Posts Tagged With: polkas

A Tour through Sliabh Luachra. Russian Collusion?

Anton Zille is from Moscow. He plays the fiddle, is a regular visitor to Ireland and is totally obsessed with Irish music. Not just Irish music but music from Sliabh Luachra. He runs Sliabh Luachra sessions and dances in Moscow and is a fund of knowledge on the genre.

Sliabh Luachra  is an ill defined area in the heart of Munster, straddling the Cork-Kerry border. Here a unique musical and dance tradition evolved, perhaps, due to its isolation. Perhaps also because of this isolation it remains preserved to this day. Numerous dance sets survive with local variations and with local tunes for accompaniment.

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Catherine Mosksovskova and Anton Zille outside Padraig O’Keeffe’s house, Glentaune.

 

Oh yes, Anton.  I had spent the week with him and another visitor from Moscow, harp player Catherine Moskovskova,  at the Scoil Cheoil an Earraigh in Ballyferriter, near Dingle.  This was back in February 2016. When I mentioned to Anton that I knew nothing of Sliabh Luachra, he seized the opportunity. “Oh there’s a session in Newmarket you might like on Monday. Why dont you give me and my friend Catherine, a lift there?” “And I will show you Sliabh Luachra”.

It did cross my mind that there was something ironic about being shown the hidden secrets of an area, that most Irish know nothing about, and having the culture explained to me by a fiddling Muscovite.  Naturally I agreed.

Mea culpa time. I have already admitted I knew nothing about Sliabh Luachra.  Its music, its geography, the culture. Of course I had heard of Padraig O’Keeffe and Johnny O’Leary and Jackie Daly and Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford (I even own a copy of Star Above the Garter on vinyl). But growing up in the Australian trad music scene, such as it was, no one played polkas except beginners and if they did play them they didn’t know how to play them properly. This was reinforced when I moved to Ennis, where it is rare to hear a polka or slide in a session.  When you do, often as not, someone would raise their fingers forming a cross as if to ward off vampires.

But Sliabh Luachra is not just polkas and slides. Reels, hornpipes and jigs get a good look in. There is a wonderful book on Johnny O’Leary’s music by Terry Moylan. His repertoire showed a surprisingly even distribution of polkas, slides, jigs, reels and hornpipes, though slides and polkas together made up nearly 50%.   This pie chart shows this.

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Tune types in Johnny O’Leary’s repertoire.  Data from Johnny O’Leary of Sliabh Luachra by Terry Moylan.

 

In fact the arrival of polkas and slides was probably in the late 19th Century.  Prior to this manuscripts from Sliabh Luachra are devoid of these tunes and dominated by reels, jigs, airs and programme music.

The name Sliabh Luachra. One translation is ‘mountain of rushes’ which would be fairly apt as it is covered by bog and beds of rushes.  Another says the name comes from Ciarraí Luchre,  a pre-celtic god who also gave Kerry its name.   In any case the area was largely uninhabited until the 16th Century and then stayed a remote outpost away from the gaze of the authorities.  It wasn’t until the 19th Century that roads were built and the area became noted for butter production.

Culturally the area has a unique heritage. Famed for it’s literature and poetry as well as its music.

So Monday night in Newmarket found us in Scully’s pub.

 

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Scully’s Bar Newmarket.

 

Behind the simple unpretentious façade is the perfect session pub. The music is in the back room as it has been for over forty years. Large enough to accommodate twenty musicians comfortably. This night there were a dozen.

The pub has been in the Scully family for over nearly 100 years. Sessions started at the behest of Jackie Daly, who lived five minutes away in Kanturk, in the early 70s and have been held every Monday since.

It became THE gathering place with Jackie Daly joined by Johnny Leary, Julia Clifford, Jimmy Crowley and many others. With many of the attendees being taught by Padraig O’Keeffe there was a direct link to the master. It is kept alive today by stalwarts like Timmy O’Connor, who unfortunately wasn’t there this time, and Ray O’Sullivan and John Walsh, who led the session this time.

This was a gathering of musicians who wanted to play together for the sheer fun of it. So of course it was a bit up and down. There were some beginners and they were given quite a bit of scope to start tunes. There was Marie Forrest on the piano; she’s been coming for 36 years. This added a strong rhythmic element and you could just imagine the floor filled with dancers.

Of course there were polkas and slides but there was a good mix of all the old standards. Many of the polkas I didn’t recognise, but many I did.  It certainly helped that I play regularly with Jackie Daly, who now lives in Miltown Malbay in County Clare and plays in Friels Pub every week. What I really loved was the sharing culture of this session. If people didn’t know the tune then it was played again, slower, for people to pick it up. Perhaps this was a hangover from the days when people such as Jackie and Johnny O’Leary were the custodians of the tunes and passed them to the next generation.

The pace was gentler than I expected. Sweeter. Not at all like the West Kerry version with its preponderance of accordions and driving rhythm (Cooney/Begley influence?) .

This seems to be the only regular session in the Sliabh Luachra region which was surprising for an area with such a rich tradition.  A bit like East Clare I suppose where it is hard to find a session outside of Feakle.

Next day Anton, as promised, was my guide on a tour of the area. There were so many familiar town names. Ballydesmond, Scartaglen, Newmarket. All with polkas and slides named after them. Apparently the local set dances had no names and the early collectors identified them by the locality. The tunes attached to these sets were then somewhat arbitrarily named also. Many tune names became attached to towns only as a matter of convenience so not too much can be read into the name.

We had to visit the holy shrine. The birthplace of Padraig O’Keefe. The house where he was born in 1887 is at Glountane Cross. It is still there. Just. He lived there until he died in 1963.

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Padraig O’Keeffe’s house.  Another view.

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Commemorative plaque at Padraig O’Keeffe’s house

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Padraig O’Keeffe’s house.  Beyond repair?

 

His father was the headmaster of the nearby national school and Padraig became a teacher there in 1915.  We visited the school which is also a crumbling ruin.

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National School at Glountane. 

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Interior of National School, Glountane

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Anton Zille at National School Glountane

 

He was not happy in the job and left about 1920 to become and itinerant fiddle teacher.  For the next 40 years he walked up and down the hills of Kerry/Cork sometimes as much as 30 miles a day.

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General view Sliabh Luachra

 

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Padraig O’Keeffe walked these roads for forty years

 

By all accounts he was a good teacher and developed his own style of notation.  A system of 4 spaces between 5 lines to show the strings and the numbers 0 1 2 3 4  to show the fingers.  A number of his manuscripts survive and are housed in the Irish Music Traditional Archive.  These images come from their online copies.

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From a manuscript showing Padraig O’Keeffe’s unique notation.  Courtesy ITMA. 

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Another page from the same manuscript.  Courtesy ITMA

 

He frequently played in Jack Lyon’s Pub in Scartaglen which is still there.

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Lyon’s Bar Scartaglen.

 

Among his pupils were Denis Murphy, Murphy’s sister Julia Clifford and Johnny O’Leary.

Sliabh Luachra is not just Padraig O’Keeffe and the music.  There are a lot of interesting things to see.  It gets quite hilly to the south with the Paps of Anu dominating the landscape to the south.  The name originates from the similarity of the two mountains to the shape of the breasts of the legendary pre-Christian goddess Anu (Danu).  THis is the same Danu that gave her name to the Well known traditional band, the River Danube and Denmark!  You can drive through these mountains though the roads get a bit rough.  We visited Shrona Lake.  Ruggedly spectacular.

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The Cork and Kerry Mountains

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The Paps of Anu

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Walking in the Paps

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Lake Shrona

 

Then there is An Cathair Cubh Dearg.  Also known as The City, this site with the Paps as a backdrop is said to be the first place populated in Ireland and the  oldest centre of continuous worship in the world!  Tuatha De Danann (descendants of Danu) settled here 10,000 years ago.  The ring fort wall dates from this time.  It was later used as a place of Christian worship.

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Ring fort wall at The City.  Paps of Anu in the background.

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An Cathair Cubh Dearg, showing ancient wall and Christian elements. 

 

So that’s it.  Sliabh Luachra.  Great music, heritage, landscape.  And thanks to Russian ‘collusion’ I now understand it better!

Categories: My Journey, Sessions, Stories, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Scoil Cheoil an Earraigh, Ballyferriter, Co Kerry

I have just returned from another festival/school, this time at Ballyferriter on the Dingle Peninsular in West Kerry.  And it really was a beauty.  It is called the Scoil Cheoil an Earraigh which translates slightly optimistically as Spring Music School.

The Dingle version of Spring involved rain, hail, mist and wild winds whipping up the Atlantic, but in the warmth of one of the many sessions you didn’t notice. Ballyferriter is almost the classic Irish village, with mandatory three pubs, hotel, church and shop. What sets it apart is its glorious setting right at the western end of the peninsular sandwiched between Slea Head and Mt Brandon . When the rain stopped as it did on a couple of occasions and the mist lifts, Mt Brandon, all 952 metres of it, stands proud with is snow capped peak and to the west the beaches and hills beckon. It is obvious why this area was chosen to film the seminal classic Ryan’s Daughter. It is also very compact so everything is within staggering distance and this is important when you are trying to find your way home at 6am.

Everyone said I would love Kerry and I do. This festival was a wonderful introduction to the Kingdom and the music.  This blog is just about the Festival.   I will post some pictures later of Dingle’s spectacular scenery.

The Scoil Cheoil Earraigh seems to hold a special place for many people. For some it is the only festival they attend. Of course there is a strong local contingent but there are also visitors from many other counties and from the UK, France, Russia, Germany. So what is it that brings them here?

It is not a huge festival and it benefits from this. It was very well organised with no obvious hitches. The workshops over three days were with top class tutors. How many opportunities would a guitarist have spend three days with Steve Cooney? Many of the tutors performed in a number of impressive concerts along with other headline acts. The stamp of the Begleys was everywhere.  I’m not sure what the collective name for a lot of Begleys is – perhaps a boggle of Begleys but whatever it is it translates to pure musical genius. Along with Seamus and Breanndán with their vibrant and pulsating rhythms interspersed with wonderful soulful songs sung in Irish was Breanndán’s son Cormac displaying his virtuosity on a range of concertinas and other members of the extended Begley family popping up in various sessions. But it wasn’t just the Begley show. Other guests included Galway’s Páraic Mac Donnchadha on the banjo, Connie O’Connell renowned fiddler from Cork, Steve Cooney, back together in a big way with Seamus and adding his driving rhythms to a variety of other artists and in sessions, Harry Bradley , musician of the year last year, Tommy McCarthy a traveller singer with an extraordinary presence, and a huge repertoire of songs and fascinating stories and Brendan Powers from NZ master harmonica player across many genres stirring up the trad scene by utilising technology to take the music into uncharted territory. There were also informal concerts in cafes which was a great counterpoint to the frenetic energy of the sessions.

I just loved the way the whole festival was conducted in Irish. It didn’t seem to matter that you didn’t understand much of what was going on. This was West Kerry being West Kerry and while visitors were welcome it was very much a showcase for the unique heritage of this part of the world. This was reflected in the music which was of course riddled with polkas and slides, the spontaneous dancing of sets and half sets – vigorous and energetic, reflecting the music, the craic and the warm welcome all visitors received. I attended a lecture on the origins of polkas and while I didn’t understand a word I picked up enough from the slides and musical examples to be totally riveted.

The workshop was one of the best I have been to in the last year – and I have been to plenty. We had two tutors. Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, well known for his many musical collaborations including more recently the Gloaming, who explored dynamics and how to extract more feeling. We didn’t learn a tune but it was a revelation. And young Aiden Connolly showed the group (exclusively adults) how to play polkas and slides – something that had never been explained so clearly to me before. I came away inspired which is what a good School should do.

There was a concert on Saturday, in the wonderful setting of St Vincent’s church, of all the workshop groups led by their tutors. This was the most successful format of any I have seen where similar things have been tried. Everyone played in their seat eliminating massive logistical problems. The highlight was the finale with all groups led by Breanndán Begley playing a stirring version of Fáinne Geal an Lae.

What to say about the sessions. These were numerous and exhausting. All the ‘stars’ who appeared at the concert joined into various sessions. Something that doesn’t always happen. Those who were at the Bar an Bhuailtin on Saturday night will never forget the musical treat provided by Begley, Cooney, O’Connell and a host of others until six in the morning, There was a session in Tig an t-Saorsaig with a contingent of musicians from Thurles where sets of reels lasted forty minutes without a break and another session at Tigh Ui Cháthain led by Cormac Begley on his bass concertina and Páraic Mac Donnchadha on banjo which must have gone for eleven hours and it would not surprise me if they didn’t repeat a tune in that time. Spellbinding. But for me the real highlights were playing in quiet sessions such as with Alph Duggan on the Thursday and with Fergal, Breige and Anja on the Sunday with hardly an audience just sharing tunes and songs.

As I say I have never played music in Kerry before so I should talk a little about my introduction to their music. While the Corca Dhuibhne (Dingle peninsular) is not part of the Sliabh Luachra, the more widely known home of polkas, the West Kerry Gaeltach has a long musical tradition and much in common. The music played here historically was for the West Kerry dance sets and comprised mainly polkas, slides and occasionally hornpipes. For many years this music was considered ‘foreign’ having been thought to have been brought in by the occupying military forces, but the Goodman collection of the late 19th Century demonstrated a rich tradition which was largely ignored by collectors such as O’Neill and Breathnach. Polkas were among the first tunes I learnt many years ago when starting out on the fiddle. They were considered easy. And of course in Australia no one knew how to play them properly so they were pretty awful. I couldn’t play reels, so in my various bush bands we used polkas instead. We got away with it with the unsophisticated Aussie audiences but it was hardly satisfying. So I developed a dislike for them and it seems this is shared by many over here as well. Even in Clare you rarely hear them unless you’re playing with someone from that tradition such as Jacky Daly. Hearing these tunes however delivered by masters steeped in this tradition and on its home turf was a revelation.   The tunes are full of an internal energy that drives the music forward all the time. They are infectious. The rhythm sucks you in and drags you onto the floor to dance. I wouldn’t say I have come away converted but I will take this body of music much more seriously and revisit those hackneyed tunes I rejected so many years ago. Thanks Ballyferriter.

I say well done to the organisers for a memorable experience. I understand the lure of this place and its music and I too will be back.

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

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