Junior Brother
Photo: Bob Gallagher / Courtesy of Prescription PR

Junior Brother Speaks His Own Language on ‘The Great Irish Famine’

Junior Brother’s The Great Irish Famine captures the range of feelings we face when learning our place in an increasingly shaky world built on a foundation of tragedy.

The Great Irish Famine
Junior Brother
Strange Brew
2 September 2022

The Irish famine is a contentious matter in academic circles. While the narrative that Ireland’s population was essentially cut in half by a potato blight is sold to and bought by many, others have a hard time ignoring the fact that Ireland was colonized by a regime bent on eradicating its language, religion, and cultural identity. During its darkest days, large stockpiles of food from Ireland were shipped to Britain. The impact it had, and in ways continues to have, on the collective psychology of Ireland cannot be understated. 

On his sophomore album, The Great Irish Famine, Junior Brother, stage name of Kerry native Ronan Kealy, investigates Ireland’s traumatic past through a modern lens that focuses on themes of bodily autonomy, oppression in the face of antagonistic goliaths, and the strength that comes from coping with pain. More experimental and obtuse than his Choice Music Prize-nominated debut, Pull the Right Rope, Kealy has further characterized his work with off-kilter instrumental passages (“Daly’s Well”) while retaining the immediacy found in his more accessible songs (“No Country For Young Men”). 

Discordant strings on “Opening” warn the listener: this might not all be so pretty. On “Tell Me I’m a Fool”, Kealy’s foot tambourine races against his guitar as strange strings and whistles rise and fall in the background; jazzy drums join. Kealy rides his melodies like a rollercoaster, soaring and dipping in a way that wouldn’t have worked in any accent other than his Kerry one. That’s not to say it can’t be occasionally irritating, with his propensity to shriek throughout the album vitiating some otherwise gorgeous moments. Yet, somehow, these yelps, these almost cries for help, are the tabernacle for the spirit of the tunes.  

“No Country For Young Men” is an exhilarating folk-rock composite that grapples with gender roles in our society (“I am a weed given no ground, I am a woman born the wrong way ’round”), and the ever-worsening Irish housing crisis, which has seen skyrocketing rents and people being forcefully evicted from homes with the assistance of the Garda (“Can’t tell the goons from the guards”). In places, Kealy’s earnestness tends to veer towards the epically maudlin, like on “Life’s New Haircut”, or the slow, albeit beautifully melodic, “No More Dogs”. You’ll either love or hate the Dadaism of “Landlord’s Hum” and “Given in the Dark”. However, there is a steady middle ground between the cloying and confusing on “Good Friday”, an inventively penned tune where the voice and guitar seem to be duetting instead of accompanying each other.

At nearly nine minutes, “King Jeesup’s Nine Trials” is a rambling, repetitive, and (sometimes self-) righteous nucleus that sibilates with warm tape sound. These songs were committed to two-inch tape at Analogue Catalogue Studios in Co. Down with co-producer Julie MacLarnon. A tremendous sense of effort is on display, not just in the workhorse musical performances but in the imagery incorporated into the project. His collaborations with music-video savants Bob Gallagher and Emma Smith have yielded some exciting visual pieces. The tasteful cover art accompanying this album, and its singles, by artist James Hayes, are also on par. 

In “This Is My Body”, Kealy comes to terms with living inside an aging vessel (“Stripped from head to toe, how can she love a human potato?”). The song muses on the insecurities that accompany physical closeness in a prideless body, though if Kealy sets such high standards for himself, what must he expect of others? His willingness to expose his innermost thoughts makes it difficult not to psychoanalyze him. There are characters in these worlds, from unemployed bachelors to greedy landowners, and they represent the troubled archetypes that live in his head, rent-free.

This breaking down of personal barriers gives The Great Irish Famine its punkish undertone, yet, this is authentic folk music; the soil-like textures and lyricism make it so. The obscure, ugly, and accomplished “The Long Meadows” closes things off, and if you’ve been able to keep up with the intensity of the album in one sitting, you will likely need an hour or two of silence to recuperate your emotional energy. 

These well-formed songs are substantially intelligent and encapsulate the broad range of feelings we face when learning our place in an increasingly shaky world built on a foundation of tragedy. The Great Irish Famine is a nourishing listen, at times challenging, at others unabashedly pretty.  

RATING 8 / 10