Archives

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).

The Harp that Once Through Tara’s Halls

Image

The Brian Boru harp. Picture from The Irish Book of Days (1994)

I took my children on a short holiday to Dublin in August 2008. We spent four fantastic days there, visiting the Zoological Gardens, Phoenix Park, St Stephen’s Green, various museums and historical sites, and eating in what became our favourite restaurant, the Bad Ass Café in Temple Bar.

Of course I just had to take the boys to Trinity College to see the Book of Kells and the Brian Boru harp. After spending a good while looking at the former, we reached The Long Room where my older son Eoin, who was then nine years old, became transfixed by the harp. He spent a long time in front of the glass case, looking closely at it from every angle. As he gazed at it I read out to him information from the signs: that it was the national emblem of Ireland, depicted on coins and the Guinness logo and uncounted cultural items worldwide. That the harp had been restored in recent times, and that recordings had been made of it being played. Eoin was so entranced by it, it was almost impossible to eventually convince him that that it was time to go.

In the gift shop afterwards, the harp was all Eoin was interested in. We bought a harp fridge magnet (which still has pride of place on my fridge), and numerous postcards featuring the harp. When we arrived back home in England a few days later, Eoin looked relentlessly for pictures and information about the Brian Boru harp – and other harps – on the internet. He drew pictures of harps in sketchbooks, and became obsessed by playing a game on the computer – Fate – which featured the music of O’Carolan, played by a traditional harpist, on its soundtrack.

Later that year I took my sons to a concert in Lancaster, featuring harpist Wendy Stewart. Eoin went to chat to her in the interval, and declared his desire to learn the harp. Very kindly, Wendy let him have a go on hers. It was the first time Eoin ever got his hands on an actual harp, and absolutely confirmed his desire to learn to play it himself.

And so we reach back in time, to gather another thread to weave into the tale.

A very young Bev, in the quad at Trinity College Dublin, with Not-the-Brian-Boru-Harp

A very young Bev, in the quad at Trinity College Dublin, with Not-the-Brian-Boru-Harp

Long before my children were born, during a trip to Dublin with my friend Ross Campbell in the early 80s, I bought a harp. It cost me 50 punts in a junk shop in the Liberties. Ross and I were there on a day trip, having travelled overnight on the ferry as foot passengers from Liverpool, so had nowhere to leave the harp while we shopped. Between us we took turns carrying it around the city, where it attracted a lot of remarks from shopkeepers, fellow tourists and passers-by. We even took photos of each other with it outside Trinity College, where its earlier forebear resides.

The funny thing was that Ross and I had both wanted to see the Brian Boru harp during our visit, but had done our research imperfectly. For some reason, we thought it was at the National Museum of Ireland, which we visited, only to find no harp in sight. When we got back home and realised our mistake, our mutual friend Richard Hone teased us unmercifully about the Lost Harp of Dublin. Our inability to find the original, despite somehow managing to bring back a substitute, became an in-joke between us all for a long time.

An equally young Ross, parading the streets of Dublin with the fake Trinity harp

I got the Dublin harp restored and restrung, and played it for a little while, before losing interest to focus once more on my first love, the flute. Whilst between houses (I moved around a lot in the 80s and 90s), the harp became a rather large piece of baggage, so I ended up selling it to Ross, who felt as sentimental towards that particular instrument as I did, given how we’d discovered it together. It languished in Ross’s house for many years until 2008, when my son Eoin, having become enthralled by the Brian Boru harp, declared a desire to learn to play.

The threads converge, weaving into the present.

Image

Eoin in Summer 2011, playing the harp I’d brought back from Dublin in the 1980s

Most parents, should their child ask them for a harp, might struggle to meet the request. Not so I, as of course I knew where such an instrument could be found! In 2008 Ross gladly sold the Dublin harp back to me, keen to support my son’s ambitions. Having been un-played for many years, it was not in an immediately playable condition. Being a bit short of cash, it took me until summer 2011 to get it restrung. But once this had been done Eoin, whose interest in harps had only increased in the interim, at last had a harp of his own.

And so we blend another thread into the tale.

By sheer coincidence my old friend Celia Briar, a very accomplished traditional harp player who I’d played in a band with during the 1980s, was back in the UK in Summer 2011 for a protracted period (having lived in New Zealand for many years) and was able to give Eoin some lessons. He learned fast, highly motivated as he was. And Celia has been back several times since, giving Eoin lessons whenever she can. She is an immensely kind and patient teacher, and a fantastic musician who Eoin greatly respects. To our very great delight, she will soon be moving back to the UK for good.

Celia Briar gives Eoin his first harp lesson

Celia Briar gives Eoin his first harp lesson

And here is where the threads are pulled together. It turns out that Celia has a connection with the very harp that Ross and I failed to find all those years before, and that Eoin first fell in love with: the Brian Boru Harp in Trinity College Dublin.

Celia learned to play the harp from a lady called Mary Rowland. In 1961, Mary was the harpist who was invited to play Brian Boru Harp in a sound experiment, after it had been newly restored and restrung. It was the one and only time in over 200 years that it had ever been played, and it has never been played since.

About Mary Rowland and her connection with the Brian Boru harp, Celia has this to say:

Mary is the one who taught me about the celtic harp tradition in Ireland and told me lots of wonderful stories. At the time I knew her, in the late 1970s, she was in her 70s and living in east Lancashire, near Rishton. Years before she had played the famous Trinity College (Brian Boru) harp. The story she told me about that harp was as follows:

The harp had been stolen, and when it was finally found, it had been buried for some time, and was in very poor condition. It was not the sort of instrument that could easily be renovated, as the sound box was carved out of a single piece of hollowed-out willow (known then as sally).

The curators wanted a recording of it for posterity in case something else happened to it. Mary was the person they invited to do it. It sounds like a huge honour, but in fact was a nightmare for Mary!

Mary knew that these ancient wire-strung harps were meant to be played on the left shoulder, with the melody played on the left hand and the chords on the right – the opposite way round from modern harping, so she had to learn to do this. She also had to grow her nails instead of using her fingertips. This would be normal for someone who plays wire strung harp, but not for someone used to playing on gut or nylon, as Mary was.

Finally, she had to research the tunes and as far as possible the kinds of arrangements that would have been played on the harp when it was in its prime. I think the arrangement she used was similar to the style used by Denis Hempson, and noted down by Bunting at the Belfast Harp Festival in 1793. Hempson was in his 90s by then and was the only player known to be playing in the old style – the one probably used by the itinerant harpers in their heyday.

Mary took up these challenges and went ahead with the recording. That recording still exists, and by all accounts it is very strange! The harp was too weak to be brought up to tension long enough to settle down and stay in tune. It was freshly strung with brass strings for the recording, and never stayed in tune even for the length of one tune. I’m not sure if it is possible to hear the recording and imagine what the old harpers would have sounded like.

A rare audio recording of Mary Rowland playing the Brian Boru harp can be found on Simon Chadwick’s Early Gaelic Harp website. The haunting sound of it makes me shiver. The following account is given on the webpage:

In 1961, after its restoration in London, the harp was restrung by Joan Rimmer, using brass wire. It seems that Joan brought some of the strings up to tension, while harpist Mary Rowland played the harp <…> The tunes played on the audio were the Irish tune Umbo agus éiriú from Bunting and the French dance Jolivete, as well as experiments with sounding harmonics, pedal-harp style. I understand that the sound of the harp in 1961 was, despite the under-tensioned strings, a revelation to musicians who had never heard the voice of an early Gaelic harp before.

And so Mary, who was the only person to play the Brian Boru harp in 200 years, taught Celia. And now Celia teaches Eoin, who was inspired to play by gazing upon the Brian Boru harp.

Such an extraordinary warp and weft of connection, it seems to be, all of it radiating out from an ancient harp in a glass case. It makes me wonder whether, like the name of the computer game Eoin used to play, there might be a bit of fate at work too.

Image

Eoin in late 2012, playing a harp made by Pete Rigg of Cumbria, which has been generously loaned to him by the maker.