By Paddy Kinsella
We first covered the pervasiveness of Catholicism in Irish culture in our review of Maija Sofia’s majestic debut, Bath Time. While Sofia explored its influence on law-making, specifically in regard to abortion, which was legalised only as recently as May 2018, Manchester-based songwriter, Alf Whitby, focuses on the omnipresence of such an upbringing on new single, Calling Mullingar. As someone who still feels the residual effects of a childhood of Catholicism, I can empathise entirely with Whitby – feelings from behind the black curtain of the confession room never truly go away. Having Irish grandparents, I have also felt its hold. Still now, my three brothers and I lie to our Grandma, pretending we go to church every Sunday such is the pressure on my parents to have raised ‘good catholic children’
Over a meandering guitar that’s as fragile as the tick of a clock, Whitby remarks on its omniscience, ‘St Michael you’re going far/you caught me up in Mullingar,‘ he sings, that tap on the shoulder, that unwanted memory surfacing and swallowing him whole. Set on a westbound train from Dublin to Sligo, Whitby’s journey serves as a metaphor, a reminder that no matter how the landscape shifts outside, the trees piling up like clots in one moment, vanishing into barren land the next, the miles cannot drive him away from its unrelenting pull. While his debut album, Sistine Dreams, was airy and gossamer, its keyboards and strings elevating it to another plain, Calling Mullingar is scarce – the unaccompanied picks of the guitar allowing Whitby’s narrative to come to the fore. His voice acts like a gusty swirl drifting through landscapes, its intonation changing with the weather. The chorus sees him extol a deep reverence, whilst the conclusion sees him bend high notes on their back in the style of the Wild Beasts’ Hayden Thorpe. As the guitar trails off and the train reaches its terminus, it’s clear that Whitby has taken the all-encompassing nature of Catholicism and put it into song; the ensnaring melody of Calling Mullingar a constant companion until the light dims to black.
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