Tag Archive | Ireland

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.

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

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!

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.

Music From Another Time

In September 1995, I was on a visit to South Leitrim. My partner and I got taken out by a musician friend to visit an old man he knew, so we could all play a few tunes together.

It was about three-thirty in the afternoon, and the rain had just stopped when we arrived at the end of a grassed-over lane in the middle of nowhere, somewhere on the edges of Roscommon and Leitrim. Leaving the car we went through the gate, and walked across two fields full of cattle to get to the cottage.

The old man we had gone to visit was Pa McCormack. His cottage had no electricity or piped water. He lived on his own, cooked over his open fire, and kept his bacon fresh by wrapping it in dock leaves.

Inside, the cottage was dimly lit by the fading daylight through the half-door, and the glow from the peat fire. Hospitality was offered, but Pa was a bit ashamed of his cracked cups, so instead of tea we drank Guinness out of the bottle. We talked for a while, then Pa reached down his fiddle from a shelf above the fire, and played a reel.

Michael and myself produced our flutes, and our friend Gene took out his fiddle, and the four of us played into the early evening. We paused now and then for a chat, and for Pa to open a fresh bottle of Guinness and put a bit more peat on the fire. The music Pa played on the fiddle was electrifying; mainly local Leitrim/Sligo tunes, many of which (so he told us) he learned from his father.

The whole experience, with flutes and fiddles pounding out fast Sligo reels, in a run-down cottage lit by the soft, rainy light and the warm peat glow, was really eerie. It was like we had been transported back in time one hundred years. Even now, seventeen years later, I still feel awed and moved when I think about it.

I heard, a few years back, that Pa had died. I also heard that he’d had a very healthy bank balance, but had not been interested in using any of it to change anything. He was more than content living the life of a hermit, alone in the house he’d been born in, quietly farming his land and playing music from another time.