This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #130: Christmas in Killarney by The Barra MacNeils.
At the beginning of this countdown….when I first asked Leah and Sophie to create their own Top Ten song lists….Song #3 on Leah’s list has always been, “Christmas in Killarney” by The Barra MacNeils. It is just a case of pure, fortunate timing that takes us to this song on this day, less than 24 hours before Christmas arrives on our calendars, in our hearts and in our homes. So, let’s spend a few moments together on this Christmas Eve while I tell you the story of a song that comes as close as can be to describing the Cape Breton Christmases of my youth and, as well, setting the mood for the Christmases of today, here in Ontario. Here is the story of “Christmas in Killarney” by The Barra MacNeils.
The story begins in Scotland. Just off of the western coast of Scotland lay the Outer Hebrides, which are a series of small islands. The second, southern-most of these islands is a small, rocky, windswept island called Barra. The island of Barra is home to barely one thousand inhabitants. The first language on Barra tends to be Gaelic, with a bit of English thrown in for good measure. In the history of Scottish clans, the island of Barra is home to the Clan MacNeil.
Across the Atlantic Ocean is the province of Nova Scotia or “New Scotland”, as it is also known. From a geographic point of view, Scotland and Nova Scotia share many of the same features such as rolling hills, rugged, rocky coastlines and a climate that is often at the finicky mercy of the sea. Nova Scotia has been home to a thriving Indigenous population since Time Immemorial but, several hundred years ago, they were joined by visitors from across the Sea, who settled in various places around the province. One of the spots that became home to many Scottish settlers was the island of Cape Breton. Once settled, many of these new settlers began to practise their own cultural traditions; one of the most prevalent of which has been the playing of Celtic music. As many of you know by now, I was born and raised on Cape Breton Island and, as such, I lived my formative years in an environment in which fiddle music, step dancing and singing songs of Scotland were all quite common and, in fact, were a source of pride and cultural identity for those of us who lived there. So, it is not surprising to learn that there were families who formed their whole lives around Celtic music. One such family was the MacNeil Family. The MacNeil’s had six children (Sheumas, Kyle, Stewart, Lucy, Ryan and Boyd); all of whom played the fiddle or other instruments, they all could step dance and, most importantly, they all could sing really well together. After gaining a reputation on Cape Breton as being sought-after group to perform at kitchen parties and local dances, the MacNeil Family decided to record their music, professionally so, they needed a formal name for their group. They decided to honour their Scottish roots by naming their musical group after the Home of their clan, the island of Barra, in Scotland and thus, this fabulous musical family became officially known as The Barra MacNeils.
Even though I have not lived on Cape Breton Island since 1982, it is still the place that I call Home. I may not be much of a fiddler or a step dancer but, I have always enjoyed Celtic music and I enjoy going to Celtic concerts whenever I can, up here in Ontario. There are a great many of us, as Cape Bretoners living elsewhere, who are able to maintain contact with Cape Breton because groups like The Barra MacNeils (along with The Rankin Family, Natalie McMaster, Ashley MacIsaac, The Men of the Deeps and, when she was alive, the Queen of Cape Breton, herself, Rita MacNeil) tour Canada relentlessly. I have been fortunate enough to have seen The Barra MacNeils live several times since Ontario became my current home. Each time I get to hear them play live, it reminds me of my roots and rekindles that spark of cultural connection.
Leah has always been someone who is interested in History. She loves learning about the history of the world but, she is just as interested in her own, family history. As such, whenever we go Home to Cape Breton as a family, Leah throws herself into learning the stories of my childhood. Together, we have been to museums, we have toured the neighbourhoods where I grew up and the schools I attended, we have spent time at the seaside collecting seashells and dodging jellyfish and we have listened to Cape Breton music, too. While Leah is an Ontario girl by birth, a rich part of her own family history involves Cape Breton so, it is not surprising to me that the sound of Celtic music pulls at her heartstrings a bit, too. This brings us to her pick of “Christmas in Killarney”.
One of the aspects of my own history that I wanted to ensure that my girls got to experience was the feeling of a Cape Breton Christmas. Growing up in Cape Breton, Christmas was very much a time of warmth and good cheer and, more than anything, it was a time for Family. By definition, the term “Family” in Cape Breton does not refer exclusively to your biological kin. Back Home, the term “Family” casts a wide net and includes your actual family, your extended family, your neighbours, your friends, those folks you went to Church with, school mates, co-workers….you name it! Anyone and everyone was welcome in my home growing up and we, in turn, were welcome in theirs. Showing up uninvited at someone’s doorstep……just because you were in the neighbourhood….was an everyday thing and even moreso at Christmas time. Our door was always open. Hot tea was always at the ready. A tray of sweets, close at hand. Good talk always followed. My childhood was filled with adults tussling my hair and kissing my cheeks, as they talked and laughed and sang with my Dad and Mom. As much as anything, for me, Christmas has always been more of a feeling than an event. It has always been about warmth and fellowship and about sharing it all with those we hold dear….our “Family”, in the Cape Breton sense.
Leah longs for these things, too. So, when she first heard the songs on The Barra MacNeils Christmas cd, it was when we were setting up our own Christmas tree a few years ago in our family home in Cobourg. Christmas is always a magical time for most children and we have tried very hard, as parents, to ensure that this is the case for Leah and Sophie, too. So, I have tried as much as I can to re-create that feeling of a Cape Breton Christmas here. Part of that effort has been the playing of Celtic music throughout the Holiday period. Leah has grown quite familiar with the song stylings of The Barra MacNeils and feels that “Christmas in Killarney” comes closest to replicating the mood in our home at this time of year. It is a song that speaks of family gatherings, of neighbours “paying a call”, of the wonderful smell of fresh pine and holly and, of course, of good food and drink shared with pleasure. It is a song that, for Leah, helps give her a sense of belonging and a link to a part of her own identity as an honourary Cape Bretoner. It, also, gives her a sense of Family, which is very important to her, as well. And so, this Christmas song by The Barra MacNeils, has become more than just a song to be played in the month of December, it is a song she listens to throughout the entire year. “Christmas in Killarney” is the song on her Top Ten list that most closely speaks to who she is, as a person. It is a song that always makes Leah smile. Consequently, it is a fitting song for this final post before December 25th.
As you watch and listen to The Barra MacNeils sing “Christmas in Killarney”, do so with the knowledge that you are all considered part of our family, too and, as such, are all wished the merriest of Holiday wishes and the most love-filled of Blessings for you and those you love. Thanks for bringing warmth and friendship into our lives. And always remember that our door is always open and a hot cup of tea is always at the ready should you ever wish to pay us a call. Until then, from our family to you and yours, Merry Christmas this year and for all the years to come.
The link to the video for the song, “Christmas in Killarney” by The Barra MacNeils, can be found here.
The link to the official website for The Barra MacNeils, can be found here.