Josephine McNamara – Ballad Singer

 Josephine McNamara was born and raised in Aughavas, Co. Leitrim, in a musical family. She has very fond memories of hearing her father sing around the fireside and as he was working, when she was a young girl. She, herself, developed the same practice of singing as she worked and the first indication that she had a fine singing voice came from the comments of a neighbour, who told her father; “that child has a great voice” upon hearing her singing on her way to the well for water as a child. In fact, Josephine remarks that she cannot remember a time when she didn’t sing and more remarkably that she has continued singing in her inimitable traditional style over the past sixty years that she has been in America. “The songs go round in my head at night. Sometimes I cannot sleep until I have the song sung through in my head”

Once dubbed Ireland’s Ballad Queen, Josephine’s singing talent was well recognised throughout Ireland before she emigrated, as she won the senior All-Ireland Fleadh ballad singing competition in 1958, 1959 and 1961 respectively. She spent some time touring with bands such as The Craobh Rua Céilí Band and The Eugene Leddy Band with her brother, Michael, before being sponsored to travel to America at a young age. She has been involved in various cross-cultural projects over the years in places like Boston, New Jersey, Philadelphia and, in Connecticut, where she resides, she was recorded for the Connecticut Radio Series, “You’ll Know Us by Our Songs”. She frequently travels to the Kerry Hall in New York to dance a few steps at their céilídhe and to sing a few songs, particularly Leitrim ones like “The Shores of Lough Bran” and “My Own Leitrim Home”, which she says always provoke a positive response from her audience.

Leitrim Song of Exile

Josephine/Josie McNamara singing “Leitrim Song of Exile” written by Cloone native Patrick Kane as recorded by RTE in Mohill in 1960.

Where the Shannon Waters Flow 

Recorded by RTE in 1961 singing “Where the Shannon Waters Flow” or “Lovely Leitrim” before Larry Cunningham made it famous, written by Aughavas native, Phil Fitzpatrick.

The Leitrim Observer 1963

Josephine’s great traditional singing comrade/rival in the late 50’s/early 60’s was Mohill’s Mae/Mary Reynolds or Mae Reynolds Malone as we now know her. This newspaper article from The Leitrim Observer 1963, celebrates our ballad queens’ wins.

Josie has spent more of her life in Connecticut than she has in her native country, but she never forgets the songs of home. Here she is, having been recorded for a project called “Sounds of Home” which was produced by the Connecticut Cultural Heritage Arts Programme and Connecticut Public Radio in 1998.

Singing “Connemara Rose” and “Come Back to Erin”

Here, her brother. Michael McNamara, shares various recordings of Josie, as showcased by the Irish Traditional Music Archives in the  “Furls of Music” project.

Here, Josie sings “The Home I Left Behind” , “These are my Mountains”, “Road into Sligo”, “Mary from Dungloe” and “Shanagolden”

More that 30 years after having met Josie and hearing her perform in Diarmuid Ó Cathain’s Concert series in Lixnaw, Co. Kerry, Seamus Connolly met up with her again in New Haven where she sang “Gentle Mother” for one of his collections of recordings.

 

Fionnuala Maxwell then had the pleasure of interviewing Josephine in her home in Fenagh when she was back for a visit in 2022 and she was in fine voice. Here is one of the songs she sang that day – she wasn’t sure where she had got it or what it was called so we are calling it “The Fair County Leitrim”.

Josie night 2
Josie in full voice in “The Rambling House” The Bronx in March 2023 where she was being honoured for her contribution to culture.