On Tuesday night Betty Harrigan played at the session in Tinney’s Bar. On Wednesday morning she was fresh faced at the ‘Journal’ office carrying a copy of her aptly titled album, ‘Full Circle.’
The album is homegrown and folk and traditional and more importantly - it’s good. Think Mary Black, Eleanor McEvoy and Dolores Keane and you’re on the right track. The standard couldn’t be anything but good coming from a woman who’s been steeped in the Derry music scene as well as a regular at sessions around Ireland since she was a teenager. She has her mother Sadie to thank for instilling a love of music in her at an early age. Along with her brother and sister, Betty piled into the back of the family Volkswagen and was driven the length and breadth of Ireland in search of good traditional music events. All these years later, and still a part of the same scene, she loves the life and the people who come with it equally as much as the music.
“It was a way for my mother to get us away from the Troubles really,” says Betty, who, when growing up, viewed the weekly excursions as a means of drinking in a wealth of musical experience. She’s used that experience well to date. She’s learned from the best performing alongside the likes of Sharon Shannon and Stocktons Wing and has put all those influences to play in her own music.
Betty’s album, Full Circle, is currently on sale. She’s hoping some profit from sales might help fund a trip to Boston and San Francisco for her band who’ve been invited to play there.
I didn’t ask Betty where the album title came from, but by the end of the chat that question was answered.
Things have pretty much come fill circle for the talented Derry woman. Through a series of ups and downs in life, she’s found her way back and is at a new beginning again, investing the bulk of her time and energy in her music.
Betty grew up on Derry’s walls - literally.
With an address at 3 East Wall, Betty spent her childhood climbing the walls near the site where Derry’s Millennium Forum is now. She went to school on Pump Street. Like many at the time, Betty’s family moved to Westway when an opportunity for better housing came up.
It was there, tutored by local man Kevin Donnelly, that she first began playing guitar and so began a life time affair with traditional and folk music.
“I suppose in my younger days I was so engrossed in the music that I didn’t really spend much time thinking about the Troubles going on around us,” she says. “Looking back now my mother was the one who had the responsibility of keeping us safe; I can remember us having the vinegar hankies walking to school in Pump Street to protect us from tear gas. It got to the point where we were moved to St Anne’s Primary School when it opened because it was safer there.
“But travelling to the fleadhs was a great escape in those days. You met and got talking to so many people and I loved that side of it.”
Betty left school at 16 and started working in the Good Shepherd laundries. From there, during times when money was tight, she moved onto United Technologies and became one of a legion of factory girls. Leaving her factory job in the evening she’d travel to gigs the length and breadth of the North and go back to work the morning after. To this day she’s the designated driver and rarely drinks alcohol when she’s performing.
Locally she was a regular in the trad scene in places like the Dungloe and Gweedore bars.
“Anywhere there was a session, you’d find me there,” she smiles.
Marriage and children somewhat changed the landscape for Betty and in particular, the birth of her daughter Oonagh who was born with a number of severe health problems.
“Oonagh was born with a number of tumours and had a total of 22 operations up until the age of 16,” says Betty.
“We were told her chances of living were 40/60 per cent and that she’d never walk, hear or talk.”
Over a period of 15 years, Betty watched on helplessly as her little girl endured a number of gruelling treatments and procedures.
“Oonagh had Rapid Scoleosis, so one of the operations meant she had to have her back broken and re-rodded and I had to watch her be put on life support. That was really tough, I suppose at the time, you go through one thing and another and you just have to get on with it, you have no other option, that’s just what you do. Oonagh was so brave throughout it all and I had unbelievable support from my parents and from my other daughter Clare. My girls got me through every bit of it and I’m so proud of them both.”
Oonagh defied all the odds and following in her mother’s musical footsteps she’s now a classically trained pianist and is currently studying to become a veterinary nurse.
Betty glows when she talks about her daughters and it’s clear they’ve all been a source of strength for one another down through their years together.
“They call me Betty Boop!” she laughs. “I suppose really, they grew up alongside me.”
During Oonagh’s health problems and some health worries of her own, Betty’s music had to take a back seat.
“Life really stopped through a lot of that because there was so much stuff to think about and do and there wasn’t as much time as there had been for the music,” she says.
Now, Oonagh is well and Betty is moving forward in what she says is a much happier space. Hence the title of her new album.
“I’ve come back to where I started, and I’m really proud of what we’ve done with the album,” she smiles.
Betty doesn’t want to take credit for the entire album and is full of praise for the members of her band and co-writers.
“I want to thank Andrew Orr, Tommy Canning and Conor McAteer and Tim O’Connor who also sent me some songs. The guys in the band have been amazing as well. They’re great. We have Ramon Ferguson on guitar, Ciaran Carlin, whistles and flute, Robert Peoples on fiddle, Peter Doherty on double bass, piano and keyboard, Steven Carlin on accordian and Mark O’Doherty on percussion.
“I’m delighted now that we have the album out there and I really hope we can get a boost in sales. We’ve been invited to play gigs in America but realistically after getting the record out there, we’d struggle to fund flights to America for the band. It’s something we’d love to do so we’ll be looking at different funding avenues and keeping our fingers crossed!”
In the meantime, Betty will continue to gig and hopefully visit her spiritual home of Westport again before long. It’s the place she says she’s always retreated to when things were tough and still holds a special place in her heart - as well as the spot of song number ten on her current album.
For local fans, it’s safe to say that if there’s a session going on, you’re likely to find Betty there, or at least somewhere in the vicinity.
And hopefully, if album sales are strong, that trip to America might get a tick beside it on the wish list.
Promotional jargon aside, when it comes to boosting sales Betty says it in a way only a Derry musician can.
“We just want people to get out there and buy it!” she laughs.
If you want to make an investment in some homegrown talent ‘Full Circle’ is currently available in Cool Discs, Foyle Street. It’s also available on cdbaby.com; Amazon; and to download on itunes.