Monthly Archives: January 2015

Winter in Ireland !

They said I wouldn’t survive the winter.

Well it’s approaching the end of January and I am still here. But I have to say that these last few weeks I have really felt what it is that everyone has warned me about. The realisation hit as I stood on the cliffs of Sleave League in southwest Donegal trying to stand up straight enough to take a photograph, wrapped in multiple layers but still feeling that wind cut through to the bone. It was a brisk 4˚C at midday but with the wind chill it was sub-zero. It was numbingly cold but the photos I took that day look deceptively pretty, with blue skies and gorgeous colours reflecting the sun off the cliffs. The camera never lies but it doesn’t always tell the full story.

And then the other day the maximum on the mercury back home in Clare was 1˚C. It was snowing across the county, indeed all over the west, but not here at Caherush on the sea.

I stand outside my front door. The wind here is relentless and constant. This day you can hardly stand up as it whips the usually calm waters of the bay into a seething boiling maelstrom and further out past Mutton Island, massive waves roll in through a sea of foam and whipped up spray I can see the spray drive high over Mutton Island covering its castle as waves crash in from the west. Some intrepid gulls fight the elements to carry on with their continuous search for sustenance seemingly just hanging in the air almost enjoying the challenge as they feast on the abundant feed whipped up by the furious waters. And a handful of ducks continue to forage on the shoreline despite being buffeted hither and thither. And on the land, cattle turn their backs to the wind to provide some protection. There is no rain at the moment, in fact patches of blue appear through the clouds to tantalise and at least give an impression of warmth soon dispelled by the reality closer to the ground. I don’t stay out there long. Valdo, the farmer’s border collie runs up, stone in mouth, inviting me to play, seemingly oblivious to the unfriendliness of the elements. No walk along the shore today Valdo, that’s just a distant memory. Back inside though the house is cosy, the fire goes all day and if I’m not warm enough I sometimes turn the central heating on also. I play music. I write. I read. I watch the odd movie. And when I get bored I play some more music. My day really begins at 9pm when I head out to look for tunes, an increasingly difficult challenge.

So I am still here. My adopted countrymen can’t understand this. They see the endless blue skies of a Summer Bay Utopia and a bikini-barbecue lifestyle to match and wonder why I would want to come here. They all have relatives in Perth who will never come home. And they all want to join them there in the warmth. So why don’t I feel the same way. Don’t get me wrong I love Australia (well when it is not being stuffed up by uncaring governments!) but I have had decades of it and the Australian summer holds no attraction for me anymore. Yes, day after day of blue skies, but it comes with often unbearable heat (depending where you are, and I spent a lot of my time there in 40 plus temperatures in the desert), the threat of fires, not sleeping at night, hot westerly winds. It all makes you actually crave some ‘weather’. That craving for weather is certainly satisfied here. In recent days I have seen it at its rawest – driven through a snow storm, been pelted by hailstorms, 130kph winds and 30m waves. But seriously this wild winter is a small price to pay to live in this glorious country and be surrounded by music every day. I feel blessed.

So if I go home it definitely won’t be because of the weather.

Here are some photos that say winter and Ireland to me…….

the wild Atlantic.  Spanish Point Co Clare

the wild Atlantic. Spanish Point Co Clare

Spanish Point

Spanish Point

Stating the obvious.  White Strand near Spanish Point, Co Clare

Stating the obvious. White Strand near Spanish Point, Co Clare

Cattle turn their backs to the wind.  Spanish Point, Co Clare

Cattle turn their backs to the wind. Spanish Point, Co Clare

Caherush, Co Clare

Caherush, Co Clare

wind blown foam,  Spanish Point Beach.  Co Clare

wind blown foam, Spanish Point Beach. Co Clare

Spanish Point Beach.  Covered in foam.

Spanish Point Beach. Covered in foam.

Wild Atlantic.  Spanish Point.  Co Clare

Wild Atlantic. Spanish Point. Co Clare

Sleave League, Co Donegal

Sleave League, Co Donegal

Ice.  Gweedore, Co Donegal

Ice. Gweedore, Co Donegal

Fanore Beach, Co Clare

Fanore Beach, Co Clare

Caherush Bay during a gale.

Caherush Bay during a gale.

Caherush Bay. Co Clare.

Caherush Bay. Co Clare.

Ice crystals on the windscreen.  Sixmilebridge. Co Clare

Ice crystals on the windscreen. Sixmilebridge. Co Clare

Ice on the road.  Mount Callan, Co Clare.

Ice on the road. Mount Callan, Co Clare.

Categories: Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Am I playing fiddle better?

Those following me on Facebook know that I was unable to find a session to play at on January 2nd 2015, while I was in Glencolmcille in Donegal. This meant my run of continuous nights of music came to an end. I thought I would be disappointed but after 231 nights I gave it a good run. And in any case I started again the next night so I have only missed the one night in the last 244!

But it’s not about setting records. It gives me an opportunity to look back on my time here in Ireland and see whether my immersion in in the music has led to an accelerated improvement. Logic says that it should have. I started thinking about this after a friend commented on my six month post asking just that – whether I thought I had improved.

An extremely difficult question for me to answer. Perhaps I need to put it in context. I started playing guitar when I was 15. My dad agreed to this so long as I had classical guitar lessons. So I did that for nearly two years. While I enjoyed the classical repertoire my real interest was ‘folk music’, as it was understood back in the 60s, and I played and sung Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Peter Paul and Mary and acoustic artists such as Cat Stevens and the Mamas and Papas. I also used to sing Dubliners and Clancy Brothers songs but I really ‘discovered’ Irish music when I heard the Chieftains in 1974. I was at Uni and this was the start of a love affair with the fiddle. I got hold of one and started teaching myself tunes from ‘Begged, Borrowed and Stolen” a beginners tune book popular in Australia then and now. It was a slow and painful process but by the end of the 70s I could scratch out Drowsy Maggie and King of the Fairies. As a young geologist my early years were spent in mining towns such as Cobar and Kalgoorlie in outback Australia. In each of these places I formed Bush Bands which were generally a four or five part acoustic band which used folk instruments along with Australian innovations such as the bush bass and the lagerphone. We held bush dances (equivalent of a ceili) and sang Australian and Irish songs but the tunes were pretty basic. I got stuck in this groove for many years and though we were moderately successful in our remote locations I never advanced my tune playing beyond beginner level.   Then when kids came along the fiddle hardly got touched. It had always been my dream to play well. Ok that was then, this is now.

Now I am in Ireland I have that opportunity. But I soon realised coming here how much I had to fix before I could really go forward. Both my intonation and tone were woeful and although I had been listening to recordings for many years and thought I had an understanding of the music this ‘feel’ did not translate to my playing.   Recognising the things that needed fixing was the first step.

So what has changed since I came to Ireland? I have been to hundreds of sessions, workshops and lessons. Playing in sessions is a double edged sword. I have picked up many new tunes. I can play faster, if that’s a virtue, and I have hugely increased my ability to learn by ear. Previously I learned new tunes from the dots and it took ages; and I never really learnt them properly. Now I find myself playing along with tunes that I don’t ever remember learning. This is a great feeling. However in a large session I have trouble hearing myself and can’t really tell if I am playing in tune or not let alone whether I am playing the right notes. Also there is a temptation to fudge bits you don’t know. Hence I record many. I have hundreds of hours of session recordings and am gradually going through these to identify the commonly played tunes and sets in Clare and try and learn them.

This partial learning becomes exaggerated when I try and play the tune on my own. My problems are obvious so I have been working hard on a few rather than the many. On the advice of a couple of tutors I am also concentrating on scales in the basic keys and I can really feel this making a difference.

So am I playing better? Let me put it this way. I think I am. I am playing in tune better. I have slowed down. I am listening better. I am listening to a lot of the old fiddlers on cd and the newer ones as I try and expose myself to as many different ways of playing as possible. I ‘know’ more tunes but still get flustered when asked to start one. A consequence of accumulated hours of listening is that there is a resetting of the brain from thinking about the music as a collection of notes to a series of phrases linked by short runs. A retuning of the learning process from the eyes to the ears. I am playing with a much lighter bow. I am feeling the rhythm and while I know I am still not sounding how I want to, I am happier with the sound I am making. It has been frustrating but at the same time it drives me to practice harder. Constantly in my mind are the words of Lahinch fiddler Yvonne Casey who told me to ‘feel every note; to love every note’. I think I have laid the groundwork and I expect exponential improvement over the next six months. That’s when I am hoping the immersion will pay off.

My goal in all this is to play the best I possibly can.

As a post script I was playing in a session the other day with Jackie Daly and Maurice Lennon among others at Friels in Miltown Malbay.  Jackie launched into Mason’s Apron (the two part version) and as I joined in the realisation suddenly hit me that here I was in a session in Ireland with legends of the box and the fiddle and it was sounding pretty darn good. A year ago I was struggling with this tune. These are the moments that make it all worthwhile.

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Categories: The Fiddle, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

St Stephens Night – my last session in Clare 2014

Undaunted but exhausted after my adventures as a wren boy on St Stephens Day (check out my blog I ended up that night at Danny Macs in Lahinch. The pub was crowded. There was a great mix of familiar faces and newcomers (at least to me) and a marvellously enthusiastic audience.  The pictures tell the story but what a fabulous way to end the year, with this being my last session for 2014 in Clare, before heading off to the winter school in Gweedore.


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Categories: Sessions, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Scoil Gheimhridh Ghaoth Dobhair. Winter School, Gweedore.

I posted the other day on the final night of the Winter School in Gweedore, County Donegal. Here is a selection of photographs from the earlier days of the Festival which ran from 27th December 2014 to 1st January 2015.

I am going to let the photos do the talking but as you will see it was a fabulous event. Can’t speak for the other workshops but Brid Harper’s fiddle was outstanding. Concerts and recitals from Boys of the Lough, Liz Carroll and Brid Harper, Harry Bradley, Brendan Begley, Seamus Begley, Seamie O’Dowd and great sessions where humble plebs like me could find themselves playing next to these guys or a host of others, perhaps less well known but just as good. A smooth, well-organised Festival. Great job Conor Byrne and all the volunteers who made it all happen. There were even a couple of days of sunshine.

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Categories: Festivals, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

St Stephens Day and the Wren Boys

In Ireland no one seems to talk about Boxing Day – It’s St Stephens Day. But when I ask who St Stephen was, it’s like asking an Irish trad musician the name of the tune they just played. I just get a blank look.

So I did some research. Stephen was in fact a Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jew who died around 34 AD and was the first martyr of Christianity. He was accused of blasphemy and stoned to death.  Thanks Wikipedia.

In Ireland though the day is also known as Lá an Dreoilín, meaning the Day of the Wren, an apparent reference to legends linking the wren to episodes in the life of Jesus. People (mainly kids) dress up in old clothes, wear straw hats and travel from door to door with fake wrens (previously real wrens were killed) and they dance, sing and play music.

It is also used by charitable organisations to raise funds so when Michael Talty asked me if I wanted to join the Wren Boys from the local Kilmurry-Ibrickane GAA I jumped at the chance. It meant getting up at 6.30, the morning after Christmas, which I had spent with friends in Connemara, and driving back to Quilty to be there at 10.00.  Not easy.

The weather was not good. Cold and the threat of rain. A number of musicians and dancers had congregated in the GAA clubrooms and we were split into two teams of three musicians and four dancers. The idea was to go door to door to every home in the Parish, do a quick half set and solicit donations. First we had to agree on a tune (I won’t mind if I don’t hear Sally Gardens again!) and a speed, so after a quick run through with Pat on flute and Gerard on whistle and my fiddle tucked under my coat we piled into a windowless van and hit the streets.

We stopped outside every house (except those that the locals knew to be unoccupied) and knocked on the door. Without ceremony we would launch into Sally Gardens, the dancers would do their thing and we would be off again. People were very generous; I saw the odd 50 drop into the tin. Many made a donation and out of sympathy for us in the cold waved us on without playing. And cold it was. Squalls of drizzly rain swept in as the temperature seemed to continue to drop during the day. Eventually I resorted to playing in gloves and after a bit of practice, made a decent fist of it. I would tuck my fiddle under my coat when not playing and managed to keep it out of the elements. The bow however was another story. Ever tried to play with a wet bow?

Occasionally we were invited inside and that was special, as tables and chairs were pushed aside and if you briefly closed your eyes you could imagine you were transported back fifty years to a kitchen ceili. Occasionally we were also offered beer or cider. In one house we were treated to slices made by Amish girls in traditional headgear and costumes. There must have been a dozen of them. The things you find in West Clare.

There was a welcome break at Cooney’s Pub in Quilty, who put on soup and sandwiches, and then it was back out in the afternoon continuing what was a very long and challenging day until darkness descended finishing on my own street, the Clogher Road. Very fitting.

Despite the privations I had a ball and enjoyed the whole experience – a window into an Ireland that foreigners would likely not see. Thanks Michael and all my fellow dancers and musicians who accepted me and made me feel part of the community. For the record we raised 2,200 euros.


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Categories: Stories, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Hogmanay Donegal Style

Well! where do I start to talk about the festival I have just attended. The Scoil Gheimbhridh Ghaoth Dobhair or the Winter School at Gweedore in Co Donegal. It used to be the Frankie Kennedy Festival but has been reborn this year.  The school ran from 27th December to 1st January, climaxing in a Hogmanay to bring in the New Year for 2015.  So I’ll start there, at the end, and post on the other aspects of the Festival later.

What a night! Held a bit out of the way in the GAA rooms at Bunbeg,  it kicked off at 9:30 with a group of young local Donegal musicians led by multi-instrumentalist Cathal Curran. They were surprisingly good and well received by the audience. But if the entrée was smoked salmon then the main course was a thick succulent juicy steak and that is what the crowd had come to feast on . And they got it in spades. Fiddlers Bid are a group from the Shetlands fronted by four fiddlers, Chris Stout, Kevin Henderson, Andrew Gifford and Maurice Henderson with the celebrated Catriona McKay on harp and piano and a pumping rhythm section comprising Seán Óg Graham on guitar and Neil Harland on bass,

From the first chord they had the crowd dancing.

I am still new to Ireland and it was indeed impressive to see the class music coming from the stage matched by the class exhibited on the dance floor with all sorts of cavorting and gambolling, some highly inventive dances and some great steps being displayed equally well in runners  or high heels. The floor would clear every now and then, just as in Saturday Night Fever,  for some skilled sean nos – at one point a line of six dancers. River dance as it should be.

This crowd wanted to have fun and they did. There was a conga line, and unbridled enthusiasm as 2014 disappeared. The set they played to bring in the New Year started ten minutes before midnight and was impeccably timed for the countdown, launching effortlessly into Auld Lang Syne and then back to their trademark energetic reels. The set went for forty minutes without a break and at the end of it sweat and bow hairs were flying about the stage.

There was a break for some food while the band regained their composure and they fired up again with the crowd not letting the music stop until well after the scheduled close. At various times the band were joined by Brendan Begley, Cathal McConnell,  Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and Conor Byrne. Great craic.

There is not much more to say. Everyone clearly had a great time. A difficult event to photograph in low light with so much movement and of course I don’t use a flash. But I think I have captured the spirit of the evening. The joy of the crowd.  Well done Conor, an inspired choice for band and I know where I’ll be when 2016 comes around.

Follow me to keep up to date with future posts which will cover the concerts, workshops and sessions of this great festival.  I will also post on my travels through the beautiful south west of this wild and glorious County.



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Categories: Festivals, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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