The Bodhrán

Our good friend Danny – who sadly passed away in 2017 – was a bodhrán maker. There are still shelves of his instruments in his West Cork house (above) and he is well remembered by all the musicians who commissioned instruments from him – including the percussionist of the New York Metropolitan Opera Orchestra!

Danny McCormack – bodhrán builder – at Lovistone Barton in 1991

I first met Danny in the 1970s when we both lived in North Devon: a very ‘Irish’ part of the West Country in the UK. I was a frequent visitor to Lovistone Barton, a remote old farmhouse at the end of a long trackway, which Danny and Gill then occupied with their five daughters, surrounded by chickens, geese, goats, dogs and cats. There was always a warm welcome and chat to be had and over the years I became familiar with every stage in the production of the bodhrán.

The starting point is, of course, the goat. I hasten to reassure you all that Danny’s goats led good, full and productive free-ranging lives and, only when they were over, did their skins become candidates for Irish drums. I watched the process of curing, treating and de-hairing the hides, which were then scraped smooth before being cut to suitable sizes. I observed the rims for the single-sided drums being steamed and bent – the skin stretching, decorating and final finishing. I’m sorry that I never thought at the time to photographically document the whole sequence of bodhrán construction, something I would certainly do today. This video by contemporary maker Paraic McNeela summarises it very well:

Two details (above) from a painting by Cork-born artist Daniel Maclise (1806 – 1870): Snap-Apple Night, based on a Hallowe’en party in Blarney in 1833. The left-hand panel shows the musicians – pipes, fiddle and flute – and, above them, a glimpse of a rather demonic drum player, enlarged in the right-hand panel. Danny was fascinated by this portrayal of the instrument, to all intents and purposes looking like any other bodhrán, except that it is shown with jingles, like a tambourine. It has been suggested that the words Tambourine and Bodhrán are related but, other than this comprehensive Comhaltas essay, I have yet to read any definitive historical research that convincingly justifies an etymology for the term.

Danny made me a ‘bodhrán-tambourine’, based on the Maclise painting, and it’s now hanging in our music room in Nead an Iolair (above). For the jingles, Danny took a number of old penny coins and beat them out, giving them a slightly domed shape as well. When tapped or shaken they sound really good, and extend the possibilities of the instrument by adding a metallic, percussive sound. But I doubt that purist bodhrán players approve, although I have seen and heard other instruments made in this fashion.

As to the playing of the instrument in general, there are as many varying techniques as there are players (or so it seems) – and there is also great debate about whether the bodhrán is acceptable in Irish traditional music anyway! Personally, I think that a sensitive bodhrán player is an asset to any group of musicians – although that can apply to the exponents of all instruments! The duo in the video above give an impressive demonstration of possibilities and variations in style (well worth a watch), while many of the big Irish groups frequently include the bodhrán. Have a look at these two videos: the first is the legendary Chieftains opening the World Bodhrán Championships in Milltown, Kerry, a few years ago, and the second is an excellent example of the instrument used in an unusual context – accompanying song. In both cases the performer is Kevin Conneff:

If you want to get a feel for the full gamut of attitudes to bodhráns and their players, this discussion on The Session is salutary: there are rants galore! For me – as a squeeze box player – I am happy to have a bodhrán player contributing to our gatherings. As demonstrated in the examples above, ‘good’ players who have mastered their craft are well worth listening to . . .

Dr Macaura – A Story of Sweet Melody, Picture Palaces and Quackery – in Skibbereen!

Our own local band – St Fachtna’s Silver Band – will be playing at a carol concert on the eve of Christmas Eve this year. I set out to write a simple post about the story of that long-established Skibbereen musical institution. Little did I know how much colourful West Cork history would tumble out of that modest project.

I am not the first to write on these matters, and I have to express my gratitude to David Brewster who contributed an article to the 2007 Skibbereen and District Historical Society Journal (volume 3): this was in the form of an edited transcript from a recording made in 1992 by Eleanor Agnes Macaura, whose father, Gerald Joseph Macaura – a local man – was the founder of the Silver Band in Skibbereen over a hundred years ago – in 1912. A further article – specifically about the Band – appeared in the Society’s 2012 journal (volume 8), written by Séamus O’Brien, then Chairman of the Band: again, many thanks to Séamus, and the Journal.

Gerald Macaura (left) and his friend Gugliemo Marconi

Gerald Joseph Macaura was born on 1 May 1871 in Townsend Street, Skibbereen. His father Florence was a cooper and needle-maker. His mother Ellen could see no future for her five sons in West Cork and sent them off, one by one, to her cousin in New Jersey where they joined the community of Irish labourers. Gerald had been an enterprising boy in Skibbereen: among other things he made a kite – a life-sized figure with a lantern inside it which he launched at night to terrify the neighbours. He taught himself ventriloquism and was an entertainer and practical joker. In America he was no less inventive: according to Ella’s account he made a machine for sharpening knives – angled files set in a block (we all have one today). He also made a hook and harness device which could be used for cleaning windows on high buildings (also still in use today). He got no recognition for these, but had more luck in the Edison Laboratories of Industrial Research where, in the 1880s, he met, worked with and apparently became good friends of Edison, Marconi and Henry Ford 1 (who also had West Cork roots).

Probably Macaura’s most successful invention: the Pulsocon. Claims made for it in the popular press of the day included ‘ . . . the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and the lame will walk (or even run), all in the space of 15 minutes . . . !’ Interestingly, examples of this machine can be found on display in Sex Museums in various parts of the world . . .

Macaura did successfully patent and market one machine while he was in America – the Pulsocon. This was an enduring success, and was also subsequently patented in Britain and France: he is said to have made a fortune out of it. Described as a ‘blood circulator’ the device produced strong vibrations which could be applied to various parts of the body to relieve ‘. . . pain, rheumatism, arthritis and many other ailments . . .’ Ella remembers that her father had ‘. . . the power of healing in his hands . . .

Loch Ine House, Gerald Macaura’s West Cork home in later life, as it is today

In 1901 Macaura and Marconi came to West Cork and were involved in setting up the Marconi telegraph station on Brow Head. At this time Gerald found – and fell in love with – Lough Ine House, just outside Skibbereen: it was neglected and run down. He purchased it and restored it with every modern convenience, including electricity and central heating. Around this time, Macaura began touring with his Pulsocon, renting large halls to give public demonstrations of the device – one was the Royal Albert Hall in London. He gave himself the title ‘Doctor’, but he had no medical qualification: he was first and foremost a showman.

But there can be no doubt that ‘Doctor’ Gerald Macaura (he sometimes also called himself ‘Colonel’) was a successful and prosperous showman. And Skibbereen benefitted! A nationalist, and supporter of the Irish Parliamentary Party, he contributed generously to the founding of the Skibbereen Volunteers in 1914, giving £50. He also commissioning a set of silver-plated Besson instruments for the establishment of a Volunteer band in the town. Not only that, but he was enterprising enough to look for a way in which the Band could be financially secure into the future: he built the first cinema in Skibbereen!

Sample programmes for the Kinemac. I found a link to the 1914 film ‘Sign of the Cross’ shown in the right-hand bill, here. It is actually hard work to watch!

The idea was that all admission fees would go to Band funds. Unfortunately, a town with a population at the time of only 3,000 was unable to support the venture, and in 1917 the Kinemac was abandoned and everything was sold at auction (note the details of the different grades of seating in the auction notice below). The building had been located beside what is now the westernmost roundabout going out of Skibbereen towards Ballydehob, and not a trace of it remains. Also, no photograph of the Kinemac seems to have come down to us – I am always hopeful that someone might come forward with something found in an old album in an attic . . .

There’s much more to Macaura’s story – including an incident in Paris where he was arrested and prosecuted for fraud and the illegal practice of medicine – and political controversy because it was suggested that the Skibbereen Volunteer Band’s committee was biased against the town’s Protestants, who had in turn boycotted the Kinemac. It would all make a great film . . .

I couldn’t find a photo of the Kinemac – which lasted from 1914 to 1917, but this view of Skibbereen dates from that time (probably 1916). I’m not sure what the ‘procession’ of ladies is doing. The ‘Maid of Eirinn’ statue is on the right, and today’s Town Hall straight ahead

All this serves as an introduction to how Skibbereen got its Band – which still thrives today! It has been through ups and downs, but is now a lively and colourful attribute to the town’s life. For me, at least, there’s nothing like the sound of a brass band (I played in one for over thirty years). In case you are not familiar with that very particular sound, give this a go: it’s a version of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez arranged for Flugelhorn, and comes from the wonderful film ‘Brassed Off’ featuring the late, lamented Pete Postlethwaite. The ‘real’ musicians are the Grimethorpe Colliery Band, with Paul Hughes as soloist.

Don’t forget the carol concert with St Fachtna’s Band in Abbeystrewery on the 23rd December, 7.30pm. I shall be there – and so will Doctor Macaura – in spirit, at least!

Piper to the End – A Tribute to Liam O’Flynn

In March this year (2018) Liam O’Flynn passed away. He was a giant in Irish traditional music: a master of the Uilleann pipes – probably the most difficult instrument in the world to play – but also, surely, the most beautiful. We were fortunate to secure tickets for the Memorial Concert to Liam, held in Dublin’s National Concert Hall last Sunday. I would give anything to re-live that experience, as often as possible. We were overwhelmed by the insights which were presented by musicians who had worked with him – and dumbstruck by the astonishing and inspiring performance which took up the second half of the concert: The Brendan Voyage, composed in 1980 by Shaun Davey for the pipes and full orchestra, and written for – and with the collaboration of – Liam O’Flynn. In all, a most fitting tribute to a Maestro – pictured above in 2015 with the RTE Symphony Orchestra (courtesy RTE).

For anyone unfamiliar with this piece of music, here is  the second movement – The Brendan Theme – from the recording published by Tara Music Company in the 1980s, with Liam O’Flynn as soloist. It’s a good introduction to the (then) novel concept of combining the sounds of pipes and orchestra: the full suite (42 minutes) is  available to stream, download, or as a CD. It’s a work with memorable tunes and expansive orchestration: it could only have been written in the twentieth century, yet it is thoroughly approachable and is sure to bring any audience to its feet at the end. As a former tuned percussionist, I envied the rousing finales given to the timpani and cymbal section!

You can’t beat the atmosphere of a sold-out live performance in a full-sized concert hall such as this one in Dublin. We were fortunate in being seated only a couple of metres back from – and with a full view of – the soloist who, for this occasion, was Mark Redmond, a young piper from Gorey who has already established his reputation as a top-class musician. It would be hard for anyone to have to follow in the footsteps of Liam O’Flynn, but the rapturous ovations given to Mark – and the fabulous RTE National Symphony Orchestra conducted with such panache by David Brophy – proved that the ancient tradition of Uilleann piping is being ably advanced by our upcoming generations. (Photo above of Mark, David and the Orchestra taking a bow last Sunday courtesy Mark Redmond via Twitter).

The piece of music is ‘a story within a story’ – it is inspired by Saint Brendan, born in Fenit, Kerry in AD 484 who, with a group of monks set off in the sixth century in search of The Blessed Isles (Paradise). Stories of their many adventures have been recorded and illustrated down the centuries – including the one above which shows the monks landing on an ‘island’ to celebrate mass: the island is actually a giant sea-monster named Jascon! Brendan and his companions crossed the Atlantic, arriving in what we today call Newfoundland – long before the exploits of Columbus. What’s more, they returned safely seven years later to tell the tale. Brendan The Navigator is buried outside the Cathedral of Clonfert, Co Galway, as we have noted in one of our previous posts. And here’s another post about him. But we must not forget that Brendan has West Cork connections too: an elegant modern statue of him is situated in Bantry, looking out over the Bay.

Shaun Davey’s composition, however, is more a response to a modern reconstruction of Saint Brendan’s travels, rather than the original stories. In 1976, explorer, historian and writer Tim Severin set out to test the historical truth behind the stories of Brendan, and built a replica of Brendan’s currach. According to Wikipedia . . . using traditional tools and methods, the 11m, two-masted boat was constructed from Irish ash and oak, hand-lashed together with nearly 3km of leather thong, wrapped with 49 traditionally tanned ox hides, and sealed with wool grease . . . Severin and his crew set sail from Fenit, Co Kerry, and reached the coast of Labrador a year later. Severin’s book describing the expedition, The Brendan Voyage, became an international best seller. Shaun Davey based his music on Severin’s accounts of the journey, and the Uilleann pipes are given the part of the boat itself – both boat and instrument rely heavily on leather. The Irish word Uilleann means ‘elbow’ and the driving force of the instrument is a leather bag which is kept under pressure using one elbow, and is fed from a bellows on the other; the hands and wrists are kept fully occupied playing chanter, drones and regulators. When I listen to this music, my ears hear the water flowing under the leather hull of Severin’s (and Brendan’s) fragile craft. Here’s a good example: the movement titled Water Under the Keel – describing the journey through the Minch channel between the Outer Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland:

In 1972, Liam O’Flynn joined with Christy Moore, Dónal Lunny and Andy Irvine to found a seminal Irish traditional group – Planxty. Incarnations of that group – with additional players – have travelled the well-worn roads over the years, and on Sunday the remaining three original members, together with Matt Molloy, played for us – and brought on waves of nostalgia. The photo from the 70s, below (courtesy of Tara Music), shows them together: Liam O’Flynn is in the centre. Underneath is some footage from Planxty in their prime.

We were treated to other reminders of Liam’s achievements, including a performance of music he was commissioned to write for the inauguration of the Republic of Ireland’s 8th President, Mary McAleese on 11 November 1997. Here’s An Droichead (The Bridge) with Liam and guitarist Mark Knopfler: McAleese stated that the theme of her Presidency was ‘Building Bridges’.

It’s impossible to put into words the level of exhilaration we felt throughout the memorial concert last weekend. I hope that, at the very least, I may today have sparked some interest in the music of the Maestro, Liam O’Flynn (for those not already in the know) – and in the thrill of Shaun Davey’s mighty concert piece The Brendan Voyage. Here’s a last extract from that work, with Liam playing. It’s the climactic movement ‘Labrador’ – the pipes bring in a variation of the main theme to celebrate the boat’s arrival in the New World and the end of the voyage.

When I leave this world behind me
To another I will go
If there are no pipes in heaven
I’ll be going down below

If friends in time be severed
Someday we will meet again
I’ll return to leave you never
Be a piper to the end

This has been a day to die for
Now the day has almost gone
Up above a choir of seabirds
Turns to face the setting sun

Now the evening dawn is calling
And all the hills are burning red
And before the night comes falling
Clouds are lined with golden thread

We watched the fires together
Shared our quarters for a while
Walked the dusty roads together
Came so many miles

This has been a day to die on
Now the day is almost done
Here the pipes will lay beside me
Silent will the battle drum

If friends in time be severed
Someday here we will meet again
I return to leave you never
Be a piper to the end

(Piper to the End – a song by Mark Knopfler)

Lastly, Saint Brendan the Navigator is celebrated in his birthplace of Fenit, Co Kerry where he looks out eternally over the ocean which he and his companions conquered in their small, hide covered curragh.