IRISH MUSIC is defined by its vivacious energy, but Irish song tends to accentuate that country's troubled past and troubling present.

Listen to Robbie O'Connell's plaintive singing about the twin ravages of famine and economic oppression in "The Dear Brown Cow," written 130 years ago. Then hear "There Were Roses," his sober examination of the sectarian strife in Northern Ireland, where cycles of retribution escalate from "another eye to another eye, 'till everyone is blind." What you're hearing is celtic blues, a reflection of pain and pride and the strength that grows between.

There's a palpable sense of history on "There Were Roses," the collaboration among O'Connell on guitar, Mick Moloney on guitar and tenor banjo, and Jimmy Keane and Liz Carroll on fiddle. "The Ballad of Jack Dolan" is a jolly jaunty variant on the 150-year-old outlaw narrative, "The Wild Colonial Boy." "Mickey Dam" celebrates the ethnic character of Irish workers displaced in Scotland after World War II, while "Here I Am From Donegal" is a bittersweet and timeless immigrant ballad examining how ethnic caricature leads to social and cultural disenfranchisement.

With Moloney's brittle rhythmic banjo and Keane's propulsive accordion leading the way, these musicians also explore various exuberant reels, jigs, hornpipes and stately marches. O'Connell's voice is not always as engaging as the music, but the spirit and sentiments are always inspiring.