PORT/Old Ghosts

July 1st 2022 marked both the Dublin premiere of my show Port at The Sugar Club and the release of the accompanying album, Old Ghosts In The Water, both featuring incredibly diverse casts of well-known artists.

Port is a newly written song cycle produced by Droichead Arts Centre and was born of a year-long research and writing project around the history and stories of Drogheda’s ancient Port, conducted during my tenure as Artist in Association at Droichead Arts Centre.

 “An ambitious project undertaken without the benefit of a safety net, Port sees Droichead Arts Centre artist-in-association SJ McArdle compose a song cycle about the vibrant history of (and “imagined stories” connected to) Drogheda Port. For the performance, McArdle will be joined by – for this writer’s pitiful pile of money – one of the best female voices out there, Carol Keogh.” – Tony Clayton-Lea, The Irish Times

Along with critically-acclaimed Dublin vocalist Carol Keogh (Plague Monkeys, Automata, The Wicc) the seven-piece band for Port also included double-bassist Trevor Hutchinson (Lúnasa, The Waterboys) and keyboard player and arranger Graham Henderson (Moving Hearts, Sinéad O’Connor, Clannad) along with pianist Josh Johnston, vocalist John Ruddy and fiddle player Barry Kieran.

Also launched on the night was my brand new album Old Ghosts In The Water, which features songs from the show and is produced by Trevor Hutchinson. Along with members of the live band, the album features performances from accordion legend Dermot Byrne (Altan, Declan O’Rourke), Dundalk flute player Nuala Kennedy (The Alt) and uilleann piper Brendan McCreanor.

Song notes from the album can be viewed here.

When I was appointed Artist in Association at Droichead Arts Centre it gave me the opportunity to realise an idea I had been turning over in his head and heart for years: a song-cycle based around Drogheda Port. Work songs, story songs, love songs to the sea. Songs written in anger and written in sorrow. Songs about injustice and change. Songs about people.

The Port has been at the epicentre of life in the town of Drogheda for a millennium and more, providing culture and communication and food and escape and employment. It is tied to everything in the town and has played a role in every part of its history. But a port, by its nature, is also a link to other places, and to adventure and peril on the high seas. And of course the land-based stories of the port are just as rich, almost a converse of the stories of life at sea.

A year-long period of research and writing led initially to the conception of the live show. Producer Trevor Hutchinson and I then effectively started again from scratch, picking nine songs from the show and stripping them down completely to be reimagined for the album.

Port is produced by Droichead Arts Centre with sponsorship from Drogheda Port Company.

The Old Ghosts in the Water album was made with the deeply appreciated support of Droichead Arts Centre, Create Louth and the Arts Council Covid-19 Response Award.