So, What’s an Australian blogger doing writing about Irish Culture? Well any culture really. OK Let’s get the jokes over.
What is the difference between yoghurt and Australia? Yoghurt has a little culture
“I don’t despair about the cultural scene in Australia, because there isn’t one here to despair about.” said the dancer Sir Robert Helpmann in the mid-1960s,
And I could go on.
As of now, though I think Australians punch above their weight in artistic endeavours as we do in sport. Hollywood and Broadway are filled with Australian actors. I hear Australian music all the time on radio and people don’t even know it is. “Oh are ACDC Aussie?” “Love that classic Irish song Band Played Waltzing Matilda” etc….
So there. I am going to talk about Culture Night here in Ireland anyway.
Culture Night this year was Friday 16th September and it is an annual fixture sponsored by the Irish Government. It’s a terrific innovation. Free events are held all around the country covering all branches of the arts. In fact 3,000 of them in 1,300 venues. I chose to spend the evening in and around Ennistymon in West Clare.
Ennistymon is a pretty town hidden in the hills at the southern end of the Burren. The town dates from the 18th century and is built around a bridge crossing of the Cullenagh River and its famed Cascades. It has always been a market town but the famine hit hard with 5,000 dying in its various workhouses in the five years from 1847. Subsequently it prospered and is now a lively centre of commerce. The “Troubles” came to Ennistymon in 1922 when the British, in reprisal for the ambush at Rineen, near Miltown Malbay (which killed six Black and Tans), burned a number of pubs and houses. The only troubles now are whether a bridge widening should be permitted at Blake’s Corner.
It is noted for the pretty shop fronts but as in most Irish villages and towns today the struggle for survival in rural Ireland is evident in many of the abandoned shops.
I visited an art exhibition in the Old Court House. It was an exhibition by Clare based artist Martina Cleary. There were really three exhibitions. Each with a different personality. One explored her attempt over ten days to recreate the search in 1926 in Paris by poet and author Andre Breton. He became infatuated with a girl called Nadja and it became the subject of a book. She has created a number of panels using maps and photographs where she retraces and reinterprets the story. I loved the way she blended her own photos with contemporary photos, mainly old postcards.
This was a theme similarly explored in the exhibition of the photos of Dorothea Lange, a renowned photographer for Life Magazine, who came to Clare in 1954. Martina has revisited the places and themes to create modern versions of these images, many in black and white and many with a suitcase which was her constant companion. She has also cleverly woven her own images with historical images in a number of long collages.
I loved this exhibition. The pieces were quite eclectic and inventive in the use of multimedia, postcards, photographs, rocks, string, paper, books and found objects. One piece I particularly loved was of an open book with the words and images flowing out of it.
I can’t actually recommend you go see it because it was its last day. Sorry about that. but do keep an eye out for her.
I then decided to treat myself to a nice meal at Byrne’s Restaurant overlooking the Falls. I was very impressed. I am a sucker for duck and will order it whenever it is on the menu. This duck confit was one of the best meals I have had in Ireland. Well done to the chef at Byrne’s and others for keeping alive the culinary arts in remote Ireland.
On my walk back to the car I stumbled upon a street session at the market square organised by the local Comhaltas Branch. There were some familiar faces there and I was asked to join. So a quick trip to the car and I had my fiddle, trying to balance it with my camera to get these few shots. I never cease to be amazed by the quality of musicianship and dancing I keep coming across in Clare. This was a classic example of the depth of the musical culture here and how vibrant it is today.
But my main destination for the evening was Kilshanny House, so my stay was short. This is a pub on its own in the middle of nowhere just a few kilometres from Ennistymon. These sort of pubs are a dying breed and struggle to survive but fair play to owners Mary and Aidan who have promoted good food and music to attract clientele.
They would have been happy this night. Blackie O’Connell the renowned Ennis based piper and the doyen of the local piping world was hosting Davy Spillane. Davy, a master whistle and piper set the trad world alight with Donal Lunny and Christy Moore and the extraordinary sound of Moving Hearts in 1982. He provided many solo albums and collaborations since. With massive names such as Kate Bush, Van Morrison, Elvis Costello, Enya, Steve Winwood and Chris Rea. And Riverdance. And that tune Equinox on Bringing it All Back Home from 1991. A huge favourite of mine and almost an anthem for me.
He lives in West Clare but rarely plays publicly now, so this was a chance to see and hear him. Blackie and Davey were the stars, though a number of other local pipers participated. The word had got out and the pub was nicely full. I saw many fellow musicians in the audience.
From almost the first note without any fanfare you could tell this was going to be different. It was music from another realm. Fast or slow it didn’t matter. As the night wore on Blackie and Dave entered into a special place. They sat close together, facing each other, their pipes almost physically entwining just as their sublime music did. This music came from inside them and we were allowed to witness it. It was totally absorbing and spellbinding. Energy and fire. Many times, the other musicians just stopped and listened. And then Davy would play that Low Whistle. Extraordinary sound with incredible economy of finger movement. It wasn’t just Davy though. It made you realise what a phenomenal piper Blackie is. During a break he wowed the crowd with the full version of the Fox Chase. Barking dogs and all.
Oliver, Blackie’s dad, came over and whispered in my ear at one stage, “have you ever heard anything like this before?” And this wasn’t just a proud dad talking. I know, speaking to Blackie afterwards that it was special for him too.
The two masters were joined for a couple of tunes by Kevin Nunane. Kevin, didn’t look ten yet and is a student of Blackie’s. This is the future of piping and to have the three generations of pipers there playing was as profound an expression of the depth of Irish Culture as you will ever see. The Legend, the Master and the Pupil.
I’ll leave it to WB Yeats to have the last word
But he heard high up in the air
A piper piping away,
And never was piping so sad, And never was piping so gay.