Learning from the Masters

matt + jackie

It’s midsummer – and time for the Fastnet Maritime and Folk Festival in Ballydehob. Amongst the distinguished guests this year are these two regulars: Matt Cranitch and Jackie Daly. They hail from the Sliabh Luachra on the Cork, Kerry and Limerick borders. I’ve made mention of this area before, particularly in Slides or Jigs and The City of Shrone: the name means ‘Rushy Mountains’. I can’t resist quoting from this anonymous and wry review of a book published in 2003:

…I’ve just come across a book which may interest serious Sliabh Luachra obsessives, though not those merely in search of new polkas and slides.  “Sliabh Luachra Milestones”, by Diarmuid Moynihan, is an attempt at the first general history of the area, and grew out of a thesis on early road development in Sliabh Luachra.  It covers, in outline at least, such topics as archaeology, Christianity (traces have been found, apparently), early descriptions by English invaders, historical events, settlement patterns, maps, and of course, roads…

rushy glen

The rushy glens of Sliabh Luachra – from a woodcut by Robert Gibbings

So, am I a Sliabh Luachra obsessive? I think I probably am… It all started in the 1970s when my good friend Danny gave me two books by Robert Gibbings – Lovely is the Lee (J M Dent 1945) and Sweet Cork of Thee (J M Dent 1951). They are my most treasured books in our extensive collection of Irish literature and both are set, in part, in the Sliabh Luachra – and it was these books that set me on a journey that – 40 years later – has brought me here to Nead an Iolair, and to the wealth of musical tradition that we enjoy.

Gibbings books

Sweet Cork title

Jackie Daly is only a year older than I am, yet I remember looking up to him as a master when I first started listening to Irish music half a century ago: I suppose we must both have been more youthful then! He grew up with the music of course: his father played the melodeon, and he played at local ‘crossroads dances’ with a neighbouring mentor Jim Keefe. I still have – and still play – the recordings of Sliabh Luachra musicians that I bought in the early 1970s (and which are still available from Topic Records). Matt Cranitch is a distinguished and respected fiddle player who has also has an academic career and has lectured widely on Irish traditional music.

Here’s a taster from the Festival sessions – Matt, Jackie and friends finishing up a set of iconic Sliabh Lauchra slides in Rosie’s Bar

I was fortunate to attend a workshop with Matt and Jackie in Levis’s on Saturday. After a fascinating talk on their traditions we all ended up learning a set of polkas. Wonderful! Those without instruments were cajoled to sing the tunes, so it was a communal affair.

Here you’ll catch the end of a tale by Jackie and a few bars of a beautiful slow air (Maidin Ró-Mhoch) from Matt

The workshop took place in the intimate setting of the back parlour of Levis’s Corner House – on its way to becoming one of the top music venues in Ireland through the efforts of Joe and Caroline yet always keeping its distinctive character.

Levis midsummer day

It takes me a little while to pick up new tunes but the duo were good and patient teachers and we were doing quite well by the end of the session. I thoroughly recommend their latest CD Rolling On (2014), which includes Maidin Ró-Mhoch and many other fine Sliabh Luachra pieces.

As usual, Ballydehob has embraced this festival – one of many through the summer – and the town is rocking in the rain… there are visitors from afar: Hyttetu – a maritime themed male voice choir from Norway, Swansea shantymen Baggyrinkle and very many others, including someone who has been at the forefront of the Irish folk music scene for many years, Andy Irvine.

yellow poster

festival time!

Festival time – midsummer’s day!

So many thanks to all the organisers, particularly Dick Miles and Cathy Cook, and the landlords of all our local hostelries: it wouldn’t happen without them. Now I’m off home to get dry and practice those tunes!

3 polkas

 

The City of Shrone – and a talking cow!

shrone walls + gap

It’s May Day, and we’re in Ireland, so it’s no surprise that we should encounter a talking cow. We are in Kerry County and it’s a Kerry Cow that’s doing the talking. This is an ancient breed of cattle – probably the oldest in Europe – so our cow has a lot of stories to tell.

city cow

We found the cow – or, at least, the story she has written – in the City of Shrone. What sort of a metropolis is that, you wonder? It’s a pretty diminutive one: it’s almost certainly the smallest city in the world. It has no skyscrapers and no traffic jams…

no parking

Shrone does, however, have a long, long history. According to the local expert on this subject, Dan Cronin, …Historians have satisfied themselves that The City was one of the first places in Ireland to be peopled. It was here on a barren elevated site that the Tuatha Dé Danann had their base established, naming the mountains at whose base they had settled, Dhá Chich Danann, The Two Paps of Dana…

in the shadow

Dan’s book (published in 2001 by Crede, Sliabh Luachra Heritage Group) is the definitive work on The City, The Paps, and the life and traditions of the Sliabh Luachra – which is the name given to the mountains and rushy glens on the borders of Cork, Kerry and Limerick. It’s an area which has long been famous for its traditional music: at our own Ballydehob Fastnet Maritime and Folk Festival – coming up in June – two of the most notable musicians carrying that living tradition, Jackie Daly and Matt Cranitch, will once again be in residence.

Jackie Daly and Matt Cranitch

Matt Cranitch and Jackie Daly in Ballydehob, at last year’s Fastnet Maritime and Folk Festival

Meanwhile, back in the City, we have deliberately timed our visit for the First of May: this is Shrone’s big day! The City is 50 metres in diameter – it’s a very ancient stone cashel or ring fort. The Irish name for it is Cathair Crobh Dearg, meaning ‘Mansion of the Red Claw’. On the western side of the finely preserved four metre thick stone walls is an entrance (known as the gap), and anyone coming in that way has to pass by a holy well. Today is the Pattern Day for the well, and elaborate rounds are performed, culminating in taking the holy water. There is much to do with cattle at this site: the Tuatha Dé Danann are said to have originated in Boeotia – the Land of Cattle – in Greece, and the well water is notably good for cattle, especially on this day. The well was formerly in another site nearby and there cattle were driven around it to ensure good health and fertility for the herd. Farmers still take water from here and sprinkle it on their animals.

shrone aerial

Satellite view of The City of Shrone: the circular cashel wall is clear. On the left is ‘The Gap’ and the holy well. Beside ‘The Gap’ and inside the city is the ruin of Paddy Quinihan’s House (below and bottom): in the 1930s he was the deerhough (caretaker) of the holy well

keeper's house

the house

Today is Lá Bealtaine (pronounced Law Byowl-tinneh): the Irish word might refer to the ‘Fires of Baal’, reflecting a tradition of lighting fires on hilltops or in sacred places. In Ireland it was important to drive cattle through, or by, the flames as a purification ritual. As May Day was usually the first day that the animals were brought out of byres and sent to the summer pastures (booleys), it makes sense that the purification would have taken place at this time. So we have the various seasonal elements of water and fire connected with cattle and their health and fertility: it’s no wonder that our commentator at Cathair Crobh Dearg is a cow!

The holy well water at Shrone is good for animal health and fertility: Robert gives it a try!

The City of Shrone is below the Paps. According to Cronin, the early celebrants – the Danann – …were wont to go up to the top of the Paps for the fertility and immortality rituals. Fragments of ancient pagan altars still remain to this day. Petitions were made to the gods for fertility for man and beast, good return from the land, good crops and fodder. Even today, 4000 years later, several small offerings are placed on ledges near the ruins of pagan altars on top of the Paps Mountains for health of the family and of cattle and for fertility… Many of those acquainted with this old pagan custom have remarked on the peculiarity of its perseverance and continuity… I would like to explore those high parts but, ‘on the day that’s in it’, they are not even visible, and it would be unwise to venture into such a shrouded domain when, at this turning point of the year, the spirits of the hills might be abroad…

way to the paps

The way to the Paps: it’s unwise to venture there when you can’t even see the summits of the sacred mountains…

Cronin again: …So the May Day or Lá Bealtaine festivities were held each year and the years rolled by. On May Day, The City and its surroundings were a hubbub of activity. The music of pipes and fiddles re-echoed from the hills and valleys, and the lowing of cattle mingled with the sweet music of the harp. Jesters and jugglers plied their respective trades, with everybody trying to make themselves heard. It is very evident that ale was brewed here in plenty. Champions were performing feats of valour, while throngs of admirers looked on… What will we find happening today, May Day, at the smallest but most ancient city in the world?

mary and walls

Setting Up

Our Lady of the Wayside guards the sacred site now (above) while (below) preparations are made for the Bishop’s visit

It’s still a sacred site and the crowds still come. But it’s Our Lady of the Wayside who looks out over the City walls now. A Mass is performed within the Cashel on May Day afternoon. This year the Bishop of Kerry is in attendance, as is a devouring Kerry mist. I listen in vain for the echoes of harp, pipes and merrymaking. The City of Shrone on a cold, damp First of May seems a desolate place – yet an absolutely fascinating one. The pilgrims visit and the curious passer-by (like me) pauses to drink from the well. As always here in Ireland, history is writ large on the landscape, and continuity is assured both through holy ritual and piseogs…

making the mark

Pilgrims leave their marks on a ‘Neolithic altar’ under the statue of Mary

Another record of the day at The City can be viewed on Louise Nugent’s page, here. Amanda has covered the holy well at Shrone here. Voices from the Dawn website published an interview with Dan Cronin, who wrote In the Shadow of the Paps.

The Melodeon

A personal perspective – by Robert – to celebrate St Cecilia, the Patron Saint of music, on her day: 22nd November

Girl with Melodeon

…My father played the melodeon
Outside at our gate;
There were stars in the morning east
And they danced to his music.

Across the wild bogs his melodeon called
To Lennons and Callans.
As I pulled on my trousers in a hurry
I knew some strange thing had happened.

Outside the cow‑house my mother
Made the music of milking;
The light of her stable‑lamp was a star
And the frost of Bethlehem made it twinkle.

A water‑hen screeched in the bog,
Mass‑going feet
Crunched the wafer‑ice on the pot‑holes,
Somebody wistfully twisted the bellows wheel.

My child poet picked out the letters
On the grey stone,
In silver the wonder of a Christmas townland,
The winking glitter of a frosty dawn.

Cassiopeia was over
Cassidy’s hanging hill,
I looked and three whin bushes rode across
The horizon — The Three Wise Kings.

An old man passing said:
“Can’t he make it talk” —
The melodeon. I hid in the doorway
And tightened the belt of my box‑pleated coat.

I nicked six nicks on the door’post
With my penknife’s big blade—
There was a little one for cutting tobacco,
And I was six Christmases of age.

My father played the melodeon,
My mother milked the cows,
And I had a prayer like a white rose pinned
On the Virgin Mary’s blouse.

from A Childhood Christmas by Patrick Kavanagh 1943; the photo of the girl is from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s
Traditional musicians playing ‘squeeze boxes’ – top: Fred Pearce from Norfolk and Johnny Connolly from Connemara, both playing ‘The Melodeon’ – a single row instrument, while below: Jackie Daly from the Sliabh Luachra area (Cork / Kerry borders) and Joe Burke from Galway play the Irish Button Accordion

I have been playing the melodeon for well over 50 years: I should be a lot better at it than I am… My father didn’t play it: I didn’t even know that melodeons existed until I saw a secondhand one on sale in my local music shop when I was a teenager. I was fascinated by the look of it – it beckoned me; it was ten pounds, and in those days I earned seven shillings and sixpence a week from my paper round. Eventually I had saved enough to buy it, took it home and scratched my head over it.

Spot the difference: Robert then (playing a one-row melodeon) and now (playing a two-row button accordion – photo by Peter Clarke)

There’s a logic to playing a melodeon, but it’s not an immediately obvious one. Perhaps I’d better explain that a melodeon is one sort of accordion, and the definition varies depending what country you are in. I was in England then, and the term ‘melodeon’ there covers pretty well everything that has a button keyboard, bellows, and produces different notes when you move the bellows in or out; it doesn’t refer to a ‘piano accordion’ where the keyboard has – well – piano keys, and the movement of the bellows in either direction doesn’t make any difference to the notes.

Dermot Byrne and Steve Cooney

Expert Irish button accordionist Dermot Byrne, accompanied by Steve Cooney at a recent Baltimore Fiddle Fair event here in West Cork: Dermot is playing a rarely seen Briggs diatonic instrument

Now I am in Ireland and the term ‘melodeon’ only refers to an instrument with a single row of buttons on the keyboard; anything with more than one row is known as a ‘diatonic button accordion’, and you will probably most often come across the latter when listening to traditional music here, although nothing is ever simple, and there are a number of Irish players (including many really good ones) who play instruments with a single row of buttons.

Sharon Shannon

Sharon Shannon from Corofin, Co Clare has taken Irish button accordion playing to a different level: her concerts often include magical lighting effects and state-of-the-art electronic accompaniments

By chance, that first instrument that I saved up for had only one row, so it would be a ‘melodeon’ in both England and Ireland. I now tend to play mainly instruments with two rows, and I can’t stop calling them ‘melodeons’ even though that’s incongruous to players here.

Kerryman Seamus Begley – noted Irish accordion player and entertainer; in the right hand picture he is joined by concertina maestro Noel Hill at last year’s Corofin Festival, Co Clare

In an earlier post – The Clare Trumpet – I talked about concertinas, and the invention of those instruments by Charles Wheatstone in England, getting on for two hundred years ago. He took out a patent in 1829. In the same year Cyrill Demian – an Armenian organ and piano maker – filed a patent in Vienna for an ‘accordion’ which was exactly the same as today’s melodeon:

…In a box 7 to 9 inches long, 3½ inches wide and 2 inches high, feathers of metal plates are fixed… with bellows… even an amateur of music can play the loveliest and most moving chords of 3, 4 and 5 voices with very little practice… Each claves or key of this instrument allows two different chords to be heard, as many keys are fixed to it, double as many chords can be heard, pulling the bellows a key gives one chord, while pushing the bellows gives the same key a second chord…  many well known arias, melodies and marches, etc. may be performed similar to the harmony of 3, 4 and 5 voices, with satisfaction of all anticipations of delicacy and vastly amazing comfort in increasing and decreasing sound volume… it is easy and comfortable to carry and should be a welcome invention for travellers and parties visiting individuals of both sexes, especially as it can be played without the help of anybody…

martin connolly

Excellent accordion maker and mechanic Martin Connolly of Ennis tests out Robert’s Oakwood 

That’s true: the ‘squeeze box’ is one of those instruments which you have to learn to play just by doing it. Of course, you can get books of instructions – and you can get experienced players to help you get started – but in the end it comes down to instinct – and a lot of practice, preferably out of earshot of anyone else. You can pick up the diatonic system inexpensively by picking out tunes on a mouth-organ – which is a melodeon without the buttons or bellows!

Concertinas / melodeons / button and piano accordions are different instruments but all share certain characteristics including the means of producing a note through a vibrating ‘free reed’ – a small metal leaf held at one end in a frame. A bellows pushes or pulls air through the frame and the reed vibrates, producing a musical note. The size and weight of the frame and leaf governs the pitch of the note. The quality of metal used for the vibrating reed – its density, flexibility  and tempering – determines the overall sound quality of the instrument. The best instruments use hand made reeds.

Outside Rosies

Squeeze boxes in evidence in this recital from young members of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann outside Rosie’s, Ballydehob, during the Trad Festival

Enough of the technicalities! What matters is the music that can be got out of an instrument. I like the push-pull (bisonoric) squeeze boxes because you have to move the bellows so much to get the changing notes. This adds dynamics to the music: movement and rhythm. As so much of traditional music is used for dancing, this is a definite advantage – there is already ‘dancing’ in the music itself.

800px-Bourrée_d'Auvergne

There are so many really good traditional music players in Ireland: you will know that because of our reports on the festivals we go to. Who are the best players today of melodeons and diatonic accordions? You have to decide that yourself by going out and listening to as many as you can. Or, second best, you can stay at home and use the internet – Youtube is a seemingly endless resource. There’s also The Session, which is a very good site for finding tunes and discussions on music and musicians. I also recommend ITMA – the Irish Traditional Music Archive – an invaluable free resource of information including thousands of sound recordings, videos, images and manuscript collections all related to the music tradition here in Ireland.

post-436-1116811091

If you’re twisting my arm as to who are my melodeon ‘heroes’, I’ll reel off a list of players I would (and do) go out of my way to listen to: Johnny Connolly, Bobby Gardiner, Jackie Daly, Joe Burke, Seamus Begley, Dermot Byrne, Sharon Shannon… However, I seldom have to go far because they all seem to come, sooner or later (and often frequently) to our little corner of the world here in West Cork.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hail Cecilia!

Midsummer Maunderings…

Beautiful Cappaghglass

Beautiful Cappaghglass

…or Life Seen Through a Lens… Things found, places visited, mainly in the environs of West Cork, often just a few steps from Nead an Iolair, although one or two are from further afield. We have been away in Tipperary this week, so these posts are ‘ones we have prepared earlier’.

A reminder of Megaloceros - the extinct Irish Elk

A reminder of Megaloceros – the extinct Irish Elk, at Ballymaloe

curraghs

Currachs at Baltimore

Shelly Beach - our local secret

Shelly Beach – our local secret

Hugo helps himself!

Hugo helps himself!

guiness

Maestros Matt Cranitch and Jackie Daly playing in Ballydehob

Maestros Matt Cranitch and Jackie Daly playing in Rosie’s

An ordinary day in Ballydehob - with seanchaí Eddie Lenihan

An ordinary day in Ballydehob – with Seanchaí Eddie Lenihan

Ferdia - our garden companion

Ferdia – our garden companion

Dawn Moon over Rossbrin Castle

Dawn Moon over Rossbrin Castle

***

By the way… Dictionary definition of Maunder: to move or act in a dreamy, idle or thoughtful manner. Synonyms: wander, drift, meander, amble, dawdle, potter, straggle… Finola has only ever heard the word used in Ireland.

thady's

Thady’s window on the World