You’ve heard the story before, but not like this. A woman gives up a baby boy for adoption and passes away years later, before being re-united with him, while her daughter contemplates her mother’s story with love and compassion. This all-too familiar tale has been re-worked by Dingle singer Pauline Scanlon into The Unquiet, an album of traditional songs, each carefully selected to remember some aspect of her late mother’s life in all its joys and sorrows. The making of Pauline’s album has been captured over a period of 3 years in the profoundly moving radio documentary The Unquiet: Songs for my Mother.
Pauline came to the idea of making the album by accident. Some years ago, she joined other female performers in a campaign called Fair Plé, to address gender bias in the Irish traditional music scene. The response to this effort was not universally positive, which Pauline says she found shocking:
"I was really unprepared for the backlash that we got and how that sat in me and how it affected me. I felt almost, not almost entirely embarrassed and then that felt very connected to my own sense of shame."
Pauline says that the experience awakened in her something that connected her to the memory of her mother and she wanted to follow that feeling wherever it took her:
"When I thought about it, and when I examined it, I wondered where it came from and what was the link and what was the awakening? What was this feeling in me? And it led me to my late and very beloved mother Eileen Scanlon and to her life."
Blending her music, her own voice and the voices of her father and a close family friend Julie, the documentary tells the story of a woman who was glamorous and vivacious in her youth and hugely engaged with other people. From her involvement in labour disputes to her empathy with women whose personal lives were cruelly exposed in the media, Eileen Scanlon had no hesitation offering help where it was needed, Julie says:
"That’s how I see Eileen, very kind, very beautiful; a great sense of humour, you know, and she was always a fighter for the underdog."
The tension between past and present, tradition and modernism are ever-present in Pauline’s thoughts throughout the documentary. She tackles these apparent contradictions head-on, in her choice of traditional folk songs to address what seems to be contemporary views on sexuality, freedom, coercion and the choices or lack of them available to women. She wonders aloud if her own activism in the music industry is inspired by her mother’s life. Music provides her with an outlet to express things that are difficult to talk about:
"It’s easier to sing about it than to talk about it."
What is clear to the listener is that the music and the documentary are both inspired by the love of a much-loved mother, wife and friend. Both the documentary and the album The Unquiet reflect the light and shade of the life of Eileen Scanlon. Pauline says that delving into the past yields as much joy as sorrow:
"When you go down that rabbit hole, you forget that you get the good stuff too."
You can Listen back to the full documentary here. There’s more on Pauline Scanlon’s music on her website. For information about the FairPlé organisation addressing the gender balance in Irish traditional and folk music go here.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this documentary, you can access information and contact details of support organisations here.