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?

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.

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!

Music For Our Times

This is a Swantonstown Sessions ‘one-off’. I’m putting up a link to a continuing project set up by Music Networks in Ireland to commission new works in all genres, including traditional music. Here’s a track of a piece written by the brilliant concertina player (and traditional dancer) Caitlín Nic Gabhann – a slow march called An Ciúnas (Stillness). It’s played by Caitlín on Anglo concertina with Ciarán Ó Maonaigh on the fiddle:

Great music! And a wonderful enterprise to help players who are losing out at this time because of the Covid19 restrictions. Three time All-Ireland champion on concertina, Caitlín would normally be a regular performer at festivals and in concert halls across the world. From a strong family musical background, and writing tunes since the age of ten, Caitlín gained first class honours at both University College Cork and Trinity College Dublin.

She Moved Through the Fair

One of the great Irish airs played for us on the whistle by Ballydehob Session regular Swithun Goodbody – She Moved Through the Fair:


The beautiful tune is well known as a song, and has a complicated history, involving various claims as to its composition. The song tells the story of two lovers who meet at the fair:

. . . The narrator sees his lover move away from him through the fair, after telling him that since her family will approve, “it will not be long, love, till our wedding day”. She returns as a ghost at night, and repeats the words “it will not be long, love, till our wedding day”, intimating her own tragic death (possibly at the hands of her disapproving family), as well as the couple’s potential reunion in the afterlife . . .

It’s a haunting song, and a haunted story. The melody is almost unworldly, and has been described as ‘Eastern’ in tone.

The Co Longford poet Padraic Colum (1881 – 1972) claimed to have written the majority of the words, having heard a traditional singer reciting one verse. This was challenged in a lengthy correspondence in the Irish Times in 1970 when collector Proinsias Ó Conluain (1919 – 2013), said he had recorded a song called “She Went Through the Fair”, given to him by an elderly singer who had learned it as a young man from a basket-weaver in Glenavy, Co Antrim.

In my opinion by far the best rendering of this song is by Margaret Barry (1917 – 1998) – top photo, who features in a Roaringwater Journal post here. When Margaret was once asked where she had got this song (presumably by someone hoping to sort out the controversy) she explained that she had learned it from a recording by Count John McCormack, made in the 1940s! I can’t resist sharing with you one of Margaret’s versions of the song, recorded in the mid 1950s:

Thank you, Swithun, for allowing me to expand on one of my favourite folk singers, but also providing us with these further fine tunes, on the fiddle: – Only Our Rivers Run Free by Mickey MacConnell (of Co Fermanagh, Dublin and Co Kerry), followed by another version of O’Carolan’s Sí Bheag Sí Mhór.


As an encore we have from Swithun a great jig which always goes with a swing – Smash the Windows (also known as Roaring Jelly):


Remembering Derek…

Derek Hare (above) born November 1925, died Easter 2018″…playing music to the end…”

Derek was a stalwart member of the Ballydehob Sessions, ever since he arrived in West Cork in 1990. He was brought up in Scotland (where he spoke Scots Gaelic), and lived in Norfolk, Hampshire and Leicester before coming to Ireland. But he had many adventures in between. He was in the armed forces in Word War II, serving in Finland and N Norway. During a period in Winterton, Norfolk, he met up with Bob Roberts (who owned and skippered the last commercial sailing barge to trade in the UK) and Sam Larner, both of whom were involved in a lively traditional music scene in East Anglia. Derek had many stories to tell about that particular period in his life, and his own adventures in traditional music.

Bob Roberts (left) at the wheel of his Thames Sailing Barge Cambria (peter Kennedy Collection), and (right) Sam Larner’s Topic album recorded in 1958

As a little Sessions project I would like to invite all Ballydehob Session members (or anyone else who knew Derek in his lifetime) to contribute something to these pages. Either tunes that you know he played or liked, or any stories about him. Please send them in and we’ll put up a future post featuring them.

I’m kicking off with two waltzes which I often heard him play in our sessions: The Marino Waltz – composed by John Sheahan of The Dubliners and (Derek’s own favourite) Margarets’ Waltz – composed by Pat Shuldham Shaw. I’m playing them in G at a reasonably sedate 100 BPM – good for dancing to!

It’s Spring – Look Out For The Bluebells!

Finola Finlay took this photo only the other day on the Greenmount Road, near Ballydehob!

With the Covid19 lockdown upon us, it’s sometimes hard to remember that the natural world carries on regardless. Cathy Cook has brought some fresh air and spring sunshine with two tunes on this Facebook link – The Grassy Path and The Bluebells are Blooming:

Both of these jigs were written by Michael Dwyer, who was born near Ardgroom on the Beara Peninsula, West Cork, in 1942 – one of a family of nine children whose father, John Dwyer, played accordion and fiddle while his mother, Kathleen Mc Carthy, (whose family came from Skibbereen) played accordion and sang. The family therefore grew up steeped in the musical traditions of Cork and Kerry. Michael became an All-Ireland champion tin whistle player, but was also a prolific composer. His twenties were spent in London where he met and played with every well-known Irish musician in that vibrant scene, and absorbed their music. Michael returned home to the Beara when his father died in 1972.

…While in London  Michael would have been walking along the street … “humming away and composing to himself”. Back at home, he often walked the roads of the locality especially those between Ardgroom and Castletown. He saw the beauty in nature and felt the rhythm of the natural world like others could not. To him it was as if the rocks and heather, the streams and ferns, nestled between mountain and sea were like a fairy land that lightened his step as he strode along … How could a man with music in his heart not share it?

(These extracts are from an extensive biography of Michael Dwyer on the Irish Tune Composers site)

…Michael was a typical Munster style player, and the jigs and reels which were his favourites were played alongside hornpipes, slow airs, polkas, slides and set dances. After returning from England he was a regular session player in the Beara region and in his own words, always willing to “go for a tune”. He would sometimes play at home and take the opportunity to play in many different keys for his own enjoyment. Even though he never taught formally, and could not read music he sometimes gave lessons on a one to one basis especially in his aunt’s house in Castletown. Even though he could be regarded as a quiet man he was very fond of company and was never shy about playing…

 …Michael Dwyer was drowned in Ardgroom harbour on the 9th of June 1997. He was only 55 years of age. His family and close friends still mourn his loss. He was buried in Eyeries cemetery on a calm June morning. By the graveside his good friend Joe Burke played the haunting slow air Sean O Duibhir an ghleanna (John O’Dwyer of the glen). You could hear the strains of the accordion dance their way across the “Green fields of Beara” and melt into the broad Atlantic…

Thank you, Cathy, for taking us on this little journey through our beautiful landscapes and musical traditions.

History and Landscape, Ardgroom, Beara Peninsula