Slides or Jigs? Polkas or Reels?

young fiddler close

Two young musicians – from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s. We do not know at what outdoor gathering this atmospheric picture was taken, but perhaps there is a polka or a slide being played there…

Way back in the last century (it was the nineteen seventies actually) I first came to Ireland in pursuit of traditional music. I found it a-plenty. At that time, the music of the Sliabh Luachra was very much in vogue: local sessions and Fleadh Ceols were full of polkas and slides…

Classic recordings of traditional music collected from the Sliabh Luachra during the sixties and seventies: The Star above the Garter is published by Claddagh, while the others are from the Topic Record catalogue

My post last week came to you from the City of Shrone, which is within this area, in the border country of Cork, Kerry and Limerick. The strong surviving music traditions here have an unmistakeable character – fast and lively. I was reminded of that tradition this week when I came to the wonderful Fiddle Fair in Baltimore and listened to Tony O’Connell from the Sliabh Luachra in recital with Brid Harper, a highly regarded Donegal fiddler. They are an excellent duo – here’s a little taster from that concert (Kerry Slides):

As an aspiring concertina player myself I was bowled over by Tony’s playing, especially of the quintessential Kerry slides. But what is a slide you might ask? And how do you tell a slide from a jig?

Saturday’s recital in Saint Matthew’s Church, Baltimore: Brid Harper and Tony O’Connell playing Kerry Slides

Here’s some help, extracted from discussion boards, specifically on the subject of slides and jigs:

…Uninitiated listeners and even some tune-book editors have mistaken slides as hornpipes, single jigs, polkas, or double jigs, since slides share various traits with each. Once you know a few, you realise they are distinct from any of those…

…Note that slides are peculiar to the Southwest of Ireland, and some are directly related to double jigs, single jigs, or hornpipes played elsewhere in Ireland. Musicians quite familiar with slides are generally unfamiliar with single jigs, and some otherwise respectable authorities on the slide have rashly pronounced that single jigs “are the same as slides.” We can have some sympathy with that by understanding that these musicians simply use the term “single jig” to mean “slide,” and are apparently unaware of the existence of the distinctive “single jig” rhythm in Irish music. Over the course of the 20th century the customary notation for slides shifted from 6/8 to 12/8, which I think is an improvement in accuracy…

Both these statements (from irishtune.info) tell us about the confusion between jigs and slides, but they don’t tell us exactly how you define either of them. Let’s try this, from the same source, regarding slides:

The tempo is rather quick, often in the 150 bpm range, if you were to count each heavy-light pair as a beat. But in practice each beat of a slide (counting around 75 bpm now) gets two pulses, which is either a heavy-light pair (very close to an accurate “quarter note, eighth note” distribution) or a quite even triplet – not a jig pattern. Thus if all four group-halves in a bar were triplets – which is uncommon – you’d have a twelve-note bar. The ratio of heavy-light pairs to triplets in a slide is slightly in favour of the pairs, which again clearly distinguishes them from double jigs. Most slides break the pattern once or twice in a tune by delaying the strong note for a bar’s second group until that group’s second half, creating a cross-rhythm with respect to the foot taps. Other unique characteristics of slides are not necessary additional information for identifying them – only for playing them…!

I’ve puzzled over this (and other advice) for some time: I sort of understand it, but I think it’s impossible to describe a rhythm in words… However, I was pleased to find this mnemonic for slides by the poet Ciaran Carson – it says it all:

“blah dithery dump a doodle scattery idle fortunoodle”

gougane

An evocative engraving of Gougane Barra, in the Sliabh Luachra, by artist and writer Robert Gibbings, taken from Lovely is the Lee, J M Dent, 1945

How about polkas and reels? Polkas, in particular, are popular in the Sliabh Luachra tradition:

…The polka is one of the most popular traditional folk dances in Ireland, particularly in Sliabh Luachra. Many of the figures of Irish set dances are danced to polkas. Introduced to Ireland in the late 19th century, there are today hundreds of Irish polka tunes, which are most frequently played on the fiddle or button accordion. The Irish polka is dance music form in 2/4, typically 32 bars in length and subdivided into four parts, each 8 bars in length and played AABB. Irish polkas are typically played fast, at over 130 bpm, usually with an off-beat accent… (Also from irishtune.info)

Reels are probably the most popular tune type within the Irish traditional dance music tradition:

…Reel music is notated in simple meter, either as 2/2 or 4/4. All reels have the same structure, consisting largely of quaver (eighth note) movement with an accent on the first and third beats of the bar…

fiddle fair outdoors

At the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, informal sessions are essential interludes

Definitions are all very well and these can only be generalisations. In the end it’s what is being played – and what you hear – that counts. For me, the music in Ireland is like history: it’s built into the landscape and the psyche. Irish people are survivors and have travelled all over the world and back. So has the music! This was emphasised today when we had another excellent recital in the church by Dylan Foley and Dan Gurney, fiddle and accordion.

foley gurney

They both come from the Southern Catskill Mountains in New York State. Much of the Irish music they play was learnt directly from Father Charlie Coen who emigrated to the United States from the village of Woodford in County Galway in 1955, bringing the music traditions from East Galway with him. Here’s an excellent example of the music travelling across the world and back again: Fr Coen played The Moving Cloud reel on his concertina, but his instrument had some buttons missing so he adapted it, and the adapted tune is what we heard Foley and Gurney playing in the church today. Listen first to another Fiddle Fair maestro, Noel Hill playing the reel from his 1988 album The Irish Concertina:

Now the same reel which has travelled from Ireland to Baltimore via the Catskill Mountains:

I hope you can hear those ‘odd’ notes! But there’s nothing so right or so wrong in Irish music: the grand finale for us today was a memorable concert with French Canadian fiddler Pierre Schryer, Donegal box player Dermot Byrne and Australian born guitarist Steve Cooney. They played music with an Irish bias but harvested from many traditions. It left us breathless…

Man of Music

A page from the manuscript of Canon Goodman - Trinity College Library

A page from the manuscript of Canon Goodman – Trinity College Library

Long-term readers of our posts will have encountered Canon James Goodman already – in our first post after we moved in to Nead an Iolair we covered the 2013 Canon Goodman Concert, an annual affair which takes place in Abbeystrewry Church, Skibbereen. This means we have lived here for exactly one year now, as the 2014 Concert took place last Sunday. In the intervening 12 months I have researched this Skibbereen hero in greater detail, and he deserves a whole post to himself!

Uilleann Pipes Maestro Liam O'Flynn plays Skibbereen

Uilleann Pipes Maestro Liam O’Flynn plays Skibbereen

The Annual Canon Goodman Concert is part of the Arts Festival which Skibbereen hosts every year: Finola has reported fully on this event, which has kept us on our toes for the whole week. Stars of the concert were Liam O’Flynn and Paddy Glackin. I first saw Liam in Exeter back in the 1970s – we’ve both aged a bit since then…

The Canon is remembered particularly for his expertise in playing the Uilleann Pipes – Ireland’s national instrument. If you’ve never seen this played, have a look and a listen to the extract from the Skibbereen concert below: it is a complex instrument, whose component parts include windbag, bellows, a chanter, drones and regulators – also the piper’s apron (sometimes known as a popping strap), which is a cloth placed on the knee of the player to form a seal with the open end of the chanter – as the lifting of the chanter from the knee is one action which can alter the sounding of the pipe between legato and staccato. It’s hard to simply explain the methodology of the pipes – just consider that the player has to keep the bellows moving with one elbow, maintain correct inflation of the bellows with the other (the Irish píobaí uilleann literally means ‘pipes of the elbows’), use the fingers of both hands to form the melody on the chanter, and to lift it from the knee, and use the wrist or fingers (or, as I have seen on occasion, the end of the chanter) to ‘play’ the regulators, forming chords and adding rhythm – not forgetting to make sure the drones are in tune.

James Goodman was born in 1828 in Ventry, County Kerry – then a Gaeltacht area: he was raised as a native Irish speaker, and this stood him in good stead as, in later life, he became Professor of Irish at Trinity. In his youth he was described as ‘…having an attractive personality and was well-liked and popular…’ He took a great interest in traditional life and, particularly, The Music. He learned to play the flute and the pipes while growing up. His father was Rector of Dingle and, after studying at Trinity, James was himself ordained into the Church of Ireland in 1853, moving with his wife Charlotte  to the living of Creagh Parish, between Baltimore and Skibbereen.

The bridge at Creagh

The bridge at Creagh

Creagh: River Ilen

Creagh: River Ilen

In 1860 the Goodman family (by now they had three sons) moved to Ardgroom, also in the Gaeltacht, where he took the post of Curate of Kilaconenagh. While there, he began his collection of Irish traditional melodies, learning hundreds from Tom Kennedy, a blind piper whom he had known back in Ventry. The Goodman Collection is the first great body of Irish traditional music ever to have been gathered: it numbers over 2,300 tunes and songs. For many years these lay dormant in the archives of Trinity College Library and they have only recently been  studied and published. Every year at the Skibbereen concert some of the tunes are included in the programme, allowing us to hear the music of Ireland being played just as it was in town and townlands many generations ago.

A story is told of his time in Ardgroom: one weekend an impressive steam yacht anchored in Castletownbere Harbour; on the Sunday, James Goodman was aghast to be told that a distinguished company, including a well-known historian, was coming ashore to attend morning prayer in his church. He felt very nervous at the thought of having to preach to such important people so he delivered his sermon in Irish, knowing that they would not understand it. Shortly afterwards an article appeared in an English periodical stating that Irish was still so much in use in outlying districts in Ireland that it was Customary for clergymen in some Church of Ireland churches to conduct the service in English and to preach in Irish!

rectors

Enigma: the register in Abbestrewry Church, showing Canon Goodman as Rector in 1857; his inauguration there wasn’t until 1867

James Goodman returned to the environs of Roaringwater Bay when he was made Rector of Skibbereen and Canon of Ross. His church was Abbeystrewry, which now hosts his memorial concerts. He was responsible for the building we have today: he initiated a project to demolish all but the tower of the old building and provide a modern worship area, and he paid for much of it himself. It was in 1879 that Goodman was appointed Professor of Irish in Trinity College Dublin  and combined this position with his clerical duties in Skibbereen, spending half of every year in each location.

The Canon died in 1896 and was buried, at his own request in Creagh – his first living. Finola and I searched out the burial ground and his grave. We had previously glimpsed the four pinnacles of the Church of Ireland tower rising mysteriously among the trees on the banks of the Ilen river: when we walked down the long green trackway that is the only access we were struck by how beautiful and yet how poignant the place is.

Side by side are Catholic and Protestant churches – both in ruins. The gravestones give away which is which: old Irish names  define the former, and the church there has returned almost completely back to nature. The Protestant church still stands, but its windows are uselessly boarded up: there are holes in the roof and the crumbling building is prey to the weather. There is an inescapable air of desolation at the site, yet the nearby newer burial ground beside the water is idyllically located and wonderfully peaceful.

Canon Goodman wrote of his life: …ionnus nach raibh aon nidh dob annsa liomsa óm óige, ná bheith ag éisteacht le seaneachtraighthe agus sgéalta fiannuigheachta; ná ceól ba bhinne am chluais ná ceol sármhilis na hÉirionn.  (…so that there was nothing dearer to me from my youth than to be listening to the old tales of adventure and the stories of Fionn, nor any music sweeter in my ears than the surpassingly sweet music of Ireland). The story goes that James Goodman was buried at Creagh along with his own Uilleann pipes: in the silence of the place we had a good listen…

Playboy...

Playboy…

While Goodman was Professor at Trinity he had a student who became renowned: John Millington Synge. Synge was also an Irish scholar and spent much time in the Gaeltacht – particularly in the Aran Islands. It was there he wrote his most famous work, The Playboy of the Western World. Finola has already mentioned that this was also performed – superbly – during the Skibbereen Arts Festival this year: a treat for us – and for the Canon, perhaps.

st0024

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

The Clare Trumpet

The Clareman's Trumpet - two fine modern concertinas, by Wim Wakker (left) and Colin Dipper (right)

Two fine modern concertinas, by Wim Wakker (left) and Colin Dipper (right)

We went to Ballyvaghan, County Clare so that I could take part in the Concertina School run by Maestro of that instrument – and Clare man – Noel Hill. I have played concertinas for over 40 years but never in the ‘Irish’ style: here I am in Ireland so – in my seventh decade – it’s back to school for me! The concertina – a small squeezebox – has a long history in Clare, and in Ireland. It was pioneered by an Englishman, Charles Wheatstone, in the 1800s. Wheatstone’s real fame came as co-inventor – with William Cooke – of the electric telegraph which was arguably the forerunner of all our present day telecommunication systems (so thank you, Wheatstone, for my iPhone) but he was also prolific in his invention and improvement of many other devices, including musical ones. He took the Mundharmoniker – a German metal-reeded mouth blown instrument and turned it into the mouth-organ we know today; he then used the metal reeds and leather bellows to develop the concertina itself, a very portable instrument which has a tone and range similar to the violin. High quality concertinas bearing the Wheatstone name are still being made, as are many others, but it was the ability to mass produce these instruments at a low cost (far lower than the fiddle) which ensured their popularity in Victorian drawing rooms and in ale houses, dance halls and kitchens.

Noel Hill and Seamus Begley give a rousing finale to the Corofin Festival in Clare 2014

Noel Hill and Seamus Begley give a rousing finale to the Corofin Festival in Clare 2014

The concertina can be loud: the smaller the area of the bellows on a squeezebox, the more powerful the pressure that can be exerted on the steel reeds. Consequently the instrument has a very bright tone which carries above most others and is therefore ideal for accompanying dances in noisy rooms – or certainly was, before the days of amplification. Imagine a flag-stoned floor in a parlour or outhouse with a lively Irish set in full swing: the sound must have been fairly overwhelming, and it needed a loud instrument to be heard above the melee. Clare was and is a musical county, and gatherings for dancing (and socialising and matchmaking) were a major past-time in rural districts. The concertina was a boon on these occasions and is now an instrument forever associated with the area and its musicians. Because of its volume and its strident possibilities, the concertina has become known as ‘the Clareman’s Trumpet’.

old bog road music

I could write a whole post on the many varieties of concertina which have been developed since Charles Wheatstone took out his patent in 1829. Suffice it to say that you are likely to encounter only two types in your normal travels: the English Concertina – where each button plays the same note regardless of which direction you are moving the bellows – and the Anglo Concertina – where each button gives you two different notes: one on the push and another on the pull – similar in principle to the modern mouth organ. My instrument is the Anglo, and this is also the one most commonly (but not exclusively) found today in Irish Traditional Music.

pub signNo mention of the concertina in Clare would be complete without a note on Mrs Elizabeth Crotty of Kilrush. She lived between 1885 and 1960 and was famous in her day as an Anglo player. Crotty’s pub is still there in Kilrush, and still in the family. I went there on my first visit to Ireland almost exactly 40 years ago. Mrs Crotty’s memory had not faded then. I played in the pub on that visit and was told (by her daughter) that this was the first music that had been heard in the pub since the First Lady of the Concertina had died. It’s a different matter today: there is live traditional music most nights in Crotty’s, and in so many other establishments all over the county. More Clare concertina names include Paddy Murphy (who I was fortunate enough to meet and hear at a wild and remote session on that first visit), Chris Droney of Bell Harbour, still playing in his eighties, and many another.

cds

But Clare’s musical connections are not limited to the concertina: as we travelled around we became very aware of how important is music in all its varieties in this windswept, largely treeless but peculiarly beautiful part of the island. There are instrument makers: Finola grew up with Martin Doyle in Bray: he’s now one of the top producers of hand-made wooden flutes in the world! We visited his workshop – a well-equipped timber shed on the edge of the Burren. It was a great reunion: while the stories were in full flow in walked Christy Barry, renowned traditional flute player – also a Clare native, to join the chat.

Friends from school: Clare flutemaker Martin Doyle with Finola

Friends from childhood: Clare flutemaker Martin Doyle with Finola

Raw material - and traditional Irish flutes in the making

Raw material – and traditional Irish flutes in the making

I mustn’t forget Martin Connolly, first class button accordion maker from Ennis, nor my all-time Irish music hero Martin Hayes (perhaps there’s something about the name Martin?) renowned fiddler and Director of the Masters of Tradition Festival every year down here in West Cork: he hales from East Clare.

Martin Connolloy - Clare accordion maker

Martin Connolloy – Clare accordion maker

The roll call is endless, but perhaps pride of place (for now) should go to Willie Clancy, not a concertina player but a master of the Uillean Pipes. He has made famous the name of his home town, Milltown Malbay, where they have honoured him with a fine bronze statue. Every year in July around 10,000 people descend on the small West Clare town and swell its normal population tenfold. There are workshops, classes and concerts but, most of all, there is just constant music – in pubs and cafes, and on every street corner: the craic is mighty!

willie

Music Mad

site

When we set off to find the Road Trotting we travelled roads we had never seen before: out to the east of Bantry. We were intrigued by a sign to ‘Tralibane Memorial’ and duly diverted to investigate. Up the hills and around a sweeping bend in the road: the first thing we saw was Mary, looking down over her modest garden – but that wasn’t the memorial; we found it a little further on. Our immediate view was a man playing a flute on top of a rock, approached by an ornate staircase. As we took in the whole site we had the impression of a huge plateau carved out of the hill summit – somewhere you could park a hundred cars or assemble a mighty crowd. It had the feel of a place where a Pope might come to give the Mass: there is an ornate Commemorative Wall surmounted by grand light fittings and with room for 120 granite name-plaques on each side.

commemorative wall

It’s a place waiting for something to happen. On the day of our visit it was deserted – and a little bleak. But, on other days, things do happen: crowds arrive and pay tribute – they come from all corners of the world. They also dance, and great craic is had. What is it all about? Well, once we’d worked it out we realised that this is a very important shrine for me, and for all other players of Irish Traditional Music. This is a memorial to Captain Francis O’Neill, a man who was born in the townland of Tralibane in 1848; ran away to sea at the age of 16; worked his way around the world and survived a shipwreck; became a policeman in Chicago; survived a gangster shoot-out, and eventually attained the rank of Chief of Police in that city. But he is famous for his greatest achievement: a collection of Irish tunes which numbers nearly two thousand, and which probably forms the repertoire basis of most of the musicians keeping the tradition alive today. The O’Neill collections were certainly my own introduction to The Music, and the several volumes in my own sheet music library are still the most valuable resource I have, bar only the internet.

plaques

O’Neill was imbued with the music of his native West Cork while growing up. He played the flute himself but, like many traditional musicians, he didn’t read or write music. The transcriptions which now appear in his collections (which are still all in print) were made by another O’Neill – James: unrelated but a colleague in Chicago. If you want to read a fuller account of O’Neill’s life try Ronan Nolan’s comprehensive article, where you can also find links to many of the wax phonograph cylinders recorded by Captain Francis during his collecting years.

Robert + Francis