Monthly Archives: November 2016

The Singing Circle at Kilshanny, Co Clare. Entry to another world.

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Early in November I went to my first organised singing session since I came to Ireland. I know that’s a terrible admission especially as my start in Irish music came from my interest in folk singing back in the 60s. It was from singing Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs and Pete Seeger and Ewan McColl, and then traditional Australian songs, that I discovered the original “protest” songs coming from Ireland and Scotland. Of course the fiddle sort of took over but I still love singing and squeeze the odd song into a trad session if I get the nod.  My knowledge of the singing session was scratchy to be sure and probably an entrenched stereotype.   You know; finger in the ear stuff and all 47 verses of Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor.

So when Mary Butler, proprietor of Kilshanny House near Ennistymon, asked me to come along to the once-a-month Kilshanny Singing Circle, I had no great expectations. It was certainly a world away from the Pub Trad Sessions, my natural habitat.  

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Mine hosts,  Aidan and Mary.

A crowd slowly gathered on the chilly November night. Many turned out to be singers but others were just there to listen. Indeed there were at least 25 singers (actually 24 singers and one Singer – sorry that’s an attempt at humour), some sitting in a circle as you would expect in a session but many others just hovering or sitting at the bar in relative anonymity.

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The night was masterfully run by local Ennis based singer, Noirin Lynch with a velvet glove.

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Noirin Lynch

Just an aside. It is the bane of singers in Trad sessions that everyone talks through songs. Sometimes no amount of shushing or whooshing or glass tinkling will shut up the crowd and many a great performance is lost. Not so here. Every person in the pub this Friday had come to listen or sing, so all that was needed were a few gentle reminders. To some this is not the atmosphere they want, and maybe that’s you, but that’s the beauty of Ireland. There are plenty of options; plenty of other pubs where the TV is blaring and you can turn your back to the music. But if you want to hear wonderful singers at their best in total silence then there is no better place than here.

The concept of the Singing Circle is far more democratic than the more ad hoc music session.   Noirin identifies all the singers, in the room,  sees who wants to sing and calls on them to do so at the appropriate time. Always conscious of mixing it up and giving everyone a fair go.  She is constantly roving the room looking for new additions.

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Noirin’s list

These nights of music are a celebration. For me, mainly of the incredible talent that lurks hidden in the cottages of Clare. And I have to say whatever I am exposed to another layer of the culture and performing arts in Clare it comes from deep in the soul of the people here.  Nothing special, it’s just part of their makeup.  In West Clare and North Clare I have many times seen spontaneous sean nos dances from kids of all ages up to 90,  I’ve seen sets and half sets where there shouldn’t have been room and I have heard gems and disasters of songs from people sitting quietly all night waiting to perform their party piece.

While there were many widely known singers from inside and outside Clare here this night,  the majority were just unsung (no pun intended) heroes for whom singing is just part of what they do between selling real estate, farming or driving trucks or bringing up their kids. The special guest for the night was Roisin White from Miltown Malbay (honoured with a Gradam Cheoil for singing in 2015) and she treated us to a wide range of material, strongly and beautifully delivered.  

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Roisin White

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Roisin White

There were  other visitors, Ciarán O’Maoileoin,  Aoife Caomhnach and the well known, Ann Skelton  from Dublin.  And regular Clare visitor Steve Brown from England and Jan van der Klei from Holland.

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Ciaran O’Maoileoin and Aoife Caomhnach

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Ann Skelton

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Steve Brown

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Jan van der Klei

But as I said I was most impressed with the home grown talent.  Noirin Lynch herself set the tone of the evening with the anthemic Nora Daly which she learnt from the singing of Micho Russell and Peggy Macmahon.

My name is Nora Daly from the Parish of Kilmaly

and my father is a farmer and the crossest man in Clare

If he saw you here beside me I’m in fear that he might chide me

so please go down and walk a bit before we reach the fair. 

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Noirin Lynch

Everyone sings along with this one.  In fact if you are from Clare, I bet you hummed along as you read it.    There was a preponderance of songs on subjects of local interest. I couldn’t possibly talk about each singer, so let me mention just a few. John Casey, originally from Lisdoonvarna grew up with the travellers and remembered them vividly as a child. Sixty years later he met one of them again and was inspired to write his song “The Tinker” which he sang for us.  John told me later that a cousin from Australia was the extraordinary Father Ted Kennedy who did remarkable work with the Aboriginals in Redfern. When he died in 2005, 1,500 people attended his funeral.  Interesting synchronicity there with the status of Travellers and Aboriginals. 

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John Casey

 

We had Gerry Devitt with that marvellous song about Joseph McHugh’s from Liscannor. And the delightful and much loved John Joe Scanlon from Fanore, who treated us to a wonderful bit of the, almost lost, art of lilting. 

The fantastic songs of Micheal Marrinan got an airing with  Ciarán O’Maoileoin singing Miltown to Sweet Ennistymon and The Binding Twine sung by Steve Brown complete with with prop of a roll of genuine binding twine!

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Ciaran O’Maoileoin

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Steve Brown and the Bundle of Twine

With the memory of the death of local football legend Anthony Foley still fresh there was a heartfelt and powerful recitation from Michael Scanlan of Killaloe of his own song and, further reflecting the place GAA takes in Irish culture, we had Marian Egan sing ‘Cuchulainn’s Son’  a song about Wexford hurler Nicky Rackard from it’s golden era in the 1950s. It was written by Marian’s late cousin Tom Williams.  Marian is now a Clare woman living in Kilfenora since 1997.

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Michael Scanlon

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Marian Egan

We had some delightful comic songs;  Sean Maclaghlan with  Big Bellies and Spare Tyres (though I have to say that only with some reluctance did he get the ladies to answer back with the ”spare tyres” bit)  and that old favourite, the Lottery Ticket.  from James Blackwell of Ennistymon. 

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Sean Maclaghlan

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James Blackwell

The tone of the night was best illustrated with the welcome received by newly arrived Ursula. An occasional singer from Dublin but now living in Kilshanny, she must have been surprised at the warm reception.  She was introduced around and sat down in the inner circle and coaxed into singing a couple of songs which she carried off with aplomb. What better way to welcome someone into your community than to share a song with them.

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A warm welcome

I really like the photo I captured of Ursula with a cup of tea in her hand beside a framed photo of Robbie McMahon of ‘Spancil Hill’ fame. Turns out he is Mary’s uncle.  Don’t you just love the connections in this place. I think I’ll call it The dreamer and the Dreaming

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The dreamer and the Dreaming.

And they even had room for some Aussie guy who had the cheek to sing an Irish song about a road that “runs down to the sea”.

There were of course many others and here are some more photos. Singers are difficult to photograph. Always moving unpredictably, eyes closed, bad light. I think though I have captured the mood with these shots.

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Almyn Wilson

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Joe O’Connor

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James Blackwell

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Emer Ni Mhaoileoin

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Paddy Williams from Kilshanny

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Patsy Carrucan from Fanore

Singing Circles as they are called, abound in Clare. They are generally held once a month, but you could easily attend one or two a week if you wanted. The better known ones are in Ennis and Cooraclare and there is also an excellent Sunday singing session at the Crane in nearby Galway.  So if you come to Clare and want to try something different, you can be assured of a warm welcome.

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I’ll definitely be back to Kilshanny House.

And one final word. Why is respect demanded and given for a song but not always similarly for a tune?

Categories: My Journey, Sessions, Trad Irish Music, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Oliver O’Connell, Man of the Burren and the Track of Tears.

Ireland is a very popular destination with visitors. And for good reasons. I have met so many who have come here for a week and have rushed around to tick Dublin, Dingle, Cliffs of Moher and Galway off their list and happily report back home that they “did Ireland”. Don’t get me wrong most people genuinely enjoy Ireland, in fact love it. What’s not to love? There is of course wonderful scenery, friendly people, ruined castles, trad music, Guinness, bacon and cabbage, sheep on the road. Everything that brings people here. But very few of those short-term visitors would have tapped into the ‘real’ Ireland.  Ireland’s real treasure is its people. It’s through the people of Ireland you discover the Hidden Ireland.

I spent a day recently with one of these people. Oliver O’Connell may be known to some of you. Perhaps if I say he is Blackie O’Connell’s dad that may twig a few responses or the guy who started a session on an Aer Lingis flight last year, the video of which went viral; but really he should be better known as the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of Maurice O’Connell ‘The Transplanted’. I’ll come back to that.

Oliver lives in an extraordinary spot in the middle of the Burren which is the beating heart of County Clare. Ten kilometres  from Corofin. You look out his kitchen window towards Mullaghmore , across a barren, stark tortured, limestone plain and you cannot see a single house. And at night the only light is the faint reflected glow from Galway City way to the north.

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View across the Burren National Park

Oliver is as much part of the Burren as the megalithic tombs and glacial erratics that dot the landscape. He took me for a little walk to show me a favourite spot of his; the so-called Famine Road. A little used part of the Burren Way walking trail.

Now I thought I knew what a ‘Famine Road’ was.  The walking tours of The Burren will take you to one and tell you these roadways were built as an assistance scheme to keep people out of the Workhouse.  This may indeed be the case but this one is different as Oliver tells it.  This road was here way before the Famine.  Indeed the 1842 map of Clare shows the route as a road in use and on the exact same line as the satellite image.  So it certainly well predated the Famine.

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Satellite image of Famine Road.  Shown with red arrow.

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1842 Map showing same area as satellite image above.  Famine Road is clearly marked.

Oliver explained that it is called the ‘Famine Road’ for a very different reason.  The route was used by a number of families attempting to escape the deprivations of those terrible years but many did not survive. They are buried somewhere along the route in unmarked graves. It struck me as unusual that the road fell into disuse even though it would shorten the trip considerable from Corofin to Kinvara.  Oliver thinks the road has been there for perhaps a thousand years.  If this is true then it is a tribute to the engineering capabilities of the early residents.  It is roughly cobbled and raised in places, the summer grasses partly hide it now but its unique stone walls bounding it still stand proud today. They have regularly spaced jagged vertical stones. The road is straight as a die in places  and it traverses the country peacefully and silently.

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The start of the Famine Road near Aughrim.  Part of the Burren Way.

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View to the north along the Famine Road

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Cobbles forming the road base

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Detail of cobbling

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Detailed satellite view of portion of the Famine Road

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Jagged rocks standing upright form part of a wall along both edges of the road

So why was it no longer used?

Oliver is a poet. One whose poetry is raw, and highly descriptive.  It is personal and it is heartfelt.  It comes to him quickly almost as a stream of consciousness. He doesn’t massage it and as a result it doesn’t sound the least bit contrived.  In a poem he wrote about this road he describes what he calls the Track of Tears, thus:

Here in this place “bothar na muinne, ait ciunas gan uaigness”.

Where silence screams at you but the spirits of our people radiate a comforting presence as they lie here in peace in their final resting place.

You tread on their footsteps and on their tombstones as you weave your way through sacred structures and vertical stone walls in this land of myth and magic.

(‘bothar na muinne, ait ciunas gan uaigness’ translates to a ‘place of silence without loneliness’)

The silence screams. It quite literally does. Not a bird, no wind, no animals Just the sound of our footsteps and our breathing. It’s as if the Gods with quiet reflectance continue to mourn those who didn’t make it. And it is surrounded with a landscape of harsh but tranquil beauty described so well in Oliver’s poem.

It is perfectly fitting that the road is no longer used and it is tempting to think that this was by design as a memorial to those lost.

I was moved by the story of the road and this window into a distant Ireland.  Distant struggles, yes, but it recalls the many battles endured before and since by the Irish people.

But Oliver has a bigger story to tell.

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Oliver with the O’Connell Family Tree

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Detail of portion of the Family Tree

He has spent fifteen years trying to unravel it and his journey has as many twists and turns as a good detective yarn.

Oliver’s forebears have been in Clare since 1653. He has been able to trace them back continuously to Maurice O’Connell (The Transported) who led 59 members of his family from their home in Kerry, from where they were expelled by Cromwell. Those who survived resettled near Inagh and Liscannor. Clare was then part of Connacht and the expression To Hell or Connaught comes from that time and relates to this exodus. The barren plains of the Burren was the equivalent of being sent to Hell. But survive they did and Blackie’s children represent the fourteenth generation of O’Connell’s to live in Clare. But it’s even more interesting than that.

Oliver has managed to trace Maurice O’Connell’s antecedents back to 1340 when they were a well connected and important family in Kerry and Limerick and even earlier to Connaill Gabhra, “Connaill of the Swift Horses”, King of Munster, in the 1100s. What a fabulous heritage. Nearly a thousand years!

What is unique about this story is that documentation exists continuously since the 1300s. As Oliver explained most Irish families can only go back to the 1820s. Prior to that records were kept by the British only for Protestants and Military. The O’Connell’s have a long hsitory of military service so the story is still there for those with the patience and energy to root it out.

Oliver as well as being a poet and raconteur is a musician and has links to a generation of musicians sadly disappearing fast. He is full of stories all told with zest and enthusiasm, such as how Blackie started on the pipes, but I will leave that for Oliver to tell sometime as he surely will.

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How else would you end a day such as this but with some tunes, So I sat on a chair in the kitchen, a chair that I’m sure that Oliver’s old friend Finbar Furey would have sat on and it just seemed so perfectly logical that the fiddle and the box together would shatter that Burren silence.

Oliver has invited me back to see this place in a different mood. When the frosts arrive.

Keep me away.

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Categories: My Journey, Real Ireland, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

In search of the Nyah. A Fiddle Workshop with Brendan Mulkere.

In my time in Ireland over the last 2½ years I have been privileged to have listened to and played with so many wonderful musicians. I have also been to many workshops and had fiddle instruction from some of the greats. These have included one-on-ones and group lessons with top fiddlers such as Martin Hayes, Siobhan Peoples, Tola Custy, Yvonne Casey, Zoe Conway, Brid Harper, Gerry O’Connor, James Kelly, Paddy Glackin, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Jesse Smith, Dylan Foley, Eileen O’Brien, Yvonne Kane, Paddy Ryan, John Carty, Manus Maguire, Liam O’Connor, Aiden Connelly and heaps more.

I’m certainly not going to rank them. Each is a master of their art and I learnt something from every single one of them. As I have said before, my own level of playing is my own fault, not those of the many people who have assisted me along the way.

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But nothing prepared me for the workshop I attended at the Cooley-Collins Festival in Gort, Co Galway, last week. It was given by Brendan Mulkere. Of course I had heard of him and had met him briefly once or twice, but truth is I knew nothing about him. I knew he was based in London but recently he has moved back to his homeland of County Clare. So I found out what I could despite the lack of information on the man on the Interweb.

As I say he is from Clare. He moved to London in the 70s and started teaching Irish music.  His school became very successful with hundreds of students.  He taught everything as he himself plays fiddle, box, banjo, whistle and God knows what else. His music school became legendary for producing many outstanding players who went on to professional careers, such as John Carty, John Whelan, John Blake, Niall Keegan, Claire Egan and many who didn’t but nevertheless soaked up his extraordinary passion and love of Irish music.  He promoted Irish music, bringing all the top bands of the day, such as the Bothy Band and DeDannan to London before they were well known. And for all this, I believe he has never issued a solo or group recording other than with the highly regarded Thatch Ceili Band in the 70s. This says a lot about the man.

He has given up teaching now, so this was a rare opportunity and I expected a lot of interest.

We assembled in the Gort Convent School on the Saturday morning of the three day weekend . There were three of us. Only three! There was a former student of his from the 70s now living in Ireland and a young girl from nearby. And me.

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We strapped on our seatbelts and for eight hours over the three days he took us on a musical journey like nothing I have ever been on. There have been many different approaches in the Schools I have attended. Many are attended by young prodigies or wanna-be’s, desperate for new tunes  that no one else knows . Some are quite different though, like those of Martin Hayes for instance, you hardly touch your fiddle as he shares his wisdom and insights and maybe teaches one tune. Or  James Kelly,  who focusses on getting fundamentals right. We spent a whole day on rolls and another day on triplets. Or Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh who talked about dynamics and extending the voicing capabilities of the fiddle.  Others may give you an insight into local traditions such as at Donegal with Brid Harper or in Ballyferriter where Aiden Connelly gave the best explanation yet of how to play a polka.

Brendan was different to all of these. There was a whirlwind of tunes, most of them common. He deliberately targeted tunes such as the Kesh and Star of Munster and tunes that most of us already knew. But he didn’t care if we did or didn’t.  We could learn them in our own time.  There was no instruction on technique or tone or intonation. It was about reinventing the tunes to get to that place where the music is coming from the heart. He has strong opinions, about the quality of much of the music played in sessions and decries the influence that pub session has on the sound and delivery of traditional music. He focussed on harmonic variation and constantly stressed the need to keep surprising the listener and yourself. It’s about keeping interest by taking the tune somewhere unpredictable.

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He played us tunes showing his variations and we motored through tune after tune. Slowing down and repeating bits and dwelling just long enough for us to understand what he was doing – dropping to the G string, adding a chord, inverting the triads, varying the bowing, slurring or not slurring, articulation, changing to the 2nd position; all of this without actually laboriously repeating phrases until we got it in the traditional way. We then got mountains of homework, with his variations notated and scored. Enough to keep me busy for the next 2½ years. Not mind you so we can just ape him but as the first step in understanding how to put our own stamp on a tune.

I could rave on for ever, but what a generous man. Generous with his knowledge, with his life’s work and with his friendship.

I have hardly put the fiddle down since I came home.

Why did I call this ‘In search of the Nyah’? The Nyah is that indefinable thing that makes Irish music ‘real’. I think it encompasses terms such as feel, soul, groove, heart, swing, draoicht. It’s the title of my proposed book.

But when you hear the nyah you know it.  I thought it was just the rhythm, so I spent a lot of time on that and it has taken me closer but still the search continued. Or maybe it was ornamentation, so I worked on that. Of course it is all of this and much more.

Brendan has given me a window into it and I will open that window as wide as I can.

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Categories: My Journey, The Fiddle | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

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