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
…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…
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!
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 MariaLind (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?
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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…
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!
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.
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 BheagSí 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):
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?
…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.