Digital Skibbereen!

The Digital Week programme has appeared all over town...
The Digital Week programme has appeared all over town…

Who has ever heard of Percy Ludgate? And who would have thought that a man born in 1883 in a little West Cork town was a computer pioneer?

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Early ‘computing’ – Percy Ludgate (top left); a conjectural diagram of his invention; the Schicard calculator (known as Napier’s Bones), arguably the first mechanical calculator and created in 1623; the very first Apple computer (above)

In Skibbereen, now, everyone knows about him – because he has given his name to a new initiative which has swept the town. And – breaking news – National Digital Week has just taken over this modest community, doubling its population for a few days and bringing innovation and promise of much needed life and work opportunities.

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21st century Skibbereen

Skibbereen has become one of the first towns in Ireland outside Dublin to create for itself a ‘Digital Hub’: a centre where businesses will have access to high-speed fibre broadband – something which is long overdue in rural Ireland. We all remember the promises rolled out in the Celtic Tiger years that every last corner of the island would be given access to state-of-the-art phone and internet connection so that businesses could operate competitively from small communities, thus ensuring their economic survival… Well, two decades later, this ‘last corner’ here in Cappaghglass is still waiting: our broadband is always slow and ‘down’ as often as it is ‘up’, and a mobile phone signal is non-existent – politicians take note, please! And this is not uncommon in all the remoter fringes of this land.

Everything that can be digital

All the more reason to applaud the initiatives now happening in Skibbereen. It’s only twenty minutes up the road from Cappaghglass, so perhaps there is hope that once real high-speed connectivity reaches that town some of its potency may dribble down the lines to us…

Finola and

Finola was particularly impressed that there was a day dedicated to female leaders in digital media – women who are ‘making the impossible possible’... Here Finola is mentored by Denise Brown, an Account Manager at Google

Skibbereen’s initiative is being led by local businessmen and women who want their own families – and the whole younger generation now growing up in rural Ireland – to have the opportunity of a viable working future without having to migrate to the cities or abroad – which is currently the norm. And they have no doubts that the future is digital; it is possible to run any sort of business nowadays online, and to compete in national and international markets from anywhere in the world, provided that the place is digitally ‘connected’.

Robert and Giacomo

Robert at a one-to-one clinic with Google’s Giacomo Gnecchi-Ruscone

Ireland has a long-running association with the digital world, probably for the very same reason that it’s now important for communities in rural Ireland to embrace it: we are a very small country with a tiny population trying to survive and make our mark in the huge world economy. Giants like Apple and Google have long had a big presence in the Irish Republic – partly because they get good tax deals but also because Ireland’s working community has made itself good at being digital.

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Google has a huge presence in Ireland: the Dublin office

Skibbereen’s John Field comes from a family which has made its mark on the town: the local central supermarket – still always called ‘Fields’ – thrives because it focusses on local producers and also provides a very good friendly shopping experience. John believes that West Cork producers are central to the new ‘Irish food culture’. Now he is a prime mover in the digital initiative and has donated a premises – that used to be the town’s bakery (one of the oldest in Ireland) – as the first Digital Hub to be fitted out. By chance (or not!) this premises is just around the corner from where computer pioneer Percy Ludgate was born.

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A digital image of Field’s old bakery converted to the new Hub

Percy Ludgate was convinced of the importance of mathematical computing devices, and came up with his own design for an ‘analytical machine’ in 1909. He was well respected and lectured universities and learned societies in the early part of the twentieth century. He knew the work of Englishman Charles Babbage (1791-1871) who had built programmable calculating machines using a system of punched cards. Ludgate took a different approach: his design had all the elements of a modern computer – data storage, programmable data input, a printer, and an ‘operating system’. In theory, Ludgate’s automated engine would multiply two 20-digit numbers in under 10 seconds, and take two minutes to determine the logarithm of a number. It would also solve algebraic equations and geometric problems. It was to be powered by an electric motor, and the device would be ‘portable’ – a cube measuring about two feet on each side. Sadly, Ludgate did not live long enough to complete a prototype: he died from pneumonia at the age of 39. It’s great, though, that this whole 21st century digital project carries his name.

Mobile best practice

Last week’s venture involved a series of conferences and workshops designed to introduce anyone who wanted to attend to the concept of the Digital Hub – and to give insights into how the use of the superspeed technology could benefit all businesses. We attended – partly because we wanted to be in the know on the whole venture – but also because we could see how it would help us in producing this blog – and in getting it seen by more people! As with any business, it’s important if you have something to promote (in our case) or to sell (in the case of a producer), you need to know how to get your message across in the most accessible and attractive way. You also need to know that the message is getting to where you want it to be. This is where ‘Analytics’ come in. We already knew it was possible to see how many people were reading our blog and – more or less – where they came from. Now we have discovered that it’s possible to analyse a whole lot more about where our work is reaching, and who looks at what and for how long. This could be sen as frightening, I suppose, in a ‘Big Brother’ context, but it’s all anonymous and – in the end – it’s all just data. Anyone in commerce nowadays who has a command of that data will be best placed to make sure that their own business will offer what the markets seem to be looking for – and that’s what a thriving economy is all about.

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A special mention has to be made of the many young people involved in this venture. In the digital world it seems that it’s the youth who are mentoring the not-so-young! Think – who are the most computer-savvy members of your family? Important faces here include Project Director Gráinne Dwyer and Corporate Development Director Callum Donnelly, seen here (far right and far left) with the rest of the team at the launch of the Ludgate Centre:

NO REPRO FEE Pictured at the 'sod turning' launch of the Skibbereen's Ludgate Hub at the old fields bakery on Friday 7th August 2015 Picture: Emma Jervis Photography
The ‘sod turning’ launch of Skibbereen’s Ludgate Hub at the old Field’s Bakery, August 2015 (Emma Jervis Photography)

One of the many great things about Ireland is that there’s always a creative side and a human side to every venture. So – after every day’s lecture sessions and masterclasses – it was time for relaxation and social activities. Skibbereen came up trumps, thanks in no small measure to one of the town’s most treasured human assets – Declan McCarthy. Declan runs the world-renowned Baltimore Fiddle Fair every year and also organises a whole raft of first class musical events in West Cork: with the help of many others during Digital Week he ensured the smooth running of quite outstanding evenings to turn minds away from digital matters. On the first night we had Jessie Kennedy’s Carbery Songs; then, on Friday, what could have been more inspiring than an evening in the Skibbereen Town Hall with our favourite traditional music makers Martin Hayes, Dennis Cahill and Kevin Burke? And this fabulous concert was broadcast live online right across the world! The following evening we were royally entertained again, this time by Sacha Puttnam, son of the renowned film maker Lord David Puttnam (remember Chariots of Fire – The Mission – the Killing Fields – Midnight Express?). Both Puttnams live here in West Cork (why would they live anywhere else?), and Sacha – ably accompanied by some local young musicians – gave us some superb renderings of film music from his father’s movies on the Skibbereen Town Hall grand piano (which, incidentally, was donated to the town by the family, having been played previously in 10 Downing Street amongst other venues). Behind it – on the big screen – we could watch stills from the movies – and there were orchestral accompaniments all synchronised digitally: again, everything was broadcast live to the world over the internet.

Puttnam and friends

Worldwide web broadcasts from Skibbereen: Burke, Hayes and Cahill (above) and Sacha Puttnam and friends (below) – anyone recognise the scene from War of the Buttons?

David Puttnam (below), who holds the honorary title Digital Champion for Ireland, is the chair of Atticus Education, an online education company based in Ireland which delivers interactive seminars on film and a variety of other subjects to educational institutions around the world. The Puttnam involvement in Skibbereen’s pioneering digital venture is therefore most apt.

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Keynote statement from Ludgate@Skibbereen: Digital will negate the conventional disadvantages of working and living outside cities; creating real jobs, real commerce while real people enjoy the superior lifestyle option of living in rural Ireland.

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Ancient Tones – New Directions

After the opening concert... Sunset over Bantry Bay

After the opening concert… Sunset over Bantry Bay

This year’s Masters of Tradition Festival (which closes tonight) had an unusual headline act – Ricky Skaggs – at its opening gig.. This giant of ‘country’, ‘bluegrass’ or ‘old timey’ music flew over from Nashville at his own expense to join Festival Director Martin Hayes and a host of traditional musicians on stage in the Maritime Hotel, Bantry. Why? Because there are big adventures going on in the world of Irish music today, and this Festival is at the leading edge of all this. Here’s a snatch of Ricky Skaggs: regardless of the film quality it’s well worth watching…

Ricky Skaggs

Ricky Skaggs

Skaggs, Hayes, Cahill,  Schrey and the Brock McGuire Band bring the house down in Bantry

Skaggs, Hayes, Cahill, Schrey and the Brock McGuire Band bring the house down in the opening concert

So, Ricky Skaggs got a good start in life, playing on the stage with the likes of Bill Monroe and the Foggy Mountain Boys (aka guitarist Lester Flatt and banjo player Earl Scruggs) at the age of seven! But at last Wednesday’s concert the biggest chord that was struck for me was Skaggs talking about Ancient Tones – his words for the the common roots of the music that they were all playing together:

“I’ve told people for years Celtic music is the foundation stone for bluegrass, even country music generally — though it is admittedly hard to hear the Irish influence in ‘new’ country today. Certainly, you can detect it in the old country ballads — it’s in the heart of the songs.” Bill Monroe was in agreement, he recalls. Without Irish music, there would never have been a bluegrass movement. “Mr Monroe talked about the old sounds and the ancient tones. He was referring to the sounds from Scotland and Ireland — he believed very much his music was a hybrid of that. He’s right of course — you hear bluegrass and you know the Irish influence is there. It’s in the fiddle and the mandolin, the harmonies and the guitar. In all of it, really.”

Festival Director Martin Hayes with groupies...

Festival Director Martin Hayes with groupies…

That first concert blew us away. We thought that it couldn’t get any better. It probably didn’t, but the energy, enthusiasm and innovation continued through the events of the week. Innovation in Irish Traditional Music? Oh, yes: we didn’t know what was in store for us, but we did know Martin Hayes’ philosophy:

“The main aim of this festival is to expose the unique artistic craft of various musicians. It’s also a kind of response to the fact that the country is full of festivals. I feel it’s important to highlight individual artistry in music rather than putting on a lot of bands that we’re all familiar with. International musicians have been a feature of the festival in the last few years.The festival is called Masters of Tradition rather than masters of Irish music or Irish traditional music because the idea is to have at least one act from abroad to see how other traditions stand in relation to our own. I want to offer something really different. I’m not saying that what I’m doing is better. It’s just a different way of approaching a festival. I certainly don’t see the point in replicating other festivals.There’s only a percentage of the population that gets seriously involved and connected with this festival. I think that’s fine. The festival is about highlighting the uniqueness of each musician’s voice. We try to choose musicians that have found their unique voice. I’m not looking for the latest blazing hot craze. Some of what the musicians express can be quite humble but effective and very touching as well.”

Máire Ni Cheileachair, Sean Nós singer

Máire Ni Cheileachair, Sean Nós singer

Among the – perhaps – ‘humble, effective and very touching’ performances were Sean Nós singers: carrying the tradition forward from its most ancient roots and presenting it in the simplest form – the unaccompanied human voice, a continuity of cultural expression which has passed through countless generations. We enjoyed the contribution of Máire Ni Cheileachair from West Cork and were impressed, as always, with critically acclaimed Iarla Ó Lionáird who grew up in the musical heartland of Cúil Aodha in the West Cork Gaeltacht. Like Ricky Skaggs, his fame came early: here’s his performance of Aisling Gheal dating from 1978 – when he was 14.

Finola has a link to another of Iarla’s iconic renderings on her post here – The Lament of the Three Marys. Throughout Ireland sacred songs such as this one were felt to function both as prayers and as direct substitutes for the caoineadh (‘keening’, women’s funeral lament) which was suppressed by the Church.

Ivan Goff, Cleek Schrey and Iarla Ó Lionáird - The Ghost Trio

Ivan Goff, Cleek Schrey and Iarla Ó Lionáird – The Ghost Trio

Finola says that I should have called this post ‘Ancient Tones – and Drones’. Iarla Ó Lionáird also heads up The Ghost Trio – which gave us Friday’s late night candlelit concert in Bantry House – Siobhan Long of the Irish Times described her impressions:

…”Drone City” is how Iarla O’Lionaird describes the antics of Ghost Trio, and he isn’t far off. Pipes, Hardanger Fiddle and harmonium coalesce to shape an atmospheric set that speaks more of the space and time inherent in traditional music than it does momentum. And what a welcome alternative take that is.This is a fine reminder of what atmosphere lurks within and without our tunes and songs

Boruma Trio

Boruma Trio – Eileen O’Brien, Geraldine Cotter and Andrew MacNamara

In a sharp swing back to pure tradition we were impressed by The Boruma Trio in Saturday night’s first concert. Straight music played on accordion, fiddle and piano, directly descended from the years when legendary Ceilidh bands such as the Tulla reigned supreme: Martin Hayes himself was reared on this kind of irish music as his own father – P Joe Hayes – led that band for 50 years. Martin wrote of his upbringing in Maghera, County Clare:

Tulla Ceilidh Band 1952

Tulla Ceilidh Band 1952

…However difficult it is to imagine my own life without music it is impossible for me to even know my father without his music. Music is part of his life in the same way that the land is part of him or in the way that we are Irish. It is inevitable and unalterable, we can never identify ourselves apart from our past as he could never identify himself apart from his music. His music fits comfortably into his life, there has always been balance, he never saw music as being anything other than normal and ordinary, a part of life that fits comfortably with his family, farm, religion and politics. He has a strong passion for music that has been tempered and maintained by equal and loyal devotion to the other interests in his life…

Martin’s earliest memories are of his father getting dressed up and being picked up to go and play somewhere, and in his child’s imagination it was always somewhere far away, exciting and important. On other nights the band practiced in the kitchen and when he had to go to bed Martin would leave the bedroom door open, a little bit, and listen to them play until he fell asleep.

I haven’t room on this post to list all the concerts (the full programme is here) – and we still have one to go! The standard of performances throughout has been consistently high. Perhaps the Harris/Finlay award for the most memorable experience – so far – has to go to Ensemble Ériu. In his introduction of this 7-strong group, Martin Hayes reminded us that we now have generations of young musicians who are very aware of their traditional heritage, but who are also being exposed to mainstream influences such as jazz and minimalism. Degrees, Masters and PhDs are offered in no less than 14 universities and colleges in Ireland at present in traditional music, song, dance, Ethnomusicology and Ethnochoreology. Students with backgrounds or deep interests in the folk traditions are exploring other contemporary voices and this ensemble – or ‘Project’ as its progenitors Jack Talty and Neil O’Loghlen prefer to call it – is a step in the New Directions so keenly being watched by Martin Hayes:

…The septet draws on a wealth of creative sources to perform arrangements of Irish traditional music rooted in the styles of West and North County Clare. This group brings together a chamber ensemble of some of Ireland’s most exciting young musicians from a range of performance backgrounds. The result is a unique combination of the fresh and familiar, a soundscape that is creatively progressive, yet rooted in tradition… (from the group’s website)

It’s hard to describe the musical experience that Ériu gave us last night. You’ll get some impressions from this film.

It brought to my mind the works of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, but was nevertheless unique. Who would have thought that such creative things could happen in this quiet West Cork backwater? It was stimulating, energetic – dynamic. I wonder what Martin has in store for us next year?

Quiet West Cork backwater? Bantry House - Festival venue

Quiet West Cork backwater? Bantry House – Festival venue

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