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It comes off the bow gravely, rephrases itself into the air

The Proleek Dolmen in Co. Louth, five minutes walk from where I used to live on the edge of the Ballymascanlon golf course.

The Proleek Dolmen in Co. Louth, just down the lane from where I used to live.

I once met a neighbour of Paddy Fahey (the famous Galway fiddle player and composer of a large number of unforgettable Irish tunes) when travelling on a train from Cork to Dublin. Paddy’s neighbour told me all about where he gets his tunes from. “He takes them out of the air; straight from the land,” he said. “They just come to him and he learns them.” This, so he said, was why Paddy doesn’t name any of his tunes, which are commonly distinguished from each other in sessions only by numbers (such as Paddy Fahey’s Number 1 and 2). “He denies that he wrote any of them”, my new friend told me. “He says they’re not his to name”.

It was the middle of winter, and I had the misfortune of having contracted the flu during the three days I’d spent in Cork. I had a high temperature, and had taken paracetamol and a hot toddy before getting on the train, which lent the entire journey a surreal quality. I remember that chat now with Paddy’s neighbour as a weirdly magical conversation, resonant of dolmens, ringforts and raths, the rain beating relentlessly down on the windows as we sped through the bleak, Irish countryside. You might say, given the state I was in, that I was a little bit away with the fairies.

There is a traditional slow air I like to play, a beautiful, eerie tune that (so the story goes) was also taken out of the air, just like the tunes that Paddy Fahey denies writing. It is Port na bPucai, which means ‘Tune of the Fairies’. The details differ slightly, depending on who is telling the story behind the tune, but one version of the tale is that a fiddle player was sitting alone in his hut on Inis Mhic Aoibhleáin (one of the Blasket Islands out in the Atlantic off the coast of Co. Kerry), where he heard a strange tune in the wind and learned to play it. He believed it was being played by the fairies, but it’s been suggested that the music he heard was actually the song of a humpback whale out at sea, so the tune is also sometimes known as ‘Song of the Whale’. It is certainly a very eerie tune, entirely unlike most traditional Irish slow airs in that it is an instrumental tune in its own right, rather than a melody derived from a sean nós song.

Here’s my own version of Port na bPucai:

Seamus Heaney, the great Irish poet who sadly died this week, was so moved by the story behind Port na bPucai that he wrote a poem inspired by it: The Given Note. It is a poem that has always resonated deeply with me, and that I always connect to that strange train journey I took, when I learned the story behind Paddy Fahey’s compositions, as well as the tale of the lonely fiddler sitting alone in his dry stone hut listening to whale song.  I love it so much I have a copy of it in a frame on my living room wall, and it is just about the only poem I can recite from memory.

Here is the great man himself reciting The Given Note in June this year:

Rest in peace, Seamus. A lovely man, whom I once had the pleasure to meet. You captured vivid, intense moments in time and set them free for all to see.

Trip to the Cottage

Trip to the Cottage

The cover of the Trip to the Cottage tape. Left to right: Dave Lyth, Michael Feely, Bev Whelan, Gordon Johnston.

Last night’s session at the Lord Ashton was a trip down memory lane; or, more accurately, a Trip to the Cottage.

That is rather a cryptic thing to say, so I shall elaborate. In 1991, I was one of a bunch of musicians with connections to Lancaster who made a recording called Trip to the Cottage. The musicians on the tape – no CDs in those days! – were Dave Lyth (fiddle), Michael Feely (flute), Gordon Johnston (banjo/guitar), and myself on flute and whistle.

The recording was made in Dave’s house, which has the enigmatic words ‘Vi Cottage’ etched in the stone over the door. A proper cottage industry, therefore, was Trip to the Cottage! Our sound engineer was my good friend Mike Allen (frequently mentioned in these pages for his excellent fiddle playing), and the cover was designed by local photographer and jazz musician Barrie Marshall.

We probably sold three or four dozen of them after it was released, and whilst it didn’t exactly rock the trad world, it was nice to discover that a radio station in the north of Ireland regularly played tracks from it on the air. Tapes became obsolete soon after that, of course, and sales dried up completely. Rumour has it that a forlorn box of unsold copies still lurks in the depths of Dave’s cellar, waiting to be discovered by future generations who will no doubt shake their heads in puzzlement at this bunch of strange objects, featuring people they have never heard of.

We were destined never to hit the big time, but of course the tape is a nice memento of those days for those of us who were involved. Here’s a sample of what it sounded like. This is me on flute, along with Gordon playing both banjo and guitar. Wow, we were cutting edge, with all that multi-tracking! This set of reels is the Old Copperplate followed by the New Copperplate:

Fast forward to the present. It was a quiet night at the Lord Ashton last night, with several of our regulars away, and by chance the four of us who turned up included three of the original musicians on Trip to the Cottage – myself, Gordon and Dave. We ended up playing set-after-set of nostalgic tunes from our past, including several that were on the tape, ably accompanied by Paul Beevers on bouzouki. It was all very laid back and pleasant, and brought back lovely memories of those days.

Dave Lyth (fiddle), Bev Whelan (flute), Gordon Johnston (banjo) and Paul Beevers (bouzouki).

Dave Lyth (fiddle), Bev Whelan (flute), Gordon Johnston (banjo) and Paul Beevers (bouzouki).

Memories of the Fleadh

Fleadh programmesI’ve been going through the cupboard at the top of my stairs again, which is full of all manner of treasures from my past. Here, therefore, is another little glimpse into my musical memories.

I went through a phase in my teens and early twenties when I entered loads of competitions. Mostly these were through Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (CCE), and resulted in me never quite winning an All Ireland Champion title, although I was runner-up in the All Ireland twice and third once. Don’t get too excited, now, it was the Senior Flute Slow Airs competition!

I generally did pretty well in fleadhanna at local level, in both dance tunes and slow airs on whistle and flute, and usually got a fair showing in the All Britain. I no longer have my All Ireland medals, I think my mum still has them displayed on her wall, but here’s a handful of other medals I found in a box. This shows, really, how much of a masochist I was back then, putting myself through all that stress over and over again:

Medals

I also found a couple of adjudication sheets, with some fairly complimentary comments by the judges. However, I must admit I didn’t always agree with their comments, especially the one judge who told me she’d awarded me second place because the slow air I played was, quote, “A bit short.” I took quite a bit of umbrage at that, as I’d spent rather a long time painstakingly learning it from the singing of a Sean Nós singer, and thought I’d done a pretty good job! The slow air in question was Donal Óg.

Adjudication sheetsI went on to become very involved in Comhaltas throughout the 1980s and early 90s, and even eventually became an adjudicator myself. It was far less stressful than being on the other side of the table, I must admit, though could be a bit dull at times if there were 30 under-twelves all playing the same Kerry polka! Some of the kids were amazing, however, standing out from the pack like shining beacons of brilliance, and I’m sure those ones will have gone on to be tremendous musicians.

I have absolutely no desire these days to enter competitions. It was a phase in my youth, something I felt compelled to put myself through, possibly because I felt back then that I had something to prove. These days, I’m very laid back about it all, and I’ve always told myself, in the years since, that standing up and performing on stage is a doddle in comparison with setting yourself up for that kind of scrutiny. Remembering how scary it all was is a great cure for stage fright!

In the end, the music is what matters, and winning or not winning competitions is irrelevant in the great scheme of things. I like to think that, even back then, I still had some sort of perspective, despite my apparent urge to make life difficult for myself. Fleadhanna, for me, were always more about the sessions than the competitions, so I’ll end with a photo of the first All Ireland Fleadh in Listowel I attended, back in the early eighties, getting on with the real business of the day: playing in yet another all-night session.

Listowel

A Doxy’s Tale

After I posted about the sponsored walk I went on in aid of Luke Kelly’s charity (in my post Walking the Wyre), my friend Ross Campbell recalled how we got back to Fleetwood from Knott End at the end of the walk:

I remember that when we got to Knott End the ferry was temporarily unable to reach the slipway because of the low tide and the build-up of silt alongside, and Bev (terrified of water) had to get in a tiny inflatable dinghy that was taking passengers out to where the ferry sat in deeper water. Of course, as soon as they had safely transferred to the Fleetwood side, the incoming tide enabled the ferry to pick everybody else up as normal.

Yes, that was pretty horrible! But considering I’m not a fan of water, and never could bring myself to learn how to swim, there seems to have been a continuing seafaring theme in my life, nevertheless. I’ve long loved stories of the sea, having been drawn to films and books about the age of sail my entire life. Also, there is a strong tradition of seafaring in my family. My grandfather, Paddy Whelan, left Ireland and joined the merchant navy at a very young age, whilst my father John Whelan was also in the navy in his youth, and in later life worked as a trawlerman out of Fleetwood.

Here are my nautical forebears in their naval days, my grandfather Paddy Whelan on the left, and my dad John Whelan on the right in his HMS Impregnable cap:

.

Me, however, I prefer to keep my feet on dry land, thank you very much, which is perhaps why the nickname ‘The Doxy’, given to me by some of my writing friends when I took a visiting group of writers to the Lancaster Maritime Festival and ruthlessly subjected them to sea shanties, is perhaps an appropriate one. Docks, yes! Open sea, no thanks!

A doxy, of course, is a name given to a woman who plies her feminine wares on the docks, as illustrated aptly by a song I love to sing with my friend Ross, the Banks of Newfoundland:

And round the docks, curled around in flocks,

Those pretty girls do stand.

Saying, “It’s snugger wi’ me, than it is at sea,

On the Banks of Newfoundland.”

I can certainly recall several notable occasions when I have lurked at the docks with a bunch of salty seadogs and balladeers of the sea. Over the years Fleetwood has attracted visits from the occasional tall ship, and shantymen (and women) have inexorably flocked to those ships like shoals of herring into a trawlerman’s net. Yours truly, The Doxy, has flocked along with them. After all, these particular ships were safely moored in the dock, not out on the ocean wave!

Here are a series of mementos from one such visit: a folk concert on board the Winston Churchill in 1984. I still have a ticket for this event. It was in aid of Fleetwood lifeboat, an extremely worthy cause. The £2.50 entrance fee seems outlandishly good value in this day and age, especially as it covered hotpot and red cabbage as well!

Here I am, all young and doxilicious, playing under a tarpaulin on deck with Fylde supergroup, Thistle. I was a founder member of this band, who have gone on (since I left!) to be hugely popular, with an enormously enthusiastic local following. The handsome young man in the cap is Mike Hayes, another founder member who is still with the band even after all these years:

Mike Hayes and Bev Whelan.

Mike Hayes and Bev Whelan.

The rest of Thistle can be seen below! Malcolm Shellard was the singer back then. A lovely man who I consider to be one of my best friends in the universe, even though we hardly ever see or hear from each other these days. My brother Kevin Whelan is playing the fiddle, and Bernie Brewin (the only one in this photo still with the band today) is on the bass.

Malcolm Shellard, Kevin Whelan and Bernie Brewin

Malcolm Shellard, Kevin Whelan and Bernie Brewin

I have already mentioned my good friend Ross Campbell, so here he is, no doubt entertaining the assembled with songs of decks being scrubbed and a good old lick of the cat:

Ross Campbell

Ross Campbell

This is Ian Woods, a well known and highly respected shanty singer from Suffolk:

Ian Woods

Ian Woods

This is the sort of sordid shenanigans that occurred as the night progressed and everyone got into the rum and ship’s biscuits. A bit of hornpipe action on deck!

Look at the state of his feet, that deck needs a good scrub!

Look at the state of his feet, that deck needs a good scrub with holy stone and sand!

And here is a photo of a different event. It is another folk concert on a tall ship moored in Fleetwood, this time on board the Malcolm Miller, circa 1986. The band was called Thingummyjig, and the members were (left to right) Andy Murphy on uilleann pipes, me on concertina, Penny Towers on vocals, Bob Singleton on bass, and my brother Rick Whelan on guitar. It was the first band I had ever been in where all the band members were roughly my age; up to that point I’d always been the baby:

Andy Murphy, Bev Whelan, Penny Towers, Bob Singleton and Rick Whelan, AKA Thingummyjig.

Andy Murphy, Bev Whelan, Penny Towers, Bob Singleton and Rick Whelan, AKA Thingummyjig.

I’m going to leave this post with some recent seafaring music, in a thoroughly modern style. One of my favourite bands of current times is The Sail Pattern, whose music I regard as joy personified. I can never fail to see them perform live and come away thoroughly uplifted, as well as hoarse from having given my shanty harmonies a good workout. And I have to add that not only are they fantastic musicians, but a nicer bunch of lads you could never hope to meet.

Here they are singing ‘Farewell and Adieu to you Spanish Ladies’ in their unique style:

Walking the Wyre

Luke Kelly

Luke Kelly

One of the reasons I started up this blog was to document some of my musical memories, in the hope that others who were there at the time (and maybe those who were not!) will also find it of interest. Here, therefore, is an account of a sponsored walk by Fylde folkies in 1984, and also a video of an earlier walk that took place in 1972 and helped inspire it.

In January 1984, Luke Kelly, the great singer with The Dubliners, died after a long period of ill health following operations to remove a brain tumour. He was only 44 years old.

Following Luke’s death, a bunch of folkies from the Fylde went on a sponsored walk to raise money for the charity set up in his name, the Luke Kelly Brain Trust Fund.

I still have a copy of the press photo taken as we set off on our 20 mile trek. Leading off are Jim Smith on guitar, Kevin Whelan on fiddle, myself – oh so young and slim! – on whistle, and Andy Murphy on guitar. Following behind I see Peter, Jutta Isenberg (organiser of the walk), Ross Campbell, and further back Dick Gillingham and Dave Pearce. Who else can you recognise? Help me put names to faces in the comments!

Walk

I can’t remember how much we raised, but it was an enjoyable (and exhausting!) event. We took a circular route, starting and ending up in Fleetwood via Shard Bridge and Knott End. It was a really sunny day, and the countryside was beautiful. I remember pausing for a few tunes and pints in a riverside pub somewhere along the route, I forget exactly where, but it was very welcome at that point in time!

I think our walk followed part of the same route as the famous Wyre Walk, which had taken place 12 years earlier and ended up being the precursor to the Fylde Folk Festival. I wasn’t on that earlier walk, as I was only eight years old in 1972, so my knowledge of it comes mainly through listening to people talk about it so fondly, even after all these years. It has become somewhat of a Fylde legend, passed down through generations of folkies, and was a definite inspiration for the walk we did for Luke Kelly in 1984.

Here is a video of the 1972 Wyre Walk. It is a lot of fun to watch, especially to see all those glimpses of younger incarnations of veteran Fylde folkies like Ian Gartside, as well as Alan and Christine Bell and their son Alistair as a tiny toddler. Also it’s very moving to see some of the lovely ones who have left us, including the narrator of the video, Brian Osborne, who was a member of the Taverner’s folk group and a good friend with whom I played quite a bit of music in the 1980s. Also, right at the end there is a fleeting glimpse of ‘Big’ Pete Rodger, also of the Taverners, not only ‘big’ in stature, but also a big personality and big hearted as well:

How Mary Bergin changed my life

Looking through the mess I lovingly call the cupboard at the top of the stairs, trying to find something else entirely, I came across this gem of a memory. A flyer for an event I played and taught at back in 1991:

Although I used to be involved with the (now defunct) Lancaster and Morecambe Branch of Comhaltas (I was Branch Secretary in the 1980s), by 1991 I was living in Leicester, studying for a degree in Sociology. I was asked by my former branch to come back to teach a whistle workshop at this event and, drawn by the lure of one of my musical heroes, readily agreed. One reason for my enthusiasm was that, a few years earlier, Mary Bergin had changed my life. That sounds like a grandiose claim but, musically speaking, it is perfectly true. To illustrate how, we must first take a brief detour back in time.

I started to learn the tin whistle when I was 13 years old. In the absence of anyone in Blackpool who could show me what I needed to know (the only other Irish musicians in Blackpool – members of my family – played banjo and fiddle), I painstakingly taught myself to play, trying desperately, through persistence and trial and error, to sound like the traditional flute players and whistle players I admired so much.

record player

An essential item in the kit bag of an isolated teenage whistle player.

I was lucky enough to have a ‘toy’ record player, battery operated no less, that I’d been given for Christmas several years before. The really great feature of this toy was the fact that in addition to the usual 33 and 45 RPM, it could also play at 16 RPM, which meant I could effectively listen to any album track at almost exactly half speed, and almost exactly in the same key (albeit an octave lower).

This was an invaluable tool not only for slowing down fast Irish tunes so I could learn them, but also for teaching myself how to do ornamentation. Through this method, systematically listening and listening and listening again to short phrases of music, I taught myself about cuts, worked out the five-note pattern of rolls, and had conniptions about crans.

My interpretations were far from perfect, however. Somehow, I could never sound exactly how I wanted to sound. I would learn absolutely note-for-note Matt Molloy’s setting of tunes, and copy Mary Bergin’s playing as exactly as I possibly could. But it still sounded off, somehow. And try as I might, despite listening and listening and listening some more, I just could not work out what I was doing wrong.

It was Mary Bergin who set me on the right path. I think it was about 1988, when Mary came over to teach a master class on tin whistle in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Utter Mary Bergin fangirl as I was, this was not an opportunity I had any intention of missing. It was to be the first (and only) tuition I ever had on the tin whistle, and it completely transformed the way I play.

It was from Mary that I learned the error of my ways, and why I did not, despite years of persistence, sound like a proper Irish player. The problem was a straightforward one: my ornaments were all wrong. Whilst I was on the right track rhythm and pattern-wise, the actual fingering of cuts and rolls was not something I could really have ever picked up for myself without being shown how to do it, as it defied my logical assumptions.

I learned from Mary that, for cuts and rolls, only the B or G fingers are used for the highest note of the ornament, not the note immediately above in every case, as I had incorrectly assumed (unless, of course, B or G is the note above). For an A cut, for example, you lift the B finger, not the A finger, as I had been doing all along; a kind of closed-fingering technique, reminiscent of the uilleann pipes. In all my ornaments, I had been omitting that not-quite-a-real-note yelp, which gives the music a wildness and an edge that I had been entirely lacking.

That was my eureka moment. I came away from that workshop determined to completely scrap everything I thought I knew about ornamentation and start again. After a couple of months of hard graft I finally unlearned all my bad habits, and developed a more authentic style. I started to go regularly to South Sligo not long after that, playing in sessions with local flute players such as Harry McGowan and Joe Stenson. Listening to them, and building on what I had learned from Mary, I finally knocked my flute playing into shape as well.

Mary Bergin is an amazing musician, an extremely nice lady and a really good teacher. Here she is in action, playing (at the start of this set) one of the tunes I learned from her at that workshop so many years ago, The Boys of the Lough:

My Heart is Full

The incredibly beautiful Langdale valley

The incredibly beautiful Langdale valley

I can be a bit fatalistic at times, especially when it feels like things are going just that bit too well. Therefore I have long suspected that one day I will go to Langdale Festival, and it won’t be as good. Each time the twice-yearly festival comes around I mentally prepare myself for this eventuality, dreading that this next festival will be the one where it all starts to go downhill. “It can’t be like this forever,” I tell myself. “All good things must come to an end.”

I’m always relieved to be proved wrong, and last weekend was no exception. The most recent Langdale Festival showed absolutely no signs of a slippery slope down into the doldrums. Instead, it’s like we rounded a corner to see yet another shining peak rise before us out of the mist, with the clear prospect of even more dizzy heights of fun to come. All of the usual suspects, it seems, just keep on keeping on, and the younger generation, who we old folkies must rely upon to carry the musical torch into the future, are very confidently and competently striding ahead on the path.

For the uninitiated Great Langdale, where the Langdale Festival is held, is a glacial valley north of Ambleside in the Lake District. Dramatic peaks rise almost vertically out of the flat valley floor, the mercurial weather and the stark, unspoilt scenery making it look and feel like a timeless oasis at the end of the world. At the head of the valley the only signs of habitation are the National Trust campsite, a farm, and the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, where the festival takes place.

The ODG Hikers Bar

The ODG Hikers Bar

The ODG or the ‘Old’ as many of its patrons call it (to distinguish it from the ‘New’ Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, further back down the valley), is a 300 year old coaching inn run, rather conveniently for we musical types, by fiddle player Neil Walmsley. It is famed the world over, particularly for its ‘Hikers Bar’ in the converted byre of the hotel, complete with preserved cow stalls transformed into seating. Such is its allure that the ODG has had its fair share of famous regular visitors over the years, including Chris Bonington, Jimmy Page, Roy Harper, Mike Harding, members of Fairport Convention and countless others, as well as the many thousands of less eminent walkers and climbers who have passed through its doors. One reason for its popularity is its unparalleled location; another is that the ODG has a decades-long reputation as a spontaneous venue for music of various kinds, often played by the very people who head off in the morning to walk and climb the fells roundabout.

Janice, still a bad influence after all these years!

Janice, still a bad influence after all these years!

I was introduced to Langdale at the tender age of 18, in the company of my (then) more worldly-wise friend Janice, a fellow folkie who was already an established Langdale-ite at that time. We travelled up in Janice’s campervan for the weekend, accompanied by her black labrador Bess, and proceeded to drink the valley dry of Youngers Number 3 ale, appropriately served up in pewter tankards. Tunes were played, songs were sung, lifelong friendships were forged, and my love affair with Langdale went careering through my life thereafter like a force ten gale down Mickleden Beck. I urged family and friends to come with me the next time, and almost immediately they were in love with it too. Thirty years later we’re all still going up there anytime we can, every bit as infatuated with Langdale now as we were all those years ago.

A very young me playing the flute with friends in the ODG in 1983

A very young me playing the flute with friends in the ODG in 1983

Twenty years ago, the Langdale Charity Folk Festival sprang out of the firmament of the like-minded souls who frequent the valley. Music was being played there anyway, so the reasoning went. Why not keep on playing, but make an effort to do some real, tangible good at the same time? And so charities were adopted, and the festival was born. Since its inception, the festival has raised thousands of pounds for the Search and Rescue Dogs Association, the Great North Air Ambulance and Fix the Fells, all causes close to the hearts of the walkers, climbers and (let’s not underestimate it) drinkers of Langdale.

The positive benefits of our fundraising were demonstrated in stark relief last weekend when, as we played and sang all cozy and warm in the ODG, a real-life rescue was taking place at that very moment on the cold, wet mountain behind the hotel. On this occasion, there was a happy ending as the stranded walker – afflicted with hyperthermia – was brought safely down off the fells.

An extremely heroic dog with collection buckets. If you're ever passing through the Lakes, please put a few coins in the mountain rescue collection tins

An extremely heroic dog with collection buckets. If you’re ever passing through the Lakes, please put a few coins in the mountain rescue collection tins

Afterwards the mountain rescue team (all of whom are unpaid volunteers), accompanied by their rescue dogs, came to drink a well-earned pint in the ODG and listen to the music. The rescued walker, still in shock but very much alive thanks to their intervention, came to join us as well. The whole episode was a poignant reminder of the very real motivation behind our festival: a celebration of life at its most joyful, along with selfless compassion for it at its most vulnerable. I don’t think, in the current climate of austerity and blame, that you can get a more salient reminder of the innate goodness of humanity than that.

A consequence of so many years of association with Langdale Festival has been the bittersweet juxtaposition of a large group of friends all growing old together, so that we’ve long-since got to a point where no one is ever shocked by anyone’s behaviour, and we all accept each other without judgment, exactly as we are. There’s something very comforting about having one place in the world where you can be unashamedly yourself, safe in the knowledge that your friends still like you, warts and all.

A photo of Ethan Thomas, inserted into this part of the post where I talk about drinking for no particular reason whatsoever

A photo of Ethan Thomas, inserted into this part of the post where I talk about drinking for no particular reason whatsoever

The very first time I visited Langdale with Janice, was the very first time I fell asleep with my head down the Hikers Bar toilet. It’s a rite of passage in Langdale to get steaming drunk, and be looked after (and have the piss taken out of you) by your friends. Some of us might even (ahem) have done it more than once. It was encouraging to see this fine tradition being passed down to one of the younger performers at the most recent festival, and to see people being just as caring (and gently sarcastic) in the aftermath. For the young person in question, who shall remain nameless, don’t worry. One day that sense of crippling embarrassment will fade, and you will be just as blasé about earning your Langdale hangovers as the rest of us!

It’s not only the fine tradition of drinking and craic that is being passed down through the generations, but the music too, and this is very evident within my own family. Throughout the weekend my son Eoin wowed everyone with his harp and guitar playing, whilst my younger son Rowan, newly obsessed with his own burgeoning musical development, could be found at various times playing mandolin, Irish tenor banjo and guitar. Cue me being a very proud mother indeed, as these are children who have found their own way to music through love of it, and ultra-talented they are too. Meanwhile, my niece Katy and nephew Simon, who have been coming to Langdale since babyhood, were on the bill as a trio with Katy’s fiancé Chris Ainsworth. Katy has the most incredible voice, a true show-stopper, and I am not ashamed to say my heart was full listening to her sing in the Saturday afternoon concert in the ODG lounge.

My sons rocking out in the ODG residents bar: Rowan on the banjo, and Eoin on the mandolin

My sons rocking out in the ODG residents bar: Rowan on the banjo, and Eoin on the mandolin

My heart was full for so many other reasons too. Singing ‘Pleasant and Delightful’ with my sister Christine. Playing endless Irish tunes with one of my favourite fiddlers, Mike Allen. Throwing together a band made up of ‘Bev and Friends’, and upsetting the soundman because I invited so many friends that there were not enough inputs in the P.A. system. Performing my usual reunion gig with Jim and Mike, who I played in a band with in the 1980s. Eclectic music sessions with Mike, Mik, Den, Dougie, Celia, Ross, Jim, Rod and so many more, and watching concerts by such excellent performers as Stanley Accrington, Bill Lloyd, Phil Simpson and Ethan Thomas, all of them giving their time and talent for free.

It’s a bit special, is Langdale Festival. One day it might not be as good, but today is not that day. ODG Lounge by Resh

Top Class Flute Music from Leitrim and Roscommon

P1000232I got linked to this video, and just had to share it here. Fantastic flute music from Leitrim and Roscommon, filmed in 1981. Patsy Hanly and Packie Duignan on flute, backed by Martin Dolan on bodhran:

Click here for video at YouTube 

I met and played with Packie Duignan several times in the late 1980s/early1990s. He was a fantastic flute player, very strongly influenced by the John McKenna style of Leitrim flute playing, and a very humble and kind man. I once lent him my flute to play at a wedding, as his own was in quite bad shape. I always thought it sad that such an amazing musician had such a poor instrument, but I don’t think he was ever in a position to get a better one.

Packie passed away in 1992. Sometimes I look at my flute and remember he played it, and it makes me smile.

Up Sligo!

It’s Paddy’s Day today, and due to a recent bout of ill-health I’m not heading out anywhere to play, but instead am happily browsing Irish music videos that friends are posting on Facebook and Twitter. I am having fits of nostalgia all over the place.

I’m also adding to the pot and sharing a few videos myself. Here is one that deserves its own post here: Peter Horan and Fred Finn, playing together in 1982. This is incomparable flute and fiddle music in the Sligo style.

I never met Fred, as he died before I started visiting Sligo regularly, but I got to know Peter well and played with him on many an occasion. As well as being a flute virtuoso, Peter was an excellent fiddle player. He told me he didn’t play fiddle much when Fred was alive, preferring to stick to flute back then (they were well known for their flute/fiddle duets), but he certainly did play it a lot afterwards, even more than the flute in the sessions I went to.

Peter had an amazing amount of stamina. I remember once staying up all night with him, playing tunes and drinking Guinness in Cawley’s in Tubbercurry. He had to go and teach the flute class the next morning at the South Sligo Summer School so, when 8.30 am am rolled around, he went off to the loo for a bit of a wash, combed his hair, had a swift cup of tea, and went off to teach his class. That night, he was back playing in the session again. He was in his seventies at the time.

Peter died in 2010, but in clips like the one above and in our memories, his music and that of his good friend Fred live on. I love that choppy South Sligo style of fiddle and flute playing, such a great emphasis on rhythm and phrasing, never allowing you to forget for one second that it is dance music. Peter and Fred epitomise, to me, the very best of traditional Irish music. It seems, to me, most fitting to listen to it on St Patrick’s Day.

Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig!

Pipe Dreams

All my recent focus on harps and harpists reminded me of this video of myself and harp player Celia Briar, which was filmed at the Priory Church of St. Mary in Lancaster in December 2010:


Known locally simply as The Priory, the ancient church sits on top of Castle Hill beside Lancaster Castle. It’s a very beautiful building, on a site that was once a Roman fort, old enough that archaeological investigations have revealed elements of a fifth century Saxon church incorporated into it.

Lucy, the Project Officer, filming at the back of the church, surrounded by ghostly orbs.

Lucy, the Project Officer, filming at the back of the church, surrounded by ghostly orbs.

The concert we did there, Pipe Dreams, was in support of the Pipe Organ Project, which aimed to secure lottery funding to replace the electronic organ in the church with a magnificent pipe organ, a Willis III dated from 1913, as well as a smaller pipe organ in the north chancel (both of which are now in place). It was one of many music events that took place there during the course of the project, which also strove to raise the profile of the Priory as a cultural space for the use of the entire local community, regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof.

The alternative Women's Institute take over the high church of Lancaster!

The alternative Women’s Institute take over the high church of Lancaster!

Pipe Dreams was organised by Project Officer (and good friend) Lucy Reynolds, and was a real community effort, with lighting provided by Izzi Wilkinson and fellow performing arts students from Preston College as part of a BTEC assignment, whilst some decidedly un-churchy friends of both Lucy and myself served tea and buns like an alternative, irreverent Women’s Institute.

It snowed heavily during the evening, which somehow added to the magic, and the children who were there (including my two) gleefully ran amok in a big pack outside, playing in the otherwise undisturbed snow on Castle Hill.

Pipe DreamsThe music was very eclectic, with the jazz improvisation of Stephen Grew’s World Line Ensemble, songs and tunes on a variety of different bagpipes from Bill Lloyd, the singer-songwriting and piano playing virtuosity of Chas Ambler, and an abridged version of popular local band The Manfredis, featuring the amazingly talented Chele Stevenson (when she wasn’t serving tea!) on vocals.

Celia and myself finished off the night playing music by O’Carolan, some music composed by ourselves,  and a variety of traditional tunes.

The Pipe Dreams concert, in the beautiful Priory with the snow falling outside, was a very special experience. The acoustics were amazing, with our flute and harp effortlessly filling the interior right up to the rafters.

It was such a privilege to be given the opportunity to play in such a beautiful, iconic local building.