Tag Archive | Irish traditional music

A Musical Autumn Ahead – some forthcoming events

Laid-back tunes outside the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel at Langdale Festival

Laid-back tunes outside the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel at Langdale Festival

It’s going to be an eventful Autumn, music-wise. Here are some forthcoming events that either myself or my friends will be involved in.

Next weekend – Friday 13th September onwards – is the twice-annual Langdale Charity Folk Festival. This, as I have noted before, is one of my favourite places and events to go to in the world. My own gig will be on Saturday afternoon in the main bar, but I will be doing lots of music outside of that slot too, much of it involving relentless Irish tunes with Mike Allen on fiddle and any other wandering traddies who might be passing through. Only six sleeps to go!

The same weekend is the twice-annual Irish Music Weekend in Lancaster, organised by my very good friend Dave Lyth. Unfortunately (as I will be in Langdale) I will not be able to attend this time. I’m very sad to miss it as the craic is likely to be mighty, with lots of great musicians from all over coming to this very popular event. If you love Irish sessions, Lancaster is the place to be (unless you come to Langdale to play tunes with Mike and me instead, that is!)

On Friday 20th September, we will have our next monthly traditional session at the Lord Ashton in Lancaster. Starting at around 8.00 pm, this has been consistently good so far, and is in a small, friendly pub with good beer. All trad musicians and lovers of trad music are welcome.

Wednesday 2nd October sees the return of the Irish Traveller singer, Thomas McCarthy, to Lancaster. Tom will be performing at The Gregson, along with support from local duo Nyewood. As I have said previously, Tom is an amazing exponent of a tradition not widely seen outside the Traveller culture, and it is truly a privilege to hear him sing. Highly recommended.

Finally, the Lancaster Music Festival will take place during the weekend beginning Friday 11th October. This is a community-run event during which live music will take place all over the city, in pubs and other venues. I will be playing a short spot with my friends Celia Briar (harp) and Ross Campbell (concertina and various stringed instruments) in Market Square next to the Information Stall on Saturday 12th October, probably around 1.00 pm. Come and say hello if you’re out and about!


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:


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.


Last Night’s Fun

Last night was our second ever monthly session at The Lord Ashton. It was a really good night, enhanced by a visit from some fantastic Scottish musicians, a late licence, and an audience who actually listened to and appreciated the music for once!

There were three of us playing the flute last night; Joe Murphy from Lancaster, Craig Crawford from north of the border, and myself. The heat was a bit hard on the tuning (though of course I blame the fiddles), which brought to mind this question: what do you call three flute players playing an ‘A’? Answer: a chord!

The next session will be on Friday 16th August.


Forthcoming Session in Lancaster

Computer problems have kept me from blogging of late, which means it is almost exactly a month since I was last here. Fortuitously, this means our next monthly session at the Lord Ashton in Lancaster is imminent, so this post can serve as both my triumphant return to blogging, and a reminder.

Our next session will be on Friday 19th July 2013, from 8.00 onwards. Further details (plus how to find the pub) can be found at thesession.org.

We also have a Facebook page, where regular updates about the session are posted.

Here are some photos of our last session in June:


And also a wee bit of a video:


I’ve heard we may have some visitors from Scotland on Friday, great musicians all, so it should be a good night. Musicians/listeners/people who just love to buy pints for musicians are all very welcome!


Announcement: New Trad Session in Lancaster

Ian, Joe and PaulBeing horribly over-committed in a non-musical way most of the time, I rarely make it out to the regular Tuesday night Irish session in Lancaster at The Gregson. I find that a night of tunes and (probably) beer is really not conducive to getting up at 6.00 on Wednesday morning, which is the usual time I set my alarm for on weekdays. Inevitably this means I end up not playing in any sessions at all for long tracts of time, and people could be forgiven for assuming I do far more writing about music than actually playing it!

It turns out a few other people have similar weekday issues, particularly those (like me) who are bringing up young families and holding down full-time jobs. So what to do, what to do? The answer has presented itself in the form of a new, monthly session on a Friday. It being monthly rather than weekly facilitates advanced planning and arrangement of babysitters, and for those of us who just can’t hack late nights and early mornings during the week (oh, how the mighty have fallen), having the session on a Friday means that we get two whole days over the weekend to recover before having to go back to work. Voila, problem solved!

The first of our monthly sessions will take place next Friday, 21st June 2013 in The Lord Ashton, North Road, Lancaster, and will be held the third Friday of every month thereafter. Traditional tunes other than Irish will also be played, though it is likely that Irish tunes will dominate. All trad musicians are welcome, as are potential listeners – when we did a taster session to try out the pub, it was just us and the barman for most of the night!

In the meantime, for those hardy souls who can manage to get out during the week, the weekly Tuesday Irish session in the Gregson is still going strong, and if ever I find the stamina (or get a day off on a Wednesday) I hope to pop in to that as well. You can clearly never have too many sessions (though, in my case, I frequently get too few).

Here’s a little flavour of the type of music you will find at our session at the Lord Ashton, played by some of the people who are likely to be there. Paul Ferguson and Ian Francis on fiddle, backed by Roger Purves on bouzouki:


Blog Recommendation – The Irish in Leicester

I was delighted recently to come across Lynda Callaghan’s blog, The Irish In Leicester. Of her blog, Lynda has this to say:

Over the past few months I have been investigating the links and connections that helped build the strong Irish community that now exists in Leicester. I’ve been finding out who, when and where so as to create an historical picture of the Irish in Leicester.

I have a huge soft spot for Leicester, having lived there between 1990 – 1994, first whilst studying as an undergraduate at the University of Leicester, and subsequently when I worked for a year at De Montfort University.

During the time I was a student, I supported myself in part by teaching night classes in both Irish Music and Set Dancing at Soar Valley Community College. I did this under the auspices of the Irish Studies Workshop, which was run by a veritable giant of the Leicester Irish community, Nessan Danaher. As well as the two classes I ran, the Irish Studies Workshop also offered Irish language tuition, classes in Irish history, an annual academic conference and a great library containing books of Irish interest. It was a fantastic resource for the Irish community, both in Leicester and further afield due to the worldwide network of Irish societies that Nessan had established links to.

The Jolly Miller

The Jolly Miller on Conduit Street, Leicester. Scene of our regular Tuesday night Irish session in the early 1990s. (Picture from Google Earth)

It was lovely to see stories from people on Lynda’s blog who I actually taught in my classes. The Corry family were regulars at my set dance class, for example, as was Mary Warrener.

I am immensely proud of the legacy of those classes. When I’ve gone back to visit Leicester (all too infrequently), I’ve discovered some of my former music students playing great stuff in the sessions, and some of the set dancers are still dancing. I’m sure they are far better than me by now, as due to my arthritic feet my dancing days are pretty much done!

The Irish community in Leicester was a great place for me to discover and celebrate my own Irish identity; something I’d not really had the chance to explore, other than through music and my own immediate family, before I went to Leicester. The community there were so welcoming, treating me as one of their own. I was also lucky enough to be able to conduct a sociological research project on the Irish in Leicester (about issues of identity and community) while I was there, and am honoured by the trust I was shown when I did so.

Go take a look at Linda’s blog, if you can. There are some great stories there, tales of exile and of finding a sense of belonging in another place. It’s really moving stuff.

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:

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.