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.

Atlantic Winter

Dingle Beach

When St Brendan of Clonfert set out to discover America in 512 he and his fellow monks had to face the enormity of the Atlantic Ocean in tiny boats built out of wood and oxhides, sealed with animal fat. Up here in Nead an Iolair our view out to the islands of Roaringwater Bay and beyond is dominated by that same ocean and – sometimes – we feel just as small. This year the winter gales have started early, and spates of fierce westerlies have been throwing the Atlantic straight at our windows. The tiles rattle alarmingly while we are tucked up in bed at night. At these times I think of the Saint and what he had to face. But, like Brendan, we always survive the storms, and often wake up in the morning to a calm, clear day – except that you can hear the constant ‘roaring’ of the open sea out over the bay.

celebrating massOn their way to the New World – Saint Brendan and his companions take advantage of a passing Atlantic denizen to celebrate Mass…

The Atlantic has shaped Ireland. The sea is omnipresent: poets have written about it, storytellers have woven tales around it, and composers have tried to capture its spirit in music. Here’s a small section from the impressive ‘Brendan Voyage’ written by Shaun Davey for orchestra and Uillinn pipes – it’s the haunting second movement, played by Liam O’Flynn with the Irish National Youth Orchestra, at a performance in Cork City Hall. It makes me think of the wonderful sunrise on that calm day after the storm…

Brendan Voyage

Long Island Beacon

Brow Head

Mizen Head

Our own Atlantic: telescopic view of a storm battering Long Island, taken from our garden at Nead an Iolair (top), Brow Head, near Crookhaven (centre), and the impressive land and seascape at Mizen Head – Ireland’s most south-westerly point (lower picture). At the head of this page you can see the huge rollers that come into Dingle Bay, Co Kerry

Dogger, Rockall, Malin, Irish Sea:
Green, swift upsurges, North Atlantic flux
Conjured by that strong gale-warning voice,
Collapse into a sibilant penumbra.
Midnight and closedown. Sirens of the tundra,
Of eel-road, seal-road, keel-road, whale-road, raise
Their wind-compounded keen behind the baize
And drive the trawlers to the lee of Wicklow.
L’Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, “A haven,”
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.

Glanmore Sonnets VII, taken from Field Work by Seamus Heaney, published by Faber and Faber Ltd

Seamus Heaney was deeply affected by the seascape of his native Ireland. Anyone who works on or beside the sea is aware of the resonant names from the Shipping Forecasts, and the poet has used those names here to introduce his word-picture of the elemental Atlantic.

Near Malin Head 2

On the Beara

Donegal Beach

Atlantic contrasts from Mizen to Malin: near Malin Head – Ireland’s most northerly point (top), off the Beara (centre) and a beach in Donegal (lower)

A later traveller over the Atlantic waters was Chistopher Columbus in the 15th century. On the way he looked out for St Brendan’s Isle, a spectral island situated in the North Atlantic somewhere off the coast of Africa. It appeared on numerous maps in Columbus’ time, often referred to as La isla de SamborombónThe first mention of the island was in the ninth-century Latin text Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abatis (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot), from whence it became firmly implanted into Irish mythology. St Brendan took a little party of monks to the island to say Mass: when they returned after a few days to the rest of the flotilla, they were told that they had been away for a year! The phantom island was seen on and off by mariners for years until in 1723 a priest performed the rite of exorcism towards it during one of its apparitions behind low cloud… You can see St Brendan’s Isle for yourselves, above the wonderful giant fish in the second picture down.

Dingle Peninsula

Coast Road

Dingle peninsula (top), and Coast Road in Donegal (lower)

I was pleased to find this Irish Times video made by Peter Cox when he was fundraising for his book Atlantic Light: spectacular photographs of the coastline on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. The excellent aerial views in this film are all taken by a drone… Look out for places you will have seen in our blogs!

atlantic video

We are privileged that the Atlantic Ocean is the abiding but ever-changing feature in our daily lives. It must affect us in unknown ways: I do know that, wherever I go in this world, I will – like Saint Brendan – always be drawn back here to our wonderful safe haven…

St-Brendan-Coin1

 

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