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 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.

Ways West!

Many of you will know that I was a frequent traveller between Cornwall and West Cork from the 1990s and onwards – until I happily met with Finola and we came and settled permanently here in Nead an Iolair just a few years ago. We have never looked back! But I have often wondered about the various ways in which that journey was made – not just in the last century, but three or four thousand years ago… For we do know that tin mined in Cornwall was brought across to the west of Ireland then, in order to manufacture Bronze – the ‘supermetal’ of those advanced times: it symbolized strength and gave wealth and status.

MV Julia, the car ferry which plied between Cork and Swansea: top picture – in her heyday, when she operated throughout the year. Above – Julia leaving Cork in 2012 after the closure of the Fastnet Line. Her name was changed to Wind Perfection and she became a floating dormitory for workers on the offshore wind farms in the North Sea

Not only tin was brought from Cornwall. A study carried out in 2015 by universities in Southampton and Bristol – (using laser ablation mass spectrometry) – concluded that many of the gold artefacts in the National Museum of Ireland and dating from the Bronze Age were manufactured from gold imported from Cornwall – even though there were rich supplies of gold being extracted in Ireland. Author Chris Standish suggests: 

…It is probable that an ‘exotic’ origin was cherished as a key property of gold and was an important reason behind why it was imported for production…

Gold artefacts from Ireland: left – Tyrone Lunula, early Bronze Age; right – Gleninsheen gold gorget, late Bronze Age (photos courtesy National Museum of Ireland)

I would really like to know what type of boat was used all that time ago to bring that precious metal across the Irish Sea. Some have suggested that it would have been a forerunner of the currach – implying a small hide-covered boat. But metal was heavy – even if it was smelted into ingots before the journey: something larger than a currach must surely have been needed. My own not-too-distant memories of having survived a night crossing in the MV Julia, from Swansea to Cork, in a Force 9 storm – with the thudding of huge waves against the steel hull and ominous creakings and crashings coming from the car decks below – lead me to think that any craft that had to traverse those seas in all weathers had to be substantial and sturdy.

A traditional currach in Dingle, Co Kerry – without its covering skin of hide or canvas

I began to research types of craft that were used in the Bronze Age: examples have been found, some preserved underwater or in bogs. These included ‘log boats’ such as the 14 metre long Lurgan Canoe in the National Museum, which doesn’t seem ideally suited to cargo carrying – especially on open sea. The most likely candidate comes from the Mediterranean: the Uluburun Shipwreck, found underwater in Turkey in 1982.

The Uluburun was a cargo boat: we know this because much of its load was intact when the wreck was found. Amazingly, archeologists were able to pinpoint its route: the ship set sail from either a Cypriot or Syro-Palestinian port and was probably heading for a Mycenaean palace on mainland Greece. It was wrecked in the late 14th century BC. The boat was constructed of cedar planks with morticed and tenoned joints and carried a huge cargo: 500 copper ingots; one ton of tin (which when alloyed with the copper would make around 11 tons of bronze); around 150 Canaanite jars, some filled with glass beads, many others with olives and some with an ancient form of turpentine; 175 glass ingots; African blackwood (ebony); ivory; tortoise-shells; ostrich eggs; Cypriot pottery and oil-lamps; a trumpet; quartz, gold, faience, amber, weapons, tools, pan-balance weights and a gold scarab… The list goes on.

Underwater archaeology: it took ten years to excavate and recover the cargo of the Uluburun vessel

This was in the Mediterranean, not in the Irish Sea. But it’s perfectly possible that the marine technology of those times extended to the northern outposts of Bronze Age Europe. We have to be very clear in our minds that we are looking at a sophisticated society capable of metallurgy, communication and long-distance travel.

Coming back to my own journeys from Cornwall to Ireland, I mourn the passing of the Swansea Cork Ferry, in those days by far the best way to get me and my car to the west of Ireland: I have good memories of arriving in the Lee estuary at daybreak and, excited to be here, watching the sun rise as we sailed up through Cobh to Ringaskiddy. On other journeys I also came over by air: there was a wonderful flight in a small aircraft from Exeter going to Cork. The homespun Devon airport in those days was unsophisticated: on one occasion I lined up to have my luggage checked by security and was asked to take my concertina (a constant travelling companion) out of its case for inspection. I was then asked to play it – in front of the queue – and everything stopped so that the serenade could be heard! It was a small aeroplane – about a dozen seats in the cabin, with the pilot up front – no partition. As he started the engines his broad Cork accent came over the speakers: “…let’s see if we can get this thing off the ground…” He succeeded and – once in the air and cruising at a lowish altitude – got out packs of sandwiches and passed them around. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the outline of Cornwall (exactly as it’s shown in the atlas!) passing below us, to be replaced shortly by the distinctive – and similar – geography of south-west Ireland, soon followed by a sketchy and invariably bumpy landing on Cork’s runaway – especially in any sort of stiff breeze.

Air Lingus Regional flights – operated by Stobart Air – now directly connect Cornwall with Cork. Photo – Trevor Hannant

It’s exciting that – just in time for Uillinn’s West meets West exhibition of Cornish artists, there is finally a direct link from within Cornwall to Cork! A new Air Lingus Regional flight – operated by Stobart Air started operating this month and it’s already popular: extra flights have been added to the planned timetable to cater for higher than expected demand. These flights leave from Newquay Airport and are very reasonably priced. I wish them every success… Back in the day, my journey from Newlyn to Skibbereen via the ferry took all day and a night: the new flight barely takes an hour.

Depart here for West Cork! Newquay Airport, in Cornwall

When the Swansea to Cork ferry stopped running the West of Ireland felt the loss: tourism numbers dropped significantly and businesses which relied on visitors suffered. Things have improved since then, particularly with the Wild Atlantic Way initiative. Hopefully the new air link will lead to increased business between the two western outposts of Britain and Ireland, hearkening back to historical times when close links were first forged. Meanwhile, please don’t forget to come along to West meets West and see the work of contemporary artists from Cornwall. The artists (some of whom will have flown over on the Newquay service!) will be speaking about their work at 12 noon on Saturday 3 June, and I will be giving a gallery talk on Saturday 10 June – also at 12 noon – about the many historic links between Cornwall and the West of Ireland. West meets West – the work of contemporary Cornish artists, at Uillinn, Skibbereen, from 3 June to 8 July. Opening at 6pm on Friday 2 June.

Travelling from Cornwall to Cork: Off to Skibbereen – painted by Newlyn Artist  (and Irishman) Stanhope Alexander Forbes in 1901