Paddy Jones: The Music of Sliabh Luachra (Watch it here)
First of all, for the uninitiated, we’d have to say where Sliabh Luachra was. Some people think that Ciaran MacMahuna introduced Sliabh Luachra to the world, with his lovely tough way he says, “A few weeks ago I was down in Sliabh Luachra”, and, this music came on the scene and suddenly people began looking for Sliabh Luachra. And they came into places like Castleisland and Killarney, and they were asking the publicans in places there, “Where’s this village of Sliabh Luachra?” And, of course, the people there knew there was no village, because they didn’t know anything more about Sliabh Luachra. And they said, “Yerra, it is over there, around Gneeveguilla or some damned place like that.” And that’s about all they knew about it.
But Sliabh Luachra is going back in history a long way. There was a time, when the English, or the British, ruled the place, and Sliabh Luachra was described as a place where ‘the Queen’s writ couldn’t run’. In other words, ’twas a vast area of bogs and swamps and forest, with no roads through it, so that these lawless people — they were lawless from the British viewpoint because they were trying to take back, by daring and courage, what had been stolen from them, legally, in Britain’s eyes — but they could run into this place and the Queen’s armies couldn’t go in after them. So that’s why Mr Griffith built some of these roads that run through this territory.
Anyway, a time came, after the release of The Star Above the Garter, when Sliabh Luachra became nationwide, it became one of the most notable parts of Ireland. From a place that was totally obscure, now it was the leading traditional exponent of Irish music. And people from all over started learning it. And, from obscurity, it almost engulfed the whole country, as Connie Houlihan said in his lecture. There was no boundaries to its areas, but it spread and spread, and Connie said, it was in danger of engulfing the whole country.
So, not only that, but even parts of America — I’m going to show you a t-shirt here, that’s maybe a little bit the worse for wear, but it was given to me in a place near Albuquerque, and if you could read the label there it says, ‘Greetings from New Mexico’. But it says, ‘Sliabh Sandia’. Now, ‘Sandia’ is the French for water melon, or the Spanish, sorry, for water melon, but you can see even the influence, ‘Sliabh’. They were used to dancing Sliabh Luachra sets. They called their club Sliabh.
Now, talking about Sliabh, I’m going to now read the sleeve notes of The Star Above the Garter. (Excuse me for all the stooping up and down.) This is the cover of the original LP that put Sliabh Luachra on the map. And ’tis a bit the worse for wear, because it is around with thirty or more odd years. But I’m not going to read it because I’m a better reader than you are, but I’m going to read it because it makes some very interesting points that need to be made. So, with your permission, I’ll read it.
“In the Kingdom of Kerry there are many principalities and many princely lines. We speak here, not of the aristocracy of blood, for it would be a brave man who could, or who would, draw comparisons between the proud genealogies of the South West. Our concern is, rather, with the arts — poetry and story-telling and good talk and, of course, music. Even here, or perhaps especially here, one must tread warily. Only a fool indeed will rush into judgment on the relative claims of greatness of say, Corca Dhuibhne, and Uibh Rathach. But I believe even the most loyal partisan of Piaras Feiritéar would concede the primacy for poetry to the area known to generations as Sliabh Luachra. For here was the little fatherland of Aoghán Ó Rathaille and Eoghan Rua Ó Súilleabháin who are, by common consent, the two finest poets that Kerry can claim, and Aoghán, at least, was one of the great poets of Ireland. But that was long ago, you may say, and since English became the language of Sliabh Luachra, the high poetry is gone. True. But the music remains.
Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford, his sister, are from Eoghan Rua’s own native place, Gneeveguilla, near Killarney – not that Eoghan would have spelt it like that. The link is not just one of coincidence, as you will so learn if you spend the evening listening to Denis, not just playing the tunes that the poets sang to, but telling the stories about Eoghan and the others that still live in the place. It’s a place of long memories and there was no better man to keep the memories fresh and the stories sharp and salty than Pádraig Ó Caoimh, Beannacht Dé Leat Ar A Anam, who passed on the great tradition in words and music to his pupils. Pupils we say advisedly, for Pádraig was one of the last of the fiddle masters, who are the scattered fellows of an unendowed, unhoused, unrecognised academy of Irish music and tradition for perhaps two hundred years.” (We will be dealing with that aspect later on.) Pádraig Ó Caoimh had many pupils, some of them brilliant, but none more brilliant that Denis and Julia. Here is their music to prove it. Among the twenty items listed, pride of place must, of course, go to the airs. Here we have four melodies of great beauty and no little antiquity. The air Caoine Uí Dhonaill, the Lament of O’Donnell, side 2 band 9, is a deeply moving lament, and along with O’Rahilly’s Grave, side 1 band 7, is a fine example of the tradition we have been discussing.”
But we needn’t go any further with this at the present time . . . of course he mentioned The Blackbird, a slow air as well. But, these notes were written by a man called Seán Mac Réamoinn, and certainly this man knew what he was talking about, because in the world today, it’s almost all, sessions have become almost reels completely in certain places, and of course in lots of places. But in Sliabh Luachra the tradition always was the variety: slides, polkas, slow airs, marches. If you look at some of Ó Caoimh’s books you’ll find quicksteps, two-steps, waltzes, mazurkas, barn dances — you’ll find all sorts of tunes as well as the reels and the jigs and the hornpipes. So for Ó Caoimh, and in my estimation, a good fiddle player should be able to play all sorts of tunes.
Now I’ll tell you of my own experience of coming to this music. First of all, my father was a next door neighbour of Pádraig Ó Caoimh’s, so he knew Pádraig intimately and had gone to school to him as a pupil. He was there the day Pádraig lost his school. And later on, he used to cut his hair, and he knew Pádraig very well and could tell a lot of stories about him.
But, when I was a young lad he used to say, when you heard Ó Caoimh playing the fiddle, you never again thought anybody else could come anywhere near what he was doing playing the fiddle, because he had some dríocht, was the word. Now there’s loads of aspects to music, but the way my father described it, he had a magic in his playing. And my grandfather, who was known as Old Jones, he was Tom, he said, “When Ó Caoimh plays” he says, “you’re not listening to music, he’s talking to you.” And my grandmother — they all lived near him and they danced at house dances — she said, “The people around here don’t appreciate Pádraig’s playing” she says, “but when he’ll die, they’ll all be talking about him.” And she was right.
Now, I have a little word that I’ll say about Ó Caoimh himself. I was lucky in that I went to him for lessons when I was about ten years of age. It was a journey of at least six miles maybe, if not seven, from the top of Killcushana down to the main road, and from there to Glauntane Cross. And he was a grand old gentleman at that time. He was nearly seventy years of age at that time. He died in 1963. But he was a courteous and a gentle and a kind man. He didn’t take very much trouble in teaching. He usually wrote out of his head whatever tune he thought was appropriate. And paper, that’s such an abundant commodity in the world today, was very scarce that time. Sometimes he wrote on the back of calendars and he’d draw the lines with a bow, with a pencil. And then he’d write the tune out of his head. And he’d play the tune through, maybe once, slowly, and your lesson was over. The lesson was usually over in about five minutes flat. And you could walk away the six miles home then again. And it was written in tablature; there was no such thing as staff notation. So the only obvious problem with tablature – does everybody know what tablature is, or must I explain it? Tablature is a system that’s still used in parts of America for teaching 5-string banjo. The 5 lines – you can use the standard manuscript book – but the 5 lines are used, and the spaces in between represent the strings. In other words, the space at the top represents the first string, the next space down the second, then the third and then the fourth. And whatever number is written in represents the finger that’s to go on that string. Now I have books of it here, and it’s a bit worse for wear — I wonder, you can’t see it very clearly — but you can see these are written out with all letters. And these are all collected. I have collected these down the years, starting from Pádraig himself, and then when he died, I went to other people and I found a lot of tunes, and I copied them all down in these books. So I thought I’d bring them along to show you this as well.
So, about the stories: one of the stories I used to enjoy was, Ó Caoimh was playing at a ploughing match one day, down in Cordal, and the people — and of course you must realise the standard of music was very poor at that time – and that’s not bringing down Ó Caoimh accomplishments — but the story was the people left their horses and ploughs and ran over to hear this music. So, a touch of Orpheus. Orpheus, in Greek legend, was such a mighty musician that trees uprooted themselves, and rocks, to follow after him, to listen to him. Yes. So he was a mighty man.
Now there is another funny one. A Greek goddess asked Zeus — meaning no disrespect to the people of the cloth as they say – for the gift of music. And Zeus ran to her — these are only legends — with the gift. And the gods looking on, when they saw her playing they laughed, because she used to make faces while she played. Now it wasn’t the fiddle, maybe, maybe a lyre or whatever, but the gods laughed at her. So I notice, myself sometimes, we do make faces, and a few times, a bold person in an audience might come up after and say, “You’re saying something when you’re playing music”, and of course, I say — I don’t like it very much — but I don’t tell the people that, but I say, “Well now, if you come up, and put your ear up, you’ll hear something very important”. That’s all I have to say on it.
But poor Pádraig, he finally died. And, it was amazing. The people, that knew his life was very limited in resource, they were all surprised that this man — it’s amazing the amount of people I met that told me afterwards, “We thought this man would never die”. In fact, my mother had a picture of De Valera on one side of the fireplace and a picture of the Pope on the other, and these were her two heroes, but when Ó Caoimh died, herself and my father, it used to come up in conversation, and they used to say, “That man should never die”. He was the only one, except one more. There was another man that died, Joe Cooley, he was a box player from Peterswell in Galway, and the same thing, when he died, the story was, “That man should never die”. So you can see how important musicians were to the people of Ireland.
Now, we’re talking now about the music itself: why had it such an effect on the people? You know, I mean, music is such a common thing in the world today. Why did it have such a profound effect on those people? It’s very simple when you think about it. If Van Gogh or Salvador Dali, who could easily have been living around the locality, were there, and he made a great picture, the people could come and look at it and say, “Oh, that’s beautiful”. Or a great sculptor, he could do something, but what would it have done for the people? It would be great art, and of course it has intrinsic value in itself, but from the world viewpoint its value is that it’s a collector’s item. But the music was where the real treasure-house was, and for several reasons. Now, I’m going to introduce you to a man again, and people could say, “Well he has nothing in the world to do with Irish music”, and he hasn’t, but he is a beautiful gentleman, Yahudi Menuhin. He was one of the world’s greatest fiddlers for years upon years. But in a little sentence here, he gives the answer to why music was so important, not only for the people of Sliabh Luachra but for everybody.
Now to take these in little sections we have to use our imagination a little bit, because I’m taking this from the end of a paragraph here, and it says, “The refinement to which I believe we all aspire is genuine only so long as it contains a levelling of spontaneity and a sense of common humanity. Music, which exhibits this, remains in touch with the emotions and desires of more, rather than fewer, people. On the other hand, art which turns its back on the often bleak life which very many people endure, simply cannot last.”
So now, when you think of the people of Sliabh Luachra, we’ll go back to that in a minute, but I’ll maybe just, as I have the book in my hand, I’ll read another note that may be pertinent, and it’s on page 12 here, it says, “The violin is the poor man’s instrument, but it is strangely enough also the instrument which offers to the individual the greatest and most immediate means of expression. It enables a person, a people, to speak for and of themselves. I recall visiting a museum for folk instruments in Moscow, and I could not believe my eyes when I saw hundreds upon hundreds of varieties of violins. Every conceivable size, shape, design, form – some of them did not even look like violins – yet all were played on four strings, with a bow, and were made by the village carpenter, or village handyman, and could be carried about the place. These hardworking, hardwearing fiddles were rustic folk instruments of infinite resource. Such an instrument was sturdy; if it got wet or damaged it could easily be repaired or replaced.” So now, when we’re talking about the music of Sliabh Luachra, I thought that would be a good point, because we’re basically talking about violins, you know, nearly all the time, in what’s related to what I’m presenting here tonight.
Now, like Jesus himself, I’m going to use an analogy, or a parable, because He was the greatest teacher of all time. So I am going to use the analogy of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and people could look up and say, “What’s that got to do with Sliabh Luachra music?” Well it has, because when you think that this little princess all of a sudden found herself inside with these seven dwarfs. And if we believe the story as it was told, it seems that she washed and cooked and looked after these — they weren’t seven dirty old men — they were seven filthy dwarfs! And they went out every morning down a mine, so they came in fairly rough and ready, and you know, I wonder was the story true? Well, Walt Disney’s take on it was a way better altogether. Walt showed that she didn’t do the work at all. This little princess got all these dwarfs, Grumpy and the whole lot of them, to do the work. But they worked with such a will, because they were delighted that this beautiful feminine being was among them. And the work became light. You couldn’t imagine Grumpy saying to Snow White, “Snow White, you must dig the spuds today at 12 o’clock, and you must weed the turnips!” It would hardly happen. But Walt Disney got it, when you saw that all of a sudden these people had something beautiful to come home to, and they had something to get up for, they had something to live for, and she made them laugh and she got them to work. Now, the music of Sliabh Luachra did exactly the same thing. These were a people that were oppressed. These people had one real worry when they got up in the morning, and that was where the next morsel of food came from. Because if you didn’t look after the potatoes, or you didn’t look after the pit of potatoes, and turnip, well when the spring came you’d have nothing to eat. So these people were constantly working. And even as romantic as saving hay seems, looking back on it now, the weather then was basically the same as it is today; if you didn’t make hay while the sun shone, you were working very hard.
So, these people were now, they were oppressed by religion as well. With all due respects, these people were given to believe that we were living in the vale of tears, or a valley of tears. It’s not true. We are living in a place of incredible gifts and goodness. Now, with all due respect to the Church, they meant well, but sometimes the message got a bit garbled and they tried to curtail people who were coming together, to have a dance or something, as well. So unfortunately, that is the history. And the thing is, the people worked so hard, and while they worked they had this music to sustain them, and this looking forward to the night of the dance or the wedding. So that’s how, in a sense, it became like Snow White in their imagination.
Now, my mother used to tell a story and I’ll just elaborate on that point a little bit. Up from where my mother lived in Knocknaboul, there were a family of Tarrants, and these people used to try to rush through saving the hay with one express purpose, of getting it shot with, to go in to practice music. And also, Paddy Cannon, Paddy was a grand fiddle player from County Clare, and his neighbours used to talk about Paddy because Paddy would bring his fiddle out to the meadow, and of course for neighbours he wasn’t a very practical man. If Paddy was learning a new tune, that he’d heard someplace, he’d bring out his fiddle, you know, to play in the meadow. Peter Horan loved the music so much that his farm fell into disrepair a little bit, because the fiddler is often away making people happy when he should be at home minding his own business.
So this was our Pádraig. Pádraig was the same. My father used to say he was the laziest man he ever saw. He was so last that he’d put the pint down, he wouldn’t even move it from one place to another. He’d just pick it up. So, the poor man. We’ll talk about him later on, but he had a big problem with drink. But you can think of him, you can think of all these people, as loving the princess, loving the music. Now of course it wasn’t Sliabh Luachra music above in Sligo, but they all loved music so much that it became the focal point of their lives.
Now, they lived unaware of themselves. It was only afterwards, looking back, that it’s been sort of glorified. But these people lived in the real world and they were totally unaware of themselves. And they were as joyful as children, and they enjoyed their life. But there’s a story that I’ll tell you that actually proves that. There’s a woman, I’d say she’s only 4 or 5 fields away, she was, her name was Molly Myers. She came from behind, the top of Farranfore, Killeagh, a place called Killeagh between Farranfore and Cullane, and she was a student of Tom Billy Murphy’s. And she didn’t have much time for Pádraig. She thought Tom Billy was a way better musician, and of course I think Molly was judging more from the moral standard than from maybe the musical standard. But she told a story where she was at a wedding one day, and Pádraig and Denis were the two fiddle players playing at the wedding. And of course Pádraig was a very astute observant man, and my father used to say that, watching people at dances, he could tell who were going to get married eventually, and he was very good at appraising people, so he probably knew the people very well even before he went. And he was the kind of man that if refreshments didn’t keep coming on a fairly regular basis, he wouldn’t be so happy. And in fact my mother used to say that he’d slow down and he wouldn’t be playing so well unless he got encouragement. So, Molly used to tell that at the wedding anyway, she hated him for it, “He was a terrible man”, she said that “that day he decided to leave the wedding. And not only that”, she said, “he got up and did his best to take Denis off with him as well!” But Denis was such a lovely courteous man that Denis didn’t go. But Molly had a very dim view of Pádraig because of that day. So, as far as the people at the wedding were concerned, these were two run of the mill musicians that were a penny a dozen. It was only afterwards, looking back as we say, that they’ve become famous.
Now, I’ll tell you another episode that exemplifies how important this music was. Pádraig had an uncle called Cal Callaghan. Now Cal was a very famous man in his own right, because Cal must have been born sometime after the Famine. You see people have the concept that the Famine was a long, long time ago, but the Famine wasn’t so far back at all. I knew a man for thirty years — in other words, I was thirty years old when he died — but his father had to be born near the time of the Famine. Hard to believe it, but it is true. He was my grandfather. He lived to be almost a hundred years; he was only five months short of a hundred when he died. But, he was born in 1878, and he died in 1977. So his father had to be born near the time of the Famine. Yes, that’s how near it is. So, Cal Callaghan was a famous fiddle player and he went to America and it seems — Donal, I think Patricia, had more knowledge on this than anyone — Donal was actually from the townland of Doonasleen, which is between Kiskeam and Cullen, and some other village as well, I think, but Call became a buffalo hunter at the time of the slaughter of the buffalos in America, and he met a lot of Scottish and Irish fiddlers. And if you listen to a lot of the Kerry polkas — and even there’s one, Farewell to Whisky — Farewell to Whisky was composed by a fiddle player called Neil Gow, he was the most famous Scottish fiddler, and there’s a picture of him here — you can look at all these things after — oh dear, he got lost somewhere along the line, I’m afraid. Anyway, I have a picture of Neil Gow, he could be going back to, I suppose, 17-something, that’s how far back. He composed some of the tunes that were played for Bonnie Prince Charlie and the march south into England. But he composed Farewell to Whisky as a slow air, as a lament, because one night, having drank too much whisky at some get-together, he sat on his fiddle on the chair and broke it. So that was why he composed it. But in Kerry they changed it to a polka. Now, several of the polkas, if you examined them, you’ll find that they actually began life as Scottish marches and they were changed, and there’s a good chance that Cal Callaghan would be the prime agent in that, because Cal came back from America and lived out the remainder of his life in Doonasleen. And when Pádraig was a young man, he was reared in Doonasleen, for quite a while before he moved back to Glauntane, where his father and mother finally built a house. So the story was that these men were hard-working farmers, and they used to go up to a shebeen that was not far from their place of residence, and their fiddles were hanging behind the counter, and they used to take down their fiddles, I won’t say every night but maybe a lot of nights per week. And the story was, sometimes if their hands were very cold after working, digging ditches or whatever for the day, when they’d make mash for feeding cows — they used to hand-make mash out of bran or whatever stuff with boiling water — they’d warm their hands in the boiling water so that they could actually go up and play their fiddles. So, Pádraig grew up with that. They used to take him up there to the shebeen, and of course they trained him to have a little drop of drink as well, when he was young. So unfortunately the problem escalated.
Now the story though — like Micho Russell I digressed a little bit — one of the uncles happened to be in Knocknagree at a fair one day, and of course the fair was a great venue that time because travelling musicians came, and the people went, and they might hear a new tune. So Cal’s brother was there and he heard the travelling man playing some nice tune, and he was trying to get it in his head, and of course he drank too much and he stayed too late. And coming home, he fell in a ditch. And when the time went too far that he should be home, he hadn’t turned up. So they finally went looking for him and they found him in a short cut. It was easy enough to find him, because he would have come home this way, so they found him inside in a ditch, and they started to pull him out, and he said, “Hold it a minute!” he said, “I nearly have it. Hold on a minute! Wait! I nearly have it!” So the poor man, the music was so important to him that he wanted to be let rest where he was.
Now, we’ll let the princess rest for a while, as well. We’ll come back to her later. But it’s an interesting analogy, so think about it. Now, as Jesus used to say, “Then the Kingdom of the Heavens became like a man that found a rare treasure”. So I’m going to use another parable again. So people say, “What’s that got to do with Sliabh Luachra music?” Well it has. There was a lovely writer called Hans Christian Andersen and he wrote a beautiful story called either The Nightingale or The Emperor and the Nightingale. ’Twas so long ago I can’t remember, but it was to do with a nightingale. And there’s a very interesting line in this — I’m talking about The Nightingale – that Pádraig had a story about a nightingale. He used to tell this story. Now he didn’t tell it to me, but he told it to some of the older people around Glauntane. Pádraig used to claim that if a true musician went out in the middle of the night, to an isolated place, on his own, and he played Mrs McCloud’s Reel, the nightingale would come and sing with him. What a story! Now, there’s a good chance that very few have tried it, because of fearing the outcome. Maybe they feared the outcome as much as they feared the dark. So, we’re not saying that it is true. But, I never heard the nightingale. Did anyone here ever hear a nightingale? Did anyone ever hear a nightingale? Yes, so there we are. Now, the cuckoo sings all night long outside where I live. People don’t know, but the cuckoo sings every whole night. I come home from gigs at every hour and the cuckoo sings. And the skylark sings, in the bog, in the summer-time. But man, if the nightingale is a better singer than the skylark, she must be a mighty singer. But anyway, this is a very interesting and funny story by Hans Christian Andersen.
This Emperor lived in a country, long ago, and a man said to him one day, “Your most excellent pre-eminence,” he said to him, “it says here in a book that there is a bird that sings in one of your woods in your property, the best songster in the world.” And the Emperor said, “What?” he says, “and I’ve never heard her? Well, has she been presented at court?”
“Well, she’ll have to be got.”
So they set out looking for her, and they were looking for the bird. And people said to them, “What are you doing? You’re going looking for a nightingale in the middle of the day? That’s a total waste of time. You’ll have to search for the nightingale at night-time.”
So they started to go out at night-time and they went through fields and they slipped on cow pats, and one of them fell over a cow, and the cow gave a moo, and he shouted, “Oh,” he said, “thanks be to God we finally found it!” he said. “What a strong voice she has!” And another man turned. He said, “Will you be quiet!” he said. “That’s only a cow, you eejit!” he said. You’d nearly think it happened in Ireland, wouldn’t you?
So, it happened that a little girl worked in the kitchen, and she lived away in a remote place. And she had heard the nightingale. And, as luck would have it, the people found out through this girl that there was such a bird, and they went with her. And the whole army, with nets, they finally captured this nightingale and brought it back. And it was hard to make it sing for the Emperor, because she didn’t like to be put in a cage. And the Emperor thought she should sing every time he told her. And people said in the finish, “The nightingale only sings at night-time.” So, he finally heard the nightingale sing, and man, it was such a beautiful thing to hear the nightingale sing. And the nightingale was very, how would I say, contrary. The Emperor thought she should sing any time he wanted. So people said, “Look, the nightingale has to sleep and she has to rest and she has to get exercise.” So he appointed twelve footmen to take her for walks in the park, with a rope tied around her leg, during the day-time.
And this went on for a while anyway, but there was a very clever man looking at all this happening. And this man happened to be a jeweller and a watch-maker. So, he thought of a great idea. He worked day and night for weeks and he finally made a toy nightingale. And he put jewels in it, jewels for its eyes, and it was brightly coloured. And through influence, he finally got introduced to the Emperor. And the people were amazed to see this beautiful bird. “Oh, it’s so beautiful! It’s far more beautiful than the real bird.” And, not only that, but he put a key into the side, and he wound it up, and it sang a song. Ah! The people, they couldn’t contain themselves. And during the whole hubbub, all the people rushed in to hear this bird, the toy bird now I’m talking about, and the real nightingale escaped back into his wood where it belonged. So that was fine. The Emperor said, “Well, she’s a very ungrateful bird to run away like that, after all I did for it.” But now he had a bird that he could wind up any time he liked, and it would play. And after a while everybody knew the tune that the bird was playing. They played it over and over again. And the only trouble was that after a time the people got kind of fed up with the same tune, and the clockwork began to wear down a bit, so that they could only play it once a year. But the real nightingale was back in the wood where she belonged.
Now, what has that got to do with Irish music of Sliabh Luachra? Well it has, because Sliabh Luachra wasn’t heard of until this record was released, around 1971 or ’72 maybe, I’m not certain of the date. It doesn’t say it on it. But I remember I was coming through Limerick city from up the country somewhere, and I saw this in a music shop. And of course the cover grabbed my attention. And there’s a fiddle player and his daughter is now drawing this picture, and children can draw so beautifully, she can capture the essence of this lovely psychedelic sort of a picture. But, at that time — I left out a point from my story — at that time I hadn’t much appreciation of Sliabh Luachra music, because when I had gone to London, I went down of course to Fulham Broadway, to a pub called The King’s Head, and there Sean McGuire was playing two or three nights a week. And man, Sean McGuire I suppose was the greatest exponent of technique, fiddle technique, of any fiddle player anywhere in the world, in Irish music anywhere. So I was thinking to myself, “Well now, what do the boys in Sliabh Luachra know about music compared to what this man can do?” I was right, from what I knew at the time. And of course this idea persisted for years upon years, until this record came on the scene. And when I started listening to this record for a while I thought, “What’s happening? What kind of music is this?” And after a while I began to see what my father had been telling me years and years before, that there was a magic that happened in this music that didn’t happen in any other music I ever heard. Now, that’s a very strange fact. As far as technique goes, I mean, I’m not going to fault the technique of these musicians, but technique never entered into their concept of music. It was something that was by-the-by. The music itself was what counted to these people. And that’s what happened with this record. So it was then, for the first time, that I understood what my father had been saying a long time before that.
Now, records. So now, the story of the nightingale is beginning to unfold a little bit now. The people, with the Emperor, they had the wind-up music. They could hear it, they could turn it on whenever they liked. So this is what happened. The people of Sliabh Luachra are no longer there, but they can hear this music. And of course, there’s drawbacks to that as well. Now I’ll tell you a funny story about it. This happened. One night Pádraig — I call him Pádraig O’Keeffe, the old people used to call him Patrick or Pádraig — he called to a house, Paddy Connell’s (there’s none of the family here) and the man of the house was Paddy Connell. And Paddy had got a record that had come across the ocean from America, of maybe Michael Coleman or James Morrison or Paddy Killoran playing Irish music, and for the first time this had happened. And Pádraig said, “Can I see that, Pat?” Paddy Connell used to love to tell this story. Pádraig caught the record and Paddy Connell said, he put his thumb like that and broke it. You know, Paddy used to tell different versions of the story, you know. Why did he do it? Paddy thought sometimes that he did it out of envy, and he thought other reasons, but what take had Pádraig on it? What do you think?
Anyway, we’ll come back to it later. We’ll talk about records now for a minute, because this is where the subject is going. So, this record wasn’t the only record that came across the ocean. Around the mid-’forties, and on up along, until the ’fifties, some people that had relatives in America received in the post maybe these records. Now, I should have explained better about Pádraig’s records though. These records were made from pressed wax. They were 78s. They had to be spinning at a very high speed and they were played on the old wind-up gramophones. And you didn’t even have to look crooked at them, you could look straight at them and they’d crack. It happened to me a few times, you know, so whether it was a mistake or whatever, it could be anything. But anyway, it’s the influence that these records had that we’re interested in here, because now, for the first time, people in all the regional parts of Ireland, like Sliabh Luachra, were hearing music of a different calibre altogether, a different kind of music, and of course, this music was of a tremendous standard, because it was played by the greatest fiddlers that went to America, and it was done with the best possible resource and studio work that was available at the time.
And of course, very soon it became that only Sligo fiddle players came – Michael Coleman, James Morrison, Hugh Gillespie, Paddy Killoran, the Dowds would you believe, there was a lot of those. I didn’t hear them, because . . . but other musicians around, later on I found that that’s how they learned a lot of their music. But, the downside of it was, and this is what people didn’t realise, was that in the making of these records they had to be speeded up. So the music that was coming across now was at a far faster tempo than ever had been the case previously. And it was so fast, and in fact the fiddle players had to play so fast because if they didn’t the sound would get distorted in the recording process. So, this caused a problem.
Comhaltas Ceoltóirí got on the bandwagon with this music to the point where this was the only music that was sort of acceptable at any kind of competitions. I remember a time, and I was foolish enough to be pushed on the stage by a crowd of people I was playing music with, they were all far older than me, to play in a competition. But I found out that if you played Sliabh Luachra music at one of these venues, away back in the early ’sixties, you weren’t in the running. So that’s one of the reasons why I would never have anything to do with Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.
Now, there’s another thing – Pádraig also told all his students, “Never play for competitions”, and I would agree a hundred per cent with him, because it’s totally against the spirit of what this music is for. Paddy Cronin used to say, “The fiddle is best inside in the house”, and he was right. You know, with these records, what happened was it became a rush for technique. Technique and speed became the primary thing with this music, from these records. And consequently it has gone on today and of course the whole human thing is speeding up, whatever, it may be the electrical influence of radiation or whatever it is, but the world isn’t getting faster, it’s getting frantic, and the music is getting frantic as well. Now, Pádraig would have been furious, because he loved music played slowly. In fact, dancers didn’t like him because Pádraig always wanted to play music for the beauty of listening to him, but the people wanted it a bit faster.
Now, records, we’re still on topic of records. Now, we’ll go back to this one again. This record, for the people that have listened to it and analysed it, and I’ve lived with this record a long time, this record is basically, you have Denis plays some solo tracks, and Julia plays I think maybe one or two solo tracks, and then they play together. There’s no backer, or there’s very, very little studio work done. So that you’re hearing the very basic when you hear this record. And this is the truth of the matter. Now I have another record here, and it gives a totally false impression of Sliabh Luachra music — Kerry Fiddles. Now these are the only, sort of, two records that are of Sliabh Luachra music. But when you hear records made today, you’re hearing one player maybe, sometimes two, two fiddles, and sometimes there’s a double take on that, and you hear all the artificial use of echo chambers, and there’s a backer, sometimes there’s two backers and there may be a piano playing or a guitar. And there’s sound engineering, there’s two or three tracks taken and they’re superimposed, and a lot of the time it’s speeded up as well. Now some people don’t believe this, but it is true. I’ve met a lot of musicians and they’ve said, when their music came back it had been speeded up. Unfortunately, like the man that made the clockwork nightingale, he wasn’t impressed with the music, the people who make these records aren’t interested in music. They’re interested in selling copy, as they say. So, that’s why, in most modern records, you’ll hardly hear any slow airs. If you go recording, “Oh no, we might allow you to get away with one slow air, but I mean it would stop the sale of the record.” So, as far as they’re concerned, speed and technique — the faster it sounds, the more exciting it seems. And that’s what’s happened. So that’s the downside. Now, there’s also a great side, in that if this record had never been made, we would have nothing to talk about. This is the only proof we have that this man lived.
So, we’ll go back to Pádraig for a minute again. So, when he broke the record, was it out of envy? Paddy Connell thought sometimes that maybe he thought that Michael Coleman was a far better fiddle player than he was. So, maybe. What about the real nightingale, I wonder? Was the real nightingale envious of the toy nightingale, I wonder? Now, there was a great fiddle player in America, Lad O’Beirne and he never recorded, and there were many like him. And they wouldn’t record, for that very reason. They called it canned music, and they kept away from it.
Now, Pádraig could see as well that a time would come when in a place, whether it be a dance, they could put on a record and they would need no musician. So the musician, by recording, was becoming the source of his own downfall, in that he’d be stopping himself earning a living. So would you believe even in America, where my friend Joel comes from, there’s musicians’ unions, that when dancers perform they have to have live musicians playing. So records have their place.
I’ll just maybe do one more thing and maybe we’ll leave it at that. We’ll go back to this man for a minute. Look at this lovely old gentleman. Have you seen this picture? Yes? Well, it’s a pity that this beautiful old gentleman came to such a pass as this. The first thing people from outside Ireland would say on seeing this picture, “This man is a beach comber.” He’s standing there. You can see the haunted look on his face, because this man lived a haunted life. And he’s standing here with a bow with a cork, to keep tension on the bow hair. Yes. So, it’s a very sad reflection of the society that he lived in, because this man brought wealth of a spiritual kind to loads and loads of people that heard him play.
And he brought wealth of every kind, because only for him, some of the most beautiful tunes I’ve ever heard wouldn’t be in existence. They’d be lost completely. And, the poor man, to look at him, he’s well worn. He often slept in hay barns. That’s why I said we’d refer to what it says here, “They were unendowed, unhoused, unrecognised, the academy of Irish musical tradition for two hundred years.” This man was tripped by corner boys, he was laughed at and he never retaliated. But see the haunted face and the haunted look. And not only that, but the house where he lived, at Glauntane crossroads, is actually falling down. There’s nothing being done about it. Now, some people take exception to that. They say, and even Donal had a poem written, and it wouldn’t be very complimentary for people in lots of the villages, because this man often came, or got someone to drive him to the door, and when they’d see him coming they often slammed the door in his face. So he often walked the roads hungry and wet, and went home to a house with nothing in it.
But he looked forward to a better time, as I do as well. So, I believe better times will come for Irish music. So this music has become academic, this Sliabh Luachra music. You know that it was a vibrant, living tradition at one time, when it was danced and sung, and the people lived with it. Now, it’s played in pubs and things, but pubs are a very bad venue for it, because the people, first of all aren’t interested in it, they aren’t listening, and they’re talking so loud it can’t be heard. Pádraig’s take on it would be, they aren’t talking at all, but braying.
So what’s going to happen? The future. Well, I believe that with venues like this — that’s why I love the idea of this venue, Patricia, and we must thank Patricia for opening this home for these kind of venues — that maybe that people will come to realise and appreciate the real art of living music, by live performers, right among them, in their presence, rather than the record, that’s prepared with all the art of the studio and the record makers. Looking forward to this time, I’m going to quote one little piece of Irish, with your permission, and then I will say good-bye. Thinking of the time to come, and it says,
Aithchim ar Mhuire ’s ar Íosa
Go dtagaidh sí arís chughainn slán,
Go mberdh rinnce fada ’gabháil timcheall,
Ceol fidil is teinte cnámh,
Go dtógfar an baile seo ár sinnsear,
Cill Cáis bhreágh, arís go hárd,
’s go brath nó go dtiocfaidh an díle
Ná féicfar é ’rís ar lár.