Anam Cheoil – The Music’s Soul

The Friday evening concert at this year’s Masters of Tradition Festival in Bantry House was a tour de force: in all, probably the best concert I have heard at this festival in recent times. We went because on the programme were two of our favourite musicians who have come from the Irish tradition: Iarla Ó Lionáird and Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin. They were both on top form last night, and certainly didn’t disappoint.

Header: ‘Odyssey’ by Barry Linnane  frames beautiful Bantry Bay – host to the Masters of Tradition Festival. Upper – Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin (RTE Orchestras) and Lower – Iarla Ó Lionáird (Fractured Air)

Using poetry, music and song, the two performers transfixed us. Both are imbued in the musical and poetic tradition of their country, which comes from deep, deep down. In my explorations of Ireland I am finding how much history is alive and embraced: this applies as much to the history of the culture here as it does to the physical relics of the ancestors in the landscape, whether it’s prehistoric rock art or medieval architecture.

The rushy glens of the Sliabh Luachra country in the Muscraí Gaeltacht, where the Irish language is still very much alive

Iarla Ó Lionáird was born and raised in the Muscraí Gaeltacht, and imbued in the Irish language from birth. A near neighbour in his younger years was Seán Ó Riada, who lived in Ballvourney, and had established Cór Chúil Aodha, a male voice choir singing mainly in Irish, and which exists today under the leadership of Seán’s son Peadar. Iarla joined the choir as a child and sang with it until his early twenties. He now makes his living through his voice and is still very much involved in the Irish tradition while also exploring new grounds. Listen to this very beautiful rendition by Iarla of Caoineadh na dTrí Muire (the keening of the Three Marys):

Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin is best known for his unique expression of traditional Irish music on the piano. He claims that he was an introverted child, and that music was his saving grace. He went to UCC where he was also influenced – and taught – by Seán Ó Riada. Eventually he took over Seán’s job at Cork before founding and heading the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at Limerick University. He wasn’t born into the Irish speaking tradition but came to it later in life. In a recent newspaper interview he gave this memorable quote: ‘…I wouldn’t like to be reborn as someone else, not even for a day, I’m so worn out trying to be myself…’ Here’s an example of Mícheál’s playing:

In the course of the Bantry concert the two musicians spoke of a little-known collector of Irish folk-songs – someone of whom I had not heard. Alexander Martin Freeman was …a retiring English scholar of private means… who travelled in the Muscraí Gaeltacht in 1913 and 1914. He wrote down no less than 84 Irish language songs, and his work has been described as ‘…incomparably the finest collection published in our time of Irish songs noted from oral tradition…’ This is all the more remarkable as Freeman spoke no Irish. He painstakingly wrote the words, exactly as he heard them, in phonetic spelling, based on his own native English. For this reason, the texts were apparently ignored initially by Irish folklorists. But now they are viewed with interest by scholars as they give a great insight into the word-sounds of Irish speakers from those years – apparently the West Cork dialect has been changing with time! Over the years both Seán Ó Riada and Iarla Ó Lionáird have brought the songs back into circulation, and we were treated to some examples. Freeman’s field notebooks from Ballyvourney are held in the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin.

Winter scene in the Muscraí Gaeltacht

In the Library of Bantry House these two performers gave us a very special experience through music, song and poetry. Although I don’t speak or understand Irish, I appreciated the beauty of the sounds of the words – a music itself. We and the audience were transfixed by the whole experience. Walking out on the terrace of Bantry House afterwards, I looked to the west where the sun was dropping behind the mountains over the calm waters of the bay. I felt that we had, through the music, been given a privileged glimpse into the soul of Ireland.

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