product match your expectations?
I’m a hard marker and I have unrealistically high
expectations, but I’m unnaturally proud of what we
achieved. It’s an epic story to try and condense into 90
minutes and we had a big production to manage on a
reasonably lean budget. I felt very honoured and a great
sense of accomplishment working on the Black Arm Band
productions and now I’m delighted to have been able to tell
a little of the story of my Irish ancestors in this country. I
hope other cultural groups do the same.
Will the show you’ll be presenting at the port fairy
festival this year retain the same format?
We have had to prune a little to fit the PFFF format, but the
show retains the same visual and narrative tale structure.
It was a pity that Paul Kelly wasn’t available but Troy
Cassar-Daley has stepped into that space. Troy too has
Irish ancestry in Tipperary through his Daley side. He’s
been exploring that with his family. The band is a fairly
traditional Irish music ensemble with fiddle, mandolin,
Uillean pipes, flute, whistles, guitar and harp, but it also
bends to both the modern and the ancient with the addition
of piano, didjeridu, bass guitar and the remarkable Greg
Sheehan on percussion.
Lining up Irish guests of the calibre of the great Andy
Irvine, john Spillane, john mcSherry and pauline
Scanlon is no mean accomplishment. Did any of your
original picks slip through the net?
I really worked hard to get Steve Cooney into the
production. Steve was in Captain Matchbox and Redgum,
but left Oz for Ireland in about 1980. He is considered
a giant of Irish trad music now and in many ways, he
introduced new elements into guitar and bass backing of
trad music. I was also sorry I wasn’t able to bring my old
friend Liam Ó Maonlaí back to Oz and Mary Black was on
my dream list of course. So were John Butler and Bernard
Fanning, Martin Hayes, Paul Brady and so many more.
Damien Dempsey and Dido also expressed great interest.
Maybe that could happen in Ireland.
Have you worked with Andy Irvine before?
I‘ve certainly jammed with Andy, but we’ve never formally
worked together. I’m really delighted that he agreed to be
a part of the concert. Andy brings such history and depth
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