Checking In…

It’s been a while! We haven’t published any new posts since June and, during the months that have lapsed, Covid19 has ebbed and flowed. Pubs have reopened (and, in Dublin, closed again). While limited concerts and group performances have been staged, there has been no resurgence of open traditional music sessions in Ireland. 

Revisiting normal times – the Ballydehob Session in The Sandboat a few years ago

An interesting article appeared in The Corkman in early August. Since that time, the Coronavirus statistics have improved and then worsened again.

…The idea of a big group of musicians coming together in a socially-distanced way to play tunes is both technologically impossible and even if it could happen, it mightn’t be enjoyable, not in the same way sessions were before the virus… 

…It seems to be an accepted fact that loud music in a venue such a pub will lead to people speaking loudly – it’s an Irish tradition that people continue to talk during a music session whereas they stay quiet during a concert. Speaking loudly is held to be a factor in the spreading of the illness as it is transmitted via ‘aerosol’ from the mouth…

(The Corkman)

On Friday 18 September, Culture Night 2020, the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA) and Clare Arts Office premiered a new film inspired by the music, song and dance of County Clare. This new work originated from a Creator-in-Residence scheme featuring Maurice Gunning and concertina player Jack Talty. It’s an elegiac film essay about Clare but includes some fascinating early footage of traditional music sessions – well worth a watch!

Hopefully we all continue to play in our homes and, when possible, in small Covid-safe groups elsewhere. To keep us going through these times I’m including a (fairly rough and ready!) recording of me playing two recently learned Swedish waltzes on the Dipper GD Anglo Concertina:  Orrängsvalsen and Johan Vals. I hope you enjoy them!

That’s me – but I want to hear from YOU! I’m hoping for some more sound files to come pouring in to celebrate this re-awakening… Keep well, everybody!

Teatime Session!

Twelve weeks without a Ballydehob session! Are we all getting rusty, frustrated and tetchy? Session regulars Dick Miles (English concertina), Tim Keddle (banjo) and myself (Robert Harris) realised we can get together within the current lockdown restrictions: all of us live within a radius of 5km, and can meet out-of-doors, provided we maintain ‘social distancing’. So we gathered yesterday afternoon, for tea and music. Our backdrop was Roaringwater Bay, and the O’Mahony stronghold of Rossbrin Castle. The north wind was strong, cold and noisy – and our neighbouring farmer was spreading slurry on the adjacent field: everything was grand! I was the cameraman and sound engineer, but couldn’t resist joining in the first medley on my anglo concertina – Jenny Lind Polka and The Girl I Left Behind Me:


We often start the Ballydehob Session on a Friday night with this set, as it’s a good one for ‘loosening up’ and tuning in to each other. It’s a misconception that these are English tunes: they both have a broad spectrum across the range of musical traditions. Jenny Lind was composed by Anton Wallerstein (1813-1892) around 1840, and celebrated Johanna Maria Lind (1820 – 1887), a Swedish opera singer, often called the Swedish Nightingale, who became famous across the world. The German tune seeped in to the traditions of the Shetlands and North America, as well as Ireland and England. I discovered more written about this tune than any other I have researched so far, presumably because of the widespread fame of Lind herself. The Girl I Left Behind Me also has a long and complex history. It’s said to have originated in Elizabethan England, but turned up in America in 1650. The song first appeared in print in a collection The Charms of Melody, Dublin, Ireland dated 1791:

. . . All the dames of France are fond and free
And Flemish lips are really willing
Very soft the maids of Italy
And Spanish eyes are so thrilling

Still, although I bask beneath their smile,
Their charms will fail to bind me
And my heart falls back to Erin’s isle
To the girl I left behind me . . .

Everything I recorded in our impromptu Teatime Session is unedited and unrehearsed. What you see is what you get – so please excuse imperfections! Here’s a typical routine of Dick and Tim agreeing what to play and how to start it . . .

Here’s this polka set as it was played (you might hear the wind, the tractor and the choughs calling overhead!) – The Waterford, Tom Sullivan’s and Neili’s Polka:

We always have a song or two in our Ballydehob Sessions. I requested Dick to sing one of my favourites – Just As The Tide was Flowing:


To finish off for today here’s another polka set – Tim and Dick are playing Padraig O’Keefe’s, Nell Fahey’s and Little Diamond:

It’s relevant, perhaps, that I’m publishing this on a Friday – which would normally be our session day! Perhaps it won’t be too long, now, before we are all back together?

More from Swithun

This lady is Nancy Spain. Does that name mean anything to you? The real Nancy Spain (1917 – 1964) was an English journalist who worked for the Daily Express and News of the World in the 1950s and 60s, and was a radio broadcaster. Notorious and controversial, openly lesbian at a time when this was difficult, her friends included Marlene Dietrich and Noël Coward. She died in a plane crash on 21 March 1964, while on her way to cover the Grand National at Aintree. So why is she heading up this post? It’s because Swithun’s first piece is Nancy Spain:


Swithun was familiar with this tune from the famous Christy Moore song in the 1970s. In fact, Christy himself picked up the song from a man from Sallynoggin called Barney Rushe – who had written it in the late 60s. Barney was resident singer at a club in St Helier on the island of Jersey: he had needed a name which would fit his love song, and chose Nancy Spain – almost at random – because he liked the sound of it! The song has nothing to do with the life of the real Nancy Spain.

Next up from Swithun is a tune called Cape Clear, made popular in a 1989 album by Nollaig Casey and Art McGlynn:


In our Ballydehob Sessions we used to play tunes composed by Nollaig Casey (Nollaig Ní Chathasaigh), as she is West Cork born and bred! She has had a long career, encompassing both classical and traditional genres. She was a founder member of Planxty in 1980, and has toured worldwide. Cape Clear is seen above on the far edge of Roaringwater Bay, and this view is familiar to both Swithun and myself, as both our houses face out over ‘Carbery’s Hundred Isles’. The tune appears in the collections of Joyce (1909) and Petrie (1905). O’Neill (1903) also has a version, which he titles O! Sweet Adare.

Lastly from Swithun (for today) is a double track – The Pride of Petravore and Lanagan’s Ball:


The first comes from a song by Percy French (1854 – 1920): Eileen Oge – The Pride of Petravore. The tune is by Houston Collisson, with whom French collaborated. 

Eileen Oge, and that the darlin’s name is
Through the barony her features they were famous
If we loved her, who is there to blame us
For wasn’t she the pride of Petravore?
But her beauty made us all so shy
Not a man could look her in the eye
Boys, O boys, sure that’s reason why
We’re in mourning for the pride of Petravore . . .

Lanagan’s Ball is a rollicking jig, said to go back to 1860. Thank you, Swithun!

Troll Tuning

To celebrate the 30th post on this site I’m putting up a Roaringwater Journal article that I wrote in May six years ago! It celebrated the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, which was in progress at that time. Sadly, this year’s Fair was cancelled because of the Covid19 restrictions. I thought this post was appropriate as it includes my concertina playing of a traditional tune that I have only heard once or twice during the Friday sessions in Ballydehob. Here goes!

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.

Ale Möller, Aly Bain and Bruce Molsky

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

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…’

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…’

In rural Ireland, boys were sometimes dressed as girls so the Sióg would not steal them away

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.

The Angels’ Share

When you think of angels, you think of harps, don’t you? Of course you do… Well, apparently, some people think of whisky! If you look on the Glenlivet Distillery website, you’ll find this explanation for the expression which is the title of today’s post:

. . . One of the terms you’ll often hear in whisky distilleries is the angels’ share. When whisky is slowly maturing in its cask, a small amount of whisky evaporates through the wood and into the atmosphere. Each year, roughly 2% of the liquid leaves the cask this way, so over the years we’ve come to think of this as a sacrifice to the heavens. By giving the angels their share, we ensure the whisky is the best it can possibly be when it’s bottled. Why this happens and what we can do about it is just one of the more complex jobs for our Master Distiller to contend with . . .

Susan Nares has given us another sublime piece on her harp, and its title is Glenlivet:


And – yes – the tune is all about whisky! It was written by the famous Scottish fiddler and composer James Scott Skinner (1843 – 1927). His father William Skinner was a dancing master on Deeside, Aberdeen, and James followed in his footsteps, also becoming a dancing master – which earned him his living – and musician, playing traditional and classical tunes. His fame spread as far as the royal circle in Balmoral where, by 1868, he had 125 pupils in Queen Victoria’s household learning dancing and callisthenics from him. Eventually he became famous as a fiddler throughout Scotland and America, where he toured and recorded on wax cylinders. To cut what could be a long story short, his favourite Whisky was Glenlivet – and he wrote the tune to celebrate it! (Incidentally, it was also Charles Dicken’s favourite).

The Glenlivet Distillery is still situated in the same glen in Ballindalloch, Banffshire where in 1822 George Smith began, illicitly, to practice his craft

This is Susan’s own arrangement of the tune: listen out for those harmonics, which must be tricky to play but sound wonderful. Many thanks, Susie.

Jigs and Polkas

More tunes from the fiddle of Robin Lewando; he is serving us well! First an image:

This is a famous representation by Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) of ‘Irish Gallowglasses and Peasants’. It was long thought that Dürer had seen this group of Irish characters while visiting Antwerp in 1521, but recent research at UCC has established that the painter worked only from a visual description supplied by a traveller who in 1518 had been swept off course by a storm and landed in Kinsale! The traveller – Laurent Vital – was secretary to Archduke Ferdinand, teenage brother of Charles V, who had recently been crowned king of Spain. The royal party spent three pleasant days in Kinsale and Vital’s diary recorded in fine detail much of what they saw, including the Gallowglasses (elite mercenary warriors – on the left in Dürer’s picture). The whole incident was the subject of a study and lecture at UCC, which our Robin attended. He has therefore recorded two jigs for us – The Catholic Boy and The Gallowglass Jig:


We are not too far from the Sliabh Luachra region – on the borders of Cork and Kerry Counties, although we are unable to go there at present because of the Covid19 travel restrictions. Robin brings the Sliabh Luachra to us, however, with some popular polkas from the area – Mrs Ryan’s, Campdown Ladies, and gan ainm (learned from the box playing of Paudie O’Connor):


Campdown Ladies (also know as Camptown Races) was learned from the playing of Johnny O’Leary (1923 – 2004), who was from Maulykeavane, in the heart of the Sliabh Luachra –

. . . It is an area that has surely produced more musicians for its size and population than any other part of Ireland. Johnny played with them all, learning tunes and passing on tunes and creating with his fellow musicians an unequalled tradition of music-making . . .

He started playing the melodeon at the age of five and in his lifetime assimilated well over 1,500 tunes, adding to numerous collections.

In the Picture…

A little while ago I made a request for pictures or stories about our late lamented Ballydehob Session member Derek Hare. I was pleased to receive from past session member Alex Wilding (above) good pictures, not only of Derek, but of Ballydehob and district musicians who were active in the early 2000s. Some of these are still with the Session, others have moved on – like Alex himself, who left for Australia and then on to Tuscany. With Alex’s permission I am publishing a selection of his photos today, and will put up more in later posts. Thank you, Alex – it’s a most valuable record to have. I have to say at the outset that I only joined the session when I arrived in West Cork in 2012, and there are a lot of musicians here who I am not familiar with. But Alex has been enormously helpful in also providing a list of many – although not all – names. If there are mistakes here, or if anyone can add missing names as this series progresses, please don’t hesitate to let us know, using the contact form.

Here’s a great picture of Derek Hare (1925 – 2018). Derek was not only a stalwart member of the Ballydehob Sessions, but also played at many festivals and events all around West Cork.

This is Dick Miles, singer and player of the English Concertina (there’s more about him here). Dick currently leads the Ballydehob Sessions. He has lived in West Cork for thirty years, and runs our Ballydehob Fastnet Maritime and Folk Festival, which normally takes place every June. Sadly, this year’s festival has had to be cancelled because of the Coronavirus restrictions.

A great picture of a Session in full swing in Rosie’s Bar, Ballydehob. L – R: Dermod O’Brien, Liam Kenneally and Mike Wilson.

Roger Walker and Gillian Rowson – Session regulars for many years. We miss you!

Aerial view of Andrew Street!

Uwe Hage – more about him and his flute here!

Pôl O Colmáin – we don’t see him at the Session but he now has the Working Artists Studio in Main Street, Ballydehob.

Noreen O’Donovan Hage (always has a good song) and – finally – Derek Hare again.

That’s enough pics for today: there will be a whole lot more in future posts. Back to the music next time… But, please, if anyone else has any photos or Session stories to share, we would be very pleased to hear from you.

And – don’t forget – musical contributions are always welcomed!

Notes from Norway!

Well, actually, the musical notes are from Sweden! But they have been sent in by Bryony Harris, who lives in Norway. Bryony and I were very actively involved in the British folk music revival of the 1970s, and now, in our later lives, have both joined other musical cultures. As well as two great tunes, Bryony has given us some comprehensive notes about them, which I quote below. Here’s the first – Donats glömda polska:


And the second – Johan vals:


Bryony writes:

. . . During lockdown here in Norway I have had plenty of opportunity to learn some new tunes on both fiddle and whistle. Here are a couple of them, from the Swedish tradition. Although they are actually fiddle tunes, I don’t ever feel truly confident playing my fiddle (taken up very late in life) on my own – so you will have to make do with the whistle!

In true Swedish tradition one always introduces a tune naming the fiddler whose playing one has learnt the tune from. I have learnt these 2 tunes from the playing of the excellent Swedish trio, Björnlert Hedin Pekkari who play music from Southern Sweden (look for them on Spotify and Youtube).  They play fiddle and viol d’amore, nyckelharpa and double row melodeon. If you don’t know the nyckelharpa, look it up. It looks like a cross between a fiddle and a crocodile and sounds wonderful.

[Editor: I couldn’t resist putting a picture of a nyckelharpa (courtesy Bengt Nyman from Vaxholm) at the top of this post. It so exactly fits Bryony’s description!]

The first tune is Donats glömda polska, which literally means the Forgotten Donat Polska (the Swedish ‘polska’ is not to be confused with ‘polka’ which is quite different). They have the tune from the notebooks of the Swedish musician and composer, Sven Donat (1755-1815).  Here is a video of Johan Hedin playing this tune on the nyckelharpa and explaining how it got its name . . .

. . . The second tune is called Johan vals (waltz) also from Björnlert Hedin Pekkari. I’m afraid I can’t find anything about it, but it’s another beautiful tune. Here is the waltz played by Pelle Björnlert, Johan Hedin and Erik Pekkari . . .

Many thanks, Bryony, for broadening our horizons! In the past, Ballydehob has had musical visitors from Scandinavia during the annual Fastnet Maritime and Folk Festival, which normally takes place in June. Sadly, this year’s festival has had to be cancelled because of the Coronavirus restrictions.

Stouke Tunes

Oliver and Susan Nares – who live in our neighbouring townland of Stouke – have played for us before (here and here), and embellished Susie’s post with two of Oliver’s wonderful photographs ‘of the music’. Two more tracks from them today. Firstly, Ollie plays a pair of tunes on his Eric Martin Cajun-style melodeon (listen out for those sonorous deep bass notes):


The first tune is one I always called LNB Polka, although I have never seen an explanation for that name. In fact it’s a barn-dance rather than a polka (the lines are blurred depending how you play it) and the real name is La Roulante. It was written by Jean Blanchard (b 1948), a musician, collector and scholar of traditional French music from the Massif Centrale and Auvergne regions. He is best known as an expert on the Cornemuse (French bagpipes), but an equally brilliant performer on the Accordéon Diatonique (that’s a French-tuned melodeon). Often played very fast (perhaps too fast!) this tune should have a steady tempo to suit a barn dance – Ollie’s pace is ideal. I first heard the tune played by the ‘folk fringe’ group Blowzabella in the 1970s, learned it then, and passed it on to Ollie…

Jean Blanchard back in the French festival days (left) and today (right)

Ollie follows the French piece with one which hales from the Orkney Islands – Jimmy Garson’s March. This is a great tune and there are many ways of playing it: as a straight march which is in the Scottish pipe band repertoire, or with syncopation – quite what that turns it into, I’m not really sure!

Today, Susie is treating us to a fine slip jig with Cork connections on her harp – Drops of Brandy:

Some sources suggest this is a Scottish tune, but it is in fact in O’Neill’s collection ‘The Dance Music of Ireland – 1001 Gems’ (number 448). It is also known as Cork Fancy.

Many thanks to the Nares of Stouke for these.

Authentic Folk

John Adey and Penny Avant have recorded two folk songs for us. John has visited us in Ballydehob and played his English concertina at our Session here. He is equally good on guitar, and accompanies the two of them singing on this first track – More Than Enough:


Written by Robb Johnson (b 1955), who has correctly been described as “one of the last genuinely political songwriters”: his prolific opus of songs makes us feel uncomfortable – as we should – about the state of our world. I believe that this dates from the 1990s and was specifically a protest against the closure of children’s nurseries in England. The last verse sums it up – and the sentiment is as relevant today – a quarter of a century later – as it ever was:

…Consider how little of life that we know
You bring nothing, take nothing, pass through, and go
We’re all of us poor when it comes to the night
Afraid of the darkness, in need of the light
If we’d learn to want less and love more
There’d be enough for the poor

If we’d learn to want less and love more
There’d be enough for the poor
Cause there’s more than enough for us all…

John Adey – who hales from Mexborough – a former industrial town in South Yorkshire (in fact the home of the concertina quartet we featured in our very first post) – sings solo on our second track, another ‘true’ working people’s folk song known as The Walling Song:


This is a great song about rural life based on a poem by Keith Scowcroft from Bury, formerly part of Lancashire but now soaked up into Greater Manchester. The tune was added by Derek Gifford and included in a cassette recording – When All Men Sing – released in 1989. Since that time this affecting air has been so absorbed into the folk genre that many people have announced it as a ‘traditional’ piece. In fact, John himself learned it from a traditional Yorkshire singer – Will Noble – who is also a stone waller.

Many thanks to Penny and John for enriching our pages with these gems!

Traditional stone walling in the Dales at Malham, Yorkshire – Photo by Finola Finlay

PS It’s a small world! , Derek Gifford founded the once legendary Dicconson Arms Folk Club at the aptly named Dangerous Corner, Wrightington, Lancashire. The club ran through the late 70s and early 80s becoming one of the foremost folk venues in the North-West of England, hosting national guest appearances. A specific mention is made in their annals of a regular guest, Dick Miles – now heading up our Ballydehob Sessions!