The Golden Hour at Bantry House

Urns

You know that amazing quality of light just after sunrise and before sunset?  Well, photographers call it the Golden Hour (or Magic Hour), when the light takes on particular hues and becomes softer and more diffuse. There are scientific explanations, of course, but for most of us, we just know it when we see it.

Long Shadow

The low sun produces a golden glow and anything lit by it takes on those same reddish and amber hues. The harsh midday sun, which results in glaring highlights and deep shadows, is replaced by  gentler and longer shadows. Everything looks warmer, more romantic.

Roses

The perfect place to see this in West Cork is Bantry House. Because it faces due west, it is bathed in the low evening light. The construction materials, stone and brick, are warm-toned to begin with, but in the twilight hour they take on a mellow blush that is particularly entrancing. The sunsets over Bantry Bay, needless to say, are spectacular.

Ready for Zorro

Waiting for Zorro

We  had the perfect opportunity to observe this on several occasions. We attended a performance of Zorro on the lawn in August, and we usually take in several of the concerts at the Masters of Tradition Festival each year.

Back of the House

This photograph was taken during an interval at a Masters of Tradition Concert: the Library, at the back of the house, is the concert hall

Bantry House dates from the 18th century. The gardens were laid out in the second half of the 19th century in the formal continental style, with parterres, stepped lawns and avenues of statuary. The Second Earl was a great traveller and came back from his grand tour with ideas and artefacts to make the best use of the elevated site.

Up the steps

Rear Garden and StableIt  was he who added the stable yards with the cupolas, and laid out the gardens, including the hundred steps. All of this was somewhat at variance with the prevailing fashions in garden design at the time, which favoured more naturalistic settings with sweeping lawns dotted with groves of trees. However, it suited the restricted site and its formality has stood the test of time.

Statuesque

Restored Stable BlockA visit to the gardens at Bantry House is a wonderful experience. It’s open from March to October but the gates close at 5, so if you want to experience the Golden Hour, you’ll have to attend an evening event. Fortunately, these are abundant in the summer, as it’s a favourite venue for festivals and concerts.

Palms and HouseDuring the break, stroll about and just, well, bask. 

Trees and Flowers

Canons

And don’t forget to admire the sunset itself.

Sunset over the Bay

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

tulla stamp

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

Tuning In

sharonshannon

Sharon Shannon in concert, Dalkey

We are safely home in Nead an Iolair – and have immediately become immersed in music. We are making our own – with guests on the doorstep and at the local Friday sessions in Ballydehob – but also attending the many events which take place in West Cork in the summer. On our second night here we couldn’t miss a Skibbereen Festival event in the Abbeytsrewery Church: a concert in memory of Canon James Goodman, a cleric of the Church of Ireland who served the Skibbereen Parish for 30 years until his death in 1896.

james-goodman

There is a statue of the Canon by the gates of the church, where he can be seen with his Uillean pipes: he was a proficient player of this most complicated of all instruments. He is best known, though, for having produced one of the earliest collections of Irish traditional music – transcribing over 2000 tunes which he gathered from local players. All his known manuscripts are now in the library of Trinity College Dublin, where Goodman was also appointed Professor of Irish in 1879, but have only recently been brought to light and performed. Our Skibbereen concert celebrated the Canon and was devoted to his collected music. As Goodman was born in 1828 and starting collecting in his youth, we were listening to music as it would have been played in Ireland before the famine! But this is what The Music is all about – continuity of a timeless cultural tradition passed down through the generations and still very much alive.

The Canon Goodman concert

The Canon Goodman concert

August was the month for the Masters of Tradition Festival, organised and run by Martin Hayes who hales from East Clare. For me, he is one of the world’s greatest musicians of the Irish tradition: his playing is captivatingly lyrical and seems to carry with it the soul of this ancient land. We attended all the concerts, many of which took place in Bantry House, a gently fading edifice which was once the home of the Earls of Bantry and is still occupied by their descendants. This stately home hosts many artistically based events through the year and provides an impressive – if incongruous – background to the activities. Some of the traditional musicians seemed slightly uncomfortable in the polite ambience of the candlelit Library, being more used to the ‘dancing in the aisles’ atmosphere of pubs and village halls: nevertheless, all the performances were memorable.

bantryhouse

Bantry House, built in 1690 with a spectacular setting overlooking Bantry Bay

There have been so many events within easy reach of our home here in Cappaghglass through the summer: we have had to miss a few because they overlap. We are keeping those for next year – or the years after that! We visited Finola’s family in Dublin and arrived to find a Sharon Shannon concert happening just down the road. This was wonderfully located in the Catholic Church of the Assumption. Sharon is an outstanding accordion player who has been performing professionally for very many years. In this incarnation of her music we were treated to heavy amplification, a brilliant pianist and singer – Alan Connor (who almost stole the show!) – and a disco light display which was enhanced by the ornate Victorian richness of the altar and reredos. There was very nearly ‘dancing in the aisles’ on this night!

Keeping alive The Music - in the market at Skibbereen

Keeping alive The Music – in the market at Skibbereen

In what seems like just a few whirlwind days we have progressed from music on the doorstep to world calibre concerts in beautiful settings: this is only the beginning of our new life here…

On the doorstep: Nead an Iolair

On the doorstep: Nead an Iolair