Seeing the Light

Toe Head Thistle

Toe Head Thistle

Up to Christmas I had been using my iPhone for photography. Upside – you always have it with you, it weighs nothing and fits in a pocket, it takes surprisingly good images as long as you don’t need to zoom in. Downside – very grainy if you try to zoom, very limited except for basic shots, few manual controls. Because of my frustration with its limitations (did I grumble that much?) Robert gave me a new camera for Christmas (Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ60, for those who care about such things). It fulfils my requirement of being small enough to fit in my pocket while launching me into a whole new world where I can have more control over my images.

Up to now I have been using it purely on the automatic settings, with occasional forays into some of the pre-programmed effects, and I was starting to hit that wall of frustration again – the knowledge that the camera is capable of so much more if only I knew how to use it properly. So this week we signed up for a one day session with Celia Bartlett, a photo-journalist who uses her house in Toe Head to lead weekend photography breaks and workshops.

Farmhouse near Toe Head

Farmhouse near Toe Head

After some initial discussion about our goals for the day, and some instruction on caring properly for our cameras, the three of us set out on a ramble down to the beach and along the rural lanes of West Cork. Robert and I clicked away, while Celia mostly just observed our modus operandi. The weather did its usual West Cork thing of alternating between being overcast and sunny, the lanes provided hedgerow flowers and the beach had an obliging spring tumbling over stones to the water, while the farmhouses looked picturesque and cattle browsed contentedly in the fields.

A beach around every bend

A beach around every bend

Back at the house Celia put our images on a large screen and we went through each one in illuminating (and occasionally embarrassing) detail. “What were you after in this shot?” she asked, encouraging us to articulate our intentions and to analyse whether or not we had realised them. “What could you have done differently?” “Where were you standing and was that the best place?” “What were you focussing on, and is it IN focus?” It was a revelatory experience.

Robert had expressed that what he wanted was to get the best image in the camera, rather than rely on cropping and correcting afterwards and she focussed on that, showing us how a little forethought might have improved a particular shot.

Robert was struck by this unique postbox

Robert was taken with this unique postbox

She introduced me to aspect ratio and the rule of thirds (honestly, am I the last person in the world to learn about such basic photographic terms?) and how choosing a square versus, say, a 16X9 format might bring out a line in the shot that lead the eye to a natural point. She showed me how to use focus/recompose to correct a lighting or a focussing issue.

Robert taking his best shot

Robert taking his best shot

When I was 21 my parents gave me my first camera. Still have it – an AGFA SLR, completely manual, with a small rangefinder on the strap. I needed it to photograph the rock art for my thesis. The irony is that way back then, 40 years ago, I understood about ISA film, shutter speeds and Fstops. I had to – I couldn’t afford to take more than one or two shots of each rock, mainly in black and white, with an occasional roll of colour slides and I had to make each shot count. But in the 40 years since then I have relied on cameras with automatic settings and have forgotten all that I knew in my early 20s. So the lesson that followed the critiquing session – on aperture size and shutter speeds and sensor sensitivity and grain (ISO) – was a process for me of re-learning long-lost concepts.

Frozen water - it's all about the shutter speed

Frozen water – it’s all about the shutter speed

After lunch we practised some of those concepts, trying to get the feel for varying the focus and the depth of field. I re-took a couple of shots from the morning, addressing the issues we had identified earlier. Celia went through some of the basics of image processing with us, encouraging us to use minimal adjustments to good effect and to choose the right aspect ratios.

Celia Bartlett

Celia Bartlett

She went through our camera settings with us and showed us what happened when we went, for example, with aperture priority versus shutter priority. Finally, she encouraged us to let go of the Auto security blanket and strike out into the brave new world of manual controls, starting with aperture priority. 

Finola gets the picture

Finola gets the picture

I left full of confidence – which has waned a little in the few days since as I’ve played with shots using the aperture setting and realised that I have to practise a LOT to feel like I really know what I am doing. But it’s a great start. I do feel more confident in composing a shot now and in taking my time to get what I want in the image, and in framing and improving it afterwards. As usual, there’s a lot going on in West Cork, so I had the opportunity to practise aperture settings at the opening of a new exhibit at Uillinn, the West Cork Arts Centre. Tess Leak has been the artist-in-residence there for the last few months and she also plays with the wonderful Vespertine Quintet. For this opening, Justin Grounds had composed a new piece for the quintet, featuring a phono-fiddle – a one-stringed horned violin.

The Vespertine Quintet debuts a new work

The Vespertine Quintet debuts a new work

My shutter-speed controls got a workout today at the Baltimore Fiddle Fair. April Verche and her trio entertained us with a dazzling display that included her step dancing while playing the fiddle! This was followed by The Henry Girls, a Donegal trio of sisters with an eclectic repertoire and lovely harmonies.

I did have a spectacular fail, though. I love bluebells and took multiple shots of our local display using aperture priority, Every single shot was out of focus, so I ended up using the the pre-programmed ‘take flower pictures’ setting.

Bluebell wood

Bluebell wood

Grrrrr….still lots of work to do…. Celia – help! I need a second day! Oh and by the way, Celia, I loved your coverage of the Lusitania commemorations in Cobh.


Ah! Sweet Fiddler…

paddysmoke

How did I first become aware of Irish Traditional Music? Probably through this Long Player (remember those?) released by Topic Records in 1968. Paddy in the Smoke was – still is – central to my collection of folk music on vinyl and is available today as a CD or a download.  The recordings were made during the mid 1960s in a London pub, The Favourite, in Holloway. Irish musicians gathered there every Sunday between noon and 2pm (such were the licensing laws of the day!) and those sessions are now legendary, probably representing the epitome of ‘folk music to aspire to’ – certainly that was the case for this wet-behind-the-ears 22 year old attempting to play along with these wonderful tunes on an ancient single-row Hohner melodeon. Here’s a sample of some of the tracks on YouTube: you can hear how the atmosphere of the occasions has been wonderfully captured.

More from my collection of fiddle recordings

Jump forward a few years and in the mid 1970s I was making my first trip to Ireland, visiting Cork, Clare and Longford – looking for The Music: I found it in abundance. By then I was playing an Anglo Concertina, but I was very aware that wherever you went to in Ireland – or whatever you listened to from the Irish tradition – it was above all else the fiddle that seemed to be the king-pin.

Fiddles at the Chief O'Neill's Festival, Tralibane

Fiddles at the Chief O’Neill’s Festival, Tralibane

Now – dare I say it – almost 50 years on from hearing those first notes, here I am living on the shores of Roaringwater Bay and I am more than ever immersed in the music. Still it’s the fiddle that’s ubiquitous, wherever I go and whatever I listen to.

Fiddles to the fore: Friday night session in Ballydehob

I started to learn the ‘violin’ when I was 11 years old. It wasn’t a fruitful venture – I had given it up within the year and moved on to the piano. I suppose I have just always been happiest with an instrument that only requires you to press a key or a button to get exactly the right note. But I am filled with admiration for anyone who plays the fiddle – who is able to perfectly pitch the notes, and then ‘bend’ the music when the mood requires it. You can’t ‘bend’ steel reeds!

The Rakes dance band, founded in 1956 – Reg Hall, Michael Plunkett and Paul Gross. They introduced me to Irish dance music back in the day… They are still going strong! Reg Hall was responsible for the Paddy in the Smoke recordings, together with Bill Leader

A fiddle is a violin – it’s the same instrument. Generally, classical players of the violin call it by either name, but traditional music players invariably call it a fiddle. It’s a beautifully constructed instrument with a feminine, flowing shape – a piece of craftsmanship which has been made the same way for 500 years. A seventh century Irish poem The Fair of Carman describes ‘…Pipes, fiddles, chainmen, Bone-men and tube players…’ but we don’t know what the fiddle was at that time. An excavation in Dublin during the 18th century uncovered a fiddle and bow dating from the 11th century: this is the oldest bow known in Europe – the bow is of dogwood and has an animal head carved on the tip.

workshop

The violin maker’s workshop (www.violinist.com)

Can anyone learn to play the fiddle? Probably – with sufficient patience and perseverance – and a bit of musicality. But it takes very particular skills to put The Music into the instrument. We are immersed in good fiddling around here: we have so many music festivals – Baltimore Fiddle Fair, Masters of Tradition, Chief O’Neill’s, Ballydehob Trad Fest – right on the doorstep. The whole gamut of different regional styles and techniques is here for us to take in. If you have half an hour or so to spare, it’s well worth looking at this YouTube video dating from 2008: firstly, you’ll see Jeremy Irons learning to play traditional Irish fiddle, and you’ll see his mentors, including maestro Martin Hayes. But Jeremy lives in Kilcoe Castle, just over the hill from us – so you can also get a flavour of life down here in Roaringwater Bay – immersed in the sweet fiddle music…

left

 

In the Wilds of West Cork

West Cork night life

West Cork night life

What on earth will you find to do in the wilds of West Cork? One friend asked me this when I announced my plans to move here. Others may have been too polite to express the thought, but the question hovered. They needn’t have worried, of course. I don’t think I have ever lived anywhere else where there was so much going on and so much to do. If that was true in the winter, it’s more so now. It’s spring and summer’s around the corner, so West Cork Festival Season has gone into high gear. I wrote about the Ballydehob Trad Festival six weeks ago. Since then, there have been two more – a jazz festival in Ballydehob and the Fiddle Fair in Baltimore. 

Live jazz in the Irish Whip Bar

Live jazz in the Irish Whip Bar

The Jazz Festival featured a street market, and jazz sessions in most of the pubs all afternoon and well into the night. The village hall was decked out as a night club one night, with dancing into the wee hours. There were musicians and jazz aficionados from all over Ireland, and the pubs were bursting at the seams and spilling over onto the sidewalks.

Soul Driven and the riveting dancer Ksenia Parkhaskaya

Soul Driven and the riveting dancer Ksenia Parkhaskaya

This is the second time we have been here for the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, which has ben going now for over 20 years, under the brilliant direction of Declan McCarthy. World class acts come to play in this tiny village. The audience is diverse too – we met people who had come from Britain, Germany and the USA just for this weekend. We had season tickets, which meant we weren’t asleep before 2 in the morning for four nights in a row – probably earlier than most of the attendees!

Eddi Reader

Eddi Reader

A highlight was Eddi Reader, a Scottish singer/songwriter with a larger than life stage presence, a great line in stories, and a soaring voice. Robert loved seeing Aly Bain, one of his musical heroes, in concert and we both appreciated the wide range of music on offer, from Appalachian old time fiddling to Swedish polskas, Scottish and Irish tunes, and an entertaining group call the New Rope String Band who kept us laughing with their slapstick humour. For the readers who have been requesting videos, I recorded one lively number and uploaded it to YouTube – take a look. It’s a tiny taste of what we experienced.

John Sheahan with young fans

John Sheahan with young fans

One unforgettable afternoon was devoted to a concert by John Sheahan, the sole surviving member of the legendary Dubliners. Accompanied by Eamon Keane on the keyboard, he told stories, read us his poetry, and played his own compositions. He is truly an Irish icon, and it felt like a real privilege to hear him in such an intimate venue. He played a wide variety of music and I recorded this one: St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Of course all these late nights and bouncing around on seats takes a toll on the body, leading to the need for a rejuvenating day at a spa. Fortunately, there is a marvellous one in West Cork, on Inchydoney Island, where my friend Amanda and I repaired for a girly day of pampering. You can read her account of our hedonism here. 

The strand at Inchydoney Island

The strand at Inchydoney Island

And in case you might feel that the entertainment described above is not highbrow enough, last night we attended a performance of a Haydn mass and Mozart’s Requiem by the West Cork Choral Singers. Accompanied by an excellent small orchestra (we recognised some of the players from our regular Firday night trad sessions: fiddlers turned violinists) and four outstanding soloists, the choir rose to the challenge of an ambitious program magnificently, garnering a well-deserved standing ovation by the appreciative audience.

West Cork Choral Singers present Mozart's Requiem in Skibbereen

West Cork Choral Singers present Mozart’s Requiem in Skibbereen

We won’t have much time to recover from all those late night – next weekend is the Fastnet Short Film Festival in Schull as well as a Skibbereen Historical Society trip to Cape Clear, and the one after that is the Ballydehob Country Music Festival (where I may have a small role to play). More on those events in an upcoming post. If I survive it all…It’s a tough life, out here in the wilds!

Troll Tuning

Baltimore - with Dún na Séad before restoration - painted by Val Byrne

Baltimore – with Dún na Séad before restoration – painted by Val Byrne

It’s May, and time for the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, still in progress as I write this, and keeping us up well into the nights with world class concerts: music from so many cultures that involves the ubiquitous violin. My post today has been sparked off by the opening event held in the restored Dún na Séad – the name means fort of the jewels, which may be a reference to the building’s role in the collection of taxes levied on foreign vessels entering the harbour. The Anglo-Norman castle was built in the early 13th century, was besieged and sacked many times, became a garrison for Oliver Cromwell in 1649 and fell into ruin until it was rescued and underwent a superb full restoration only completed in 2005. Friday’s candlelit opening concert featured a fiddle master from the Shetlands, Aly Bain, and his long term musical collaborator Ale Möller, a multi instrumentalist from Sweden. 

One piece in their programme immediately caught my attention: Hjaltadans – literally translated as ‘lame’ or ‘limping’ dance. It’s also the name of a Bronze Age stone circle near Houbie in the Shetlands. It’s said that the two central stones of that circle are a fiddler and his wife who were entertaining a group of Trowies (trolls) and were interrupted in their music making by the rising sun which turned them all to stone. Trolls are undoubtedly related to The Other Crowd in Ireland, and also inhabit the shadows in Scandinavia.

Here is an extract from the latest album from Bain, Möller and Molsky – Troll Tuning: King Karl’s March

 

The Shetland troll dance was followed by a Swedish ‘Troll Tuning Set’. Aly and Ale explained that Troll Tuning is a particular way of setting up a fiddle where the strings are tuned AEAC♯, rather than the more usual GDAE. This tuning is sometimes used in Scandinavia, Shetland and in American old-time music (this probably because there were so many settlers from Sweden in North America). The tuning produces very distinctive, haunting music: ‘…Once you’ve heard a trowie tune you can never forget it…’ Even more interesting is the legend that playing such tunes connects the musicians with magical powers.

The Devil's Music: Hardanger Fiddle

The Devil’s Music: Hardanger Fiddle

All this reminded me of traditional stories involving musicians and characters from the Otherworlds: they are pretty universal over many cultures. I also thought about a particular type of fiddle from Norway (regularly seen and heard at the Fiddle Fair) which has ‘magical’ associations: the Hardanger Fiddle or Hardingfele in Norwegian. This traditional instrument is usually magnificently carved and inlaid, and has understrings which are not actually bowed, but are tuned to vibrate when other notes are sounded. The tone and ambience of the instrument is unique and compelling: it is easy to imagine the Trowies or Sióg (pronouced Sheeogue: Irish Fairies) requiring such striking sounds for their festivities. But some have thought the Hardingfele has diabolic connections, and in fact many good players were reputed to have been taught to play by the Devil himself. During the 1800s many fiddles were destroyed or hidden both by fiddlers and laypeople who thought ‘…that it would be best for the soul that the fiddle be burned…’ as it was viewed as ‘… a sinful instrument that encouraged wild dances, drinking and fighting…’

In Ireland, boys were sometimes dressed as girls to stop the Sheehogue from stealing them away

In rural Ireland, boys were sometimes dressed as girls so the Sióg would not steal them away

At this time of the year it’s not just the instruments and the music we have to be wary of: throughout the month of May the Sióg are active. Yeats tells how an old man saw them fight once: ‘…they tore the thatch off a house in the midst of it all. Had anyone else been near they would merely have seen a great wind whirling everything into the air as it passed. When the wind makes the straws and leaves whirl, that is the Fairies, and the peasantry take off their hats and say, God bless them…’

The wind is certainly whirling and tearing at the trees outside as I write this: May has seen the return of strong gales – the trees are bending again and Roaringwater Bay is alive with white breakers. Looking out to the islands I bring to mind a tune from the Blaskets, over on the coast of Kerry. Port na pBucai (Music of the Fairies) is a haunted song if ever there was one. It’s said that the islanders were out fishing in their currachs when a storm broke out. It turned into a gale and they feared for their lives as the canvas hulled craft became swamped. Then, the wind suddenly died and they became aware of music playing somewhere around them – an unearthly music. The island fiddler was amongst the crew; when they got safely back to land he found he could remember the tune they had heard. It has passed into the traditional repertoire and has been played ever since.

My own rendition of Port na bPucai on the concertina –

 

To close, a verse by Seamus Heaney which was inspired by this story of the Fairy music:

The Given Note

On the most westerly Blasket
In a dry-stone hut
He got this air out of the night.

Strange noises were heard
By others who followed, bits of a tune
Coming in on loud weather

Though nothing like melody.
He blamed their fingers and ear
As unpractised, their fiddling easy

For he had gone alone into the island
And brought back the whole thing.
The house throbbed like his full violin. 

So whether he calls it spirit music
Or not, I don’t care. He took it
Out of wind off mid-Atlantic. 

Still he maintains, from nowhere.
It comes off the bow gravely,
Rephrases itself into the air.

Blaskets