Abhainn na Seangán – River of the Ants!

What’s in a name? In Ireland – quite a lot, usually, although the meaning often takes some searching out. Perusing Ordnance Survey Ireland sheet 85 on a late February afternoon when the sun miraculously appeared and lit up a countryside ripe for exploration, my eye was drawn to a river running through the hills to the east of Bantry: Owennashingaun. How could you overlook such a name? And how could you not be intrigued by the Irish place-name which must have preceded it before the surveyors put their anglicisation to it: Abhainn na Seangán? Even better was the discovery of the meaning of this name: River of the Ants!

Our byway heading into the hills

With high expectations we set out, with Finola at the ready with her camera. As with all West Cork locations, Abhainn na Seangán is but a few paces from Nead an Iolair, as the crow flies. Pausing only to pick up our friend Gill in Ballybane West along the way, we were soon heading north for the foothills of Mullaghmesha (Irish: Mullach Méise – Summit of the Altar).

Turning north at the Cullomane Crossroads on the R586 we almost immediately crossed the Owennashingaun River (I’ll use the Anglicised version as that is what usually appears on the map). Here it’s just a gentle, straight watercourse which follows the main road until it picks up the Ahanaclaurshee Stream (Irish: River of the Harp) and then becomes the Ilen River, which flows on through Skibbereen and eventually reaches the sea at Baltimore.

Glens, farms and distant highlands on our road heading for Mullaghmesha

We skirted two smallish peaks – Sprat Hill and Knocknaveagh (Irish:Cnoc na bhFiach, wonderfully ‘The Hill of the Ravens’) – before reaching the townland of Tralibane, an important Irish landmark as it was here that Captain Francis O’Neill was born in 1838. He travelled the world and had a colourful life of many adventures before being elevated to the role of Chief Superintendent of Police in Chicago in 1901. O’Neill came from a musical family in his West Cork childhood and is best known today as one of the most successful collectors of Irish Traditional Music. Here is a post I wrote about The Chief back in 2014.

From Tralibane we travelled north-east on deserted boreens, through a soft, green landscape of glens and standing stones (see the header picture), gradually rising towards more distant highlands, until we encountered again the ‘River of the Ants’. The source of Abhainn na Seangán is on the slopes of Mullaghmesha, whose peak is at 495 metres: we didn’t make it up there to look for the altar: a destination for another day. The name of the river remains enigmatic: I searched the excellent resource www.logainm.ie and found an archive record there dating from 1840 which gives the translation as: ‘river of the pismires’. I then had to look up ‘pismires’, which is evidently from early English:

1350 – 1400: Middle English pissemyre, equivalent to pisse to urinate + obsolete mire ant, perhaps Scandinavian (compare Danish mire, Swedish myra) cognate with Dutch mier; pejorative name from stench of formic acid proper to ants

There was nothing untoward with the smell of the river as we followed it – and we didn’t see any ants! So the mystery remains. Surely there must be a story embedded in local knowledge or folklore which could enlighten us?

Upper – sweeping views began to open up as the road climbed towards Castle Donovan; centre – the iconic ruined castle, which was taken into the care of the State in 2000 and has since received major stabilisation and renovation; lower – a splendid piece of signage at Castle Donovan – every possible disaster has been foreseen!

The ruin of Castle Donovan is as fine as any in West Cork, and is fortunate to be in permanent State care. Set on a plateau with the mountain rising behind it, it is an impressive focal point in the landscape, which can be seen for miles around. We passed by the castle and headed up on a rough, winding way: looking back, the silhouette of the tower house stands out with benign West Cork rolling pasture as a prepossessing backdrop.

The road very quickly becomes a true mountain pass, and an early evening haze seemed to hang over everything as we skirted the east side of Mullaghmesha. We hardly saw a soul on our whole journey, but we were eyed warily by sheep who plainly considered us intruders on their territory.

On the north side of the mountain we entered the Mealagh Valley, and were reminded of our recent adventures travelling through the Yellow Gap. Finding our way down to the lowlands again, we took our last look at the River of the Ants at Dromore, and bid it a fond farewell. In spite of its unfathomable name, it had taken us on a grand exploration. Give it a try for yourselves!

Upper, the distinctive church at Dromore, with its pencil-thin ’round tower’ and, above, our last view of Owennashingaun

Surfing the Archives

There’s really valuable history to be found on the internet! Here’s an example… the very first post we published after we moved to Nead an Iolair a whole lot of years ago mentioned a concert we attended in Abbeystrewry Church, Skibbereen which honoured a Rector of that church who was also Professor of Irish in Trinity College Dublin: Canon James Goodman, who lived from 1828 to 1896. He was also an uilleann piper and collector of traditional music. I wrote about him in more detail the following year, Some of you may remember a story I often tell about the Canon’s grave in Creagh Burial Ground, on the way to Baltimore. It was his wish that his pipes be buried with him, and so they were. Finola and I would visit the atmospheric site at Creagh and listen out for the haunting tones of the Canon’s pipes playing away there.

Header picture – a bronze statue at the entrance to Abbeystrewery Church in Skibbereen shows Canon Goodman playing his uilleann pipes. Above – Creagh Burial Ground and the Canon’s grave

I’m sorry to disappoint, but there’s an update to the story about the Canon and his buried pipes. I have been surfing the archives of Ireland’s principle media outlet, Raidió Teilifís Éireann, and it’s a wonderful resource! When you click on the links, you may find that some of the material is preceded by short advertisements: sorry, they are built in to the archive site – to help fund it no doubt. That’s a worthwhile cause, anyway. Now, have a look at this:

Mícheál Ó Riabhaigh being interviewed on RTE in 1966. He became the owner of Canon Goodman’s pipes and they have since passed to his son, Eoin O Riabhaig, player and pipemaker from Cork city

. . . When Canon Goodman died he wished for his pipes to be buried with him and his good friend Alderman Phair made sure that this happened. However, Alderman Phair thought it a pity that such a set of pipes would just lie in a grave so just days after Goodman’s burial the pipes were taken out of his grave. The pipes remained in Alderman Phair’s possession for six or seven years before being passed on to Mícheál Ó Riabhaigh. The pipes were made by master craftsman Willie Taylor . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1966)

Before leaving that subject behind for today, here’s a YouTube video of Mícheál playing the Canon’s Taylor pipes; it dates from 1963:

Remembering my recent post on the Irish drum, or Bodhran, I was delighted to find some ‘old footage’ on the RTE Archives on the instrument:

This link is also footage from 1966:

. . . Sonny Canavan tells Ted Nealon about taking part in the Wren Boy activities and as Captain not being able to have a drink.  79 year old John (Jack) Duggan talks about his plans to go out with the Wren Boys this forthcoming Saint Stephen’s Day. Jack has been involved with the Wren Boys since he was twelve and played the concertina.  John is also a bodhrán maker and describes in detail how to go about it using a sieve from a barrel for the rim and the skin of a goat . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1966)

Sonny Canavan is interviewed again in 1977 (above):

. . . Sonny Canavan raises goats to provide the skin for his instruments and he gave this particular man a goat so he too could make a bodhrán. The man explains that after he shot and skinned the goat, the skin was buried for nine days it was then dug up and putting in on the bodhrán rim . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1977)

And this piece is of additional interest because it shows Listowel playwright and writer John B Keane visiting Sonny to talk about bodhráns. J B Keane wrote The Bodhran Makers, which was published in 1986. The writer died in 2002.

Here’s another RTE piece showing concertina maestro Noel Hill, from Clare. I wrote about that instrument in The Clare Trumpet.

. . . Iarla Ó Lionáird introduces Noel Hill who plays a concertina made in the 1860′s. Noel Hill describes this concertina as having a special tone and an unusual key. From Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in Monkstown, Co. Dublin, Noel Hill performs two reels, ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ and ‘Trip to Durrow’. . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1988)

We have never written about traditional Irish dancing – there’s a good subject! A post for another day, perhaps: it’s certainly thriving in Ireland. It enjoyed a great revival of popularity with the River Dance shows, but that was professional and polished (and impressive!) – but I like to see the raw version: people young and old dancing for personal enjoyment and entertainment in their kitchens or at the scoriachts. So, to finish for today (although I haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s on offer in the RTE archives), here are two pieces: The Fastest Reel in the West, from 1972, and Door Dancing, from 1981.

. . . Gay Byrne introduces John Conneely from Knock, Kilshamuck, Co. Mayo, who performs a reel in his own unique style to the music of ‘George White’s Favourite’ performed by John Cleary. The remarkable thing about this is that John had previously been hospitalised for months following a fall on a building site in England which left him with a broken back. Ciaran MacMathuna who is sitting in the audience describes John’s unique dance as “the fastest reel in the west”. . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1972)

. . . In Ireland long ago it was customary when groups of people worked together, as a ‘Meitheal’ to dig potatoes or save hay, that they would gather after a day’s work to relax and have a dance. These gatherings took place in traditional Irish cottages with mud floors and flagstones. A door was taken off its hinges to provide a flat surface for dancing. Solo set dancers were asked to dance on the doors as the skill of the dancer is best shown by how well they can produce the variety of steps within the narrow confines of the dance surface. In order to gauge the best dancer amongst a group of solo dancers, they placed four glasses on the corners of the door to help determine the most skilled dancer. The person to spill the least amount of water was the winner of the competition . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1981)

Tailpiece – from the RTE Stills Library – The Oranmore Céilí Band, 1985:

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 . . .

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.

The Soul Expands with Beauty

We are so lucky to live in a place where the arts are valued as a necessary part of life and where we can attend art exhibitions, concerts, theatre, readings, film screenings. It all comes together every year at the Skibbereen Arts Festival. It somehow manages to combine fun, entertainment, wonder and beauty (like this West Cork seascape by Harriet Selka, above).

The Irish Memory Orchestra also enthralled us one evening – they play traditional and commissioned pieces entirely by memory.

Last time we wrote about this festival we said it was ‘hitting its stride’. This time the phrase that came to me was ‘it’s going from strength to strength.’ What a marvellous line up it was! You can see the whole program online and look at the sheer variety of experiences that we lucky West Cork folk got to pick from. A standout for us this year was the concert lineup, the art exhibitions and the poetry events.

Roseanne Cash and John Leventhal

It started off with Roseanne Cash, daughter of Johnny. You might think – what? Country Music? I know that’s not everyone’s taste, although I have a soft spot for it myself. But Roseanne sings a wonderful mix of Appalachian Folk, bluesy ballads and her own material along with the classics of country. She has a gorgeous voice and a husband accompanist and they both play a mean guitar. Here she is singing one of her father’s songs along with a touching tribute.

Skibbereeen was only her only other Irish stop besides Dublin and she came because of a line in Johhny’s song Forty Shades of Green (did you know her wrote that? I didn’t) that refers to Skibbereen. Watch him singing it at a concert in Dublin back in the days of Big Hair. It was Roseanne’s closing number, and predictably it brought the house down. She was in tears. We were in tears.

Something completely different a couple of nights later – The Chronicles of the Great Irish Famine is from the formidable talents of singer-songwriter Declan O’Rourke, backed up by an excellent group of musicians that includes John Sheahan of The Dubliners. Declan has been working on this song cycle for years. He describes it “an attempt to bring fresh air to an unhealed wound, and to remind the Irish people of what we have overcome.” There’s a good overview of the project here and you’ll witness Declan’s unique voice and engaging personality. The subject matter was tough – we are in the middle of a major Famine commemoration event here this summer and we are becoming more familiar every day with its horrifying stories. Having written about the Coming Home Exhibition and the 110 Skibbereen Girls Project already, we found this concert to be poignant and powerful.

Lúnasa have long been recognised as one of the best Irish groups performing traditional music today and we’d been looking forward to this one very much. The bonus was the addition of Natalie Merchant as their special guest. I’ve been a fan for a long time and it was a great pleasure to see her in person. That voice! Take a listen.

She sang this one for us and Lúnasa transformed before our eyes into this amazing back up band. Imagine a version where instead of just guitars the harmonies are provided by a flute, an uillinn pipes, a fiddle, a guitar and a double bass. Magic.

Jim Turner’s ceramic pieces catch the eye at Anseo

We took a day to do the Art Trail. There’s a couple of large exhibitions including one curated by Catherine Hammond that Robert wrote about a couple of weeks ago. The other large show was called Anseo (on-shuh meaning ‘here’). Each artist was asked to write a statement addressing how he/she responds to living/being in West Cork and it was revelatory how different each one was – both the statement and the art.

Helen O’Keefe’s Neighbours – Long Island

But there were also hidden gems all over the place – in converted empty stores, in back rooms and unused office space. I enjoyed Sonia Bidwell’s quirky pieces constructed from fabric and found materials, upstairs in Lisheen’s House. Her Veronica is below.

School children had participated in a ‘City’ project where they explored design and architecture and built their own cities. It was fun and relevant and, in fact, mighty impressive what they had accomplished!

A local group of fabric artists, Wild Threads, had taken over a space near the supermarket to mount an exhibition of sea-themed work called ‘Littoral.’ As expressed in the program – ‘For some this means intimate vignettes of everyday views and for others it is the colourful explosions that Mother Nature throws at us.” It had never occurred to me that you can paint with fabric until I encountered the work of this group. It’s both a constraining and liberating medium, and the results were varied, imaginative and beautiful!

Piece by fabric artist Sam Healy

I can’t finish without a word on the poetry. While there were several events, the one that made the most impact on me was the launch of two new books by Pól Ó’Cólmáin and James Harpur. I’ve written about Pól before and used his poem in my post Pagan and Pure. This time it was a book, The Silence Unravelling, of Haiku and Tanka – just a few words to capture a moment, a feeling. I hope to use some of them in a future post – they’re brilliant. 

Pól Ó Colmáin – here not reciting his poetry but performing some of his songs

James Harpur is one of Ireland’s most distinguished poets. He’s a member of the Aosdána, an affiliation of artists whose election is based on a distinguished, creative and considerable body of work. He read from his new book The White Silhouette. Here is an extended quote from his Book Of Kells series of poems, this section dealing with Gerald of Wales, Geraldus Cambrensis, who comes to see the book.

Beauty is not so much a thing

as a moment, unrepeatable,

although the moment needs the thing

as a flame needs a wick

or images a page.

Or it’s a streak of lightning

connecting heaven to earth

whereby in a flash we breathe

the enormity of something Other

beyond our tiny grasping selves

and fill our lungs with it,

before the dark returns again.

The soul expands with beauty –

it cannot help itself; our task in life

is to prevent it shrinking back.

Janet Murren’s Creaky Stairs. I love her multi-layered atmospheric constructions

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.