Perhaps the biggest boost to international outreach has been the attention of Rough Trade Records, founded by Geoff Travis; the label was known for signing post-punk acts like the Smiths and the Raincoats in the 1980s. The label’s co-owner Jeannette Lee sharpened her appreciation of traditional music touring with Public Image Limited, whose frontman, John Lydon, liked blasting Irish folk alongside dub reggae in its van. She started the folk-adjacent River Lea label with Geoff Travis as, in his words, “a labor of love, to a degree,” but also as a proving ground for young artists. Flynn, Ye Vagabonds and O’Neill debuted on River Lea; with a growing audience, her latest album was issued on Rough Trade proper.
While the tide of interest is lifting many boats, no one’s getting especially rich. Ian Lynch felt so priced out of Dublin’s ballooning housing market, he moved back in with his parents. (“I get to see them, which is good,” he said. “But, I mean, I’m 42.”) Side hustles help. Along with lecturing on Irish folklore, Lynch produces “Fire Draw Near,” a fascinating and often very funny Patreon-funded podcast devoted to modern and historic Irish traditional music. O’Reilly supports his video work in part via Patreon, too, with enough success that he can often film emerging musicians without charge, helping grow the scene.
O’Neill, one of the first musicians O’Reilly ever filmed, back in 2010, is an object lesson in how the collective work bears fruit. She quit her barista job at Bewley’s, the famous Grafton Street tearoom, and after years of shares, was finally able to get a flat of her own. Her February album release concert at the town hall in Cavan — her hometown, roughly a 90-minute drive from Dublin — felt like the homecoming it was. On a stage made homey with vintage table lamps, guest artists came and went as old songs flanked new, and the show ended on a spectacular, dissonance-spiked version of “All the Tired Horses,” her remarkable Bob Dylan cover that recently capped the popular period crime drama “Peaky Blinders.”
Afterward, naturally, a session bubbled up, in the lobby of a small hotel down the road. O’Neill’s father ferried in rounds of Guinness from the pub next door. A young man spoke of health struggles, and beautifully sang “The Lakes of Pontchartrain.” The Corkonian legend John Spillane, a national treasure who is something of Ireland’s John Prine, reprised an earlier onstage duet with O’Neill on his aching “Passage West,” then laid into the raucous WWI lament “Salonika,” with hearty accompaniment from the novelist Patrick McCabe, a friend and fan of O’Neill’s who came in for the show.
And on it went until sometime after 3 a.m., when the holdouts finally called it a night.