Surfing the Archives

There’s really valuable history to be found on the internet! Here’s an example… the very first post we published after we moved to Nead an Iolair a whole lot of years ago mentioned a concert we attended in Abbeystrewry Church, Skibbereen which honoured a Rector of that church who was also Professor of Irish in Trinity College Dublin: Canon James Goodman, who lived from 1828 to 1896. He was also an uilleann piper and collector of traditional music. I wrote about him in more detail the following year, Some of you may remember a story I often tell about the Canon’s grave in Creagh Burial Ground, on the way to Baltimore. It was his wish that his pipes be buried with him, and so they were. Finola and I would visit the atmospheric site at Creagh and listen out for the haunting tones of the Canon’s pipes playing away there.

Header picture – a bronze statue at the entrance to Abbeystrewery Church in Skibbereen shows Canon Goodman playing his uilleann pipes. Above – Creagh Burial Ground and the Canon’s grave

I’m sorry to disappoint, but there’s an update to the story about the Canon and his buried pipes. I have been surfing the archives of Ireland’s principle media outlet, Raidió Teilifís Éireann, and it’s a wonderful resource! When you click on the links, you may find that some of the material is preceded by short advertisements: sorry, they are built in to the archive site – to help fund it no doubt. That’s a worthwhile cause, anyway. Now, have a look at this:

Mícheál Ó Riabhaigh being interviewed on RTE in 1966. He became the owner of Canon Goodman’s pipes and they have since passed to his son, Eoin O Riabhaig, player and pipemaker from Cork city

. . . When Canon Goodman died he wished for his pipes to be buried with him and his good friend Alderman Phair made sure that this happened. However, Alderman Phair thought it a pity that such a set of pipes would just lie in a grave so just days after Goodman’s burial the pipes were taken out of his grave. The pipes remained in Alderman Phair’s possession for six or seven years before being passed on to Mícheál Ó Riabhaigh. The pipes were made by master craftsman Willie Taylor . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1966)

Before leaving that subject behind for today, here’s a YouTube video of Mícheál playing the Canon’s Taylor pipes; it dates from 1963:

Remembering my recent post on the Irish drum, or Bodhran, I was delighted to find some ‘old footage’ on the RTE Archives on the instrument:

This link is also footage from 1966:

. . . Sonny Canavan tells Ted Nealon about taking part in the Wren Boy activities and as Captain not being able to have a drink.  79 year old John (Jack) Duggan talks about his plans to go out with the Wren Boys this forthcoming Saint Stephen’s Day. Jack has been involved with the Wren Boys since he was twelve and played the concertina.  John is also a bodhrán maker and describes in detail how to go about it using a sieve from a barrel for the rim and the skin of a goat . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1966)

Sonny Canavan is interviewed again in 1977 (above):

. . . Sonny Canavan raises goats to provide the skin for his instruments and he gave this particular man a goat so he too could make a bodhrán. The man explains that after he shot and skinned the goat, the skin was buried for nine days it was then dug up and putting in on the bodhrán rim . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1977)

And this piece is of additional interest because it shows Listowel playwright and writer John B Keane visiting Sonny to talk about bodhráns. J B Keane wrote The Bodhran Makers, which was published in 1986. The writer died in 2002.

Here’s another RTE piece showing concertina maestro Noel Hill, from Clare. I wrote about that instrument in The Clare Trumpet.

. . . Iarla Ó Lionáird introduces Noel Hill who plays a concertina made in the 1860′s. Noel Hill describes this concertina as having a special tone and an unusual key. From Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in Monkstown, Co. Dublin, Noel Hill performs two reels, ‘The Wind that Shakes the Barley’ and ‘Trip to Durrow’. . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1988)

We have never written about traditional Irish dancing – there’s a good subject! A post for another day, perhaps: it’s certainly thriving in Ireland. It enjoyed a great revival of popularity with the River Dance shows, but that was professional and polished (and impressive!) – but I like to see the raw version: people young and old dancing for personal enjoyment and entertainment in their kitchens or at the scoriachts. So, to finish for today (although I haven’t even scratched the surface of what’s on offer in the RTE archives), here are two pieces: The Fastest Reel in the West, from 1972, and Door Dancing, from 1981.

. . . Gay Byrne introduces John Conneely from Knock, Kilshamuck, Co. Mayo, who performs a reel in his own unique style to the music of ‘George White’s Favourite’ performed by John Cleary. The remarkable thing about this is that John had previously been hospitalised for months following a fall on a building site in England which left him with a broken back. Ciaran MacMathuna who is sitting in the audience describes John’s unique dance as “the fastest reel in the west”. . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1972)

. . . In Ireland long ago it was customary when groups of people worked together, as a ‘Meitheal’ to dig potatoes or save hay, that they would gather after a day’s work to relax and have a dance. These gatherings took place in traditional Irish cottages with mud floors and flagstones. A door was taken off its hinges to provide a flat surface for dancing. Solo set dancers were asked to dance on the doors as the skill of the dancer is best shown by how well they can produce the variety of steps within the narrow confines of the dance surface. In order to gauge the best dancer amongst a group of solo dancers, they placed four glasses on the corners of the door to help determine the most skilled dancer. The person to spill the least amount of water was the winner of the competition . . . (from the RTE Archive notes 1981)

Tailpiece – from the RTE Stills Library – The Oranmore Céilí Band, 1985:

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 National 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.