Monday, April 17, 2006

Energy and Melancholy in Irish Music

My father met my mother in Northern Ireland when he was stationed at Londonderry during World War II. He never said whether he was stationed at Londonderry both before and after the Normandy Invasion. I know he was part of the Invasion and married my mother in 1946. As my father continued to pursue a career in the US Navy, my parents had the opportunity to return to Northern Ireland occasionally to visit my mother’s relatives in Belfast and Bangor. Often, before and after duty stations in Morocco, Germany, Turkey, and Scotland, we visited my mother’s relatives. You would think during this time in Ireland that I would have been exposed to all of the culture, including the music. Oddly, my grandfather and aunts and uncles remained silent on the subject of music. Once the Beatles began making headlines in 1963, my grandfather sent news clipping and fan magazines devoted to the Beatles to our house in Maryland. When we returned to Ireland in 1967, before my dad reported to his duty station in Scotland, I lived for those Thursday evenings when I could watch the Top of the Pops on television. My Aunt Annie worked at the Harland and Wolff shipyards in the evening, and my Uncle Sammy spent his Thursday evenings at the dog tracks, wagering ten shillings or a quid or two on each of the races. At least on one occasion, while everyone else was gone, I remember turning up the volume in their row house on Beechfield Street and dancing around in their dining room as Jimmy Saville announced the hits from that week’s hit parade as some of the bands performed their music.

Instinctively, I acquired a special fondness for traditional Irish music, so I must have been exposed to it at some point in my childhood. My Protestant relatives had originally moved to Ireland from Scotland. My mother’s grandmother was Scottish; at some point, perhaps during the 1920’s, she and her husband moved to Belfast where they raised their four children, including Aunt Annie and my grandfather, Jim.

In 1967, after my parents got settled in Scotland and once the school year started, I only returned home from boarding school at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and in June when the school year ended. I missed the opportunity to attend the Highland Games at Balmoral. I was a seven day dorm student at Lakenheath High School in England. To break up the boredom that characterized our lives on weekends, during which we were restricted to Lakenheath air base and had to sign out when going to the snack bar or the PX, the dorm counselors took us on trips sometimes, usually to nearby places like Thetford, Bury St. Edmonds, and Cambridge. We usually visited London only a couple times a year. On one of our outings during my junior year at Lakenheath, I remember seeing Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, the version starring Julie Christie and Terence Stamp. Apart from the lush settings in Dorset, and the plot, I remember the traditional music. Although created exclusively for the movie, the music still incorporated elements of traditional Celtic music. Gabriel’s flute solo at the end of the movie comes immediately to mind.

Later, one Saturday afternoon in 1971 when I was serving in the Air Force, stationed in England, and on duty guarding F100’s on alert and armed with tactical nuclear bombs, I remember hearing traditional British folk music on the BBC. Although I wasn’t allowed to have a radio on duty, or even a novel for that matter, I kept a small transistor radio hidden in one of the inside pockets of my MA-1 jacket. This radio had been my constant companion since I first started pulling guard duty, beginning in Montana. Although the names of the musicians I heard that day meant nothing to me, I responded to the music and recognized its appeal to some part of me. It wasn’t until later that I began seeking out the kind of music I had heard.

There might have been opportunities to hear traditional Celtic music in England if I had sought it out. I often worked twelve hours on and twelve hours off. During regular hours, our shift work included six weeks of nights, three weeks of swing and three weeks of midnights. Plus, I was swept up by the rock culture and the antiwar movement, eventually getting honorably discharged for protesting the war.

After my move to Kansas, I managed to acquire a copy of Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief. Because of a song like “Matty Groves,” I associated that album with the autumn and played it most often in October and November. Years later, when I was living in San Francisco, I managed to find a bar on Union Street that featured traditional Irish music on Saturday nights. During my first visit, and while the band and its step dancers were taking a break, the pub took up a collection for the Irish Republican Army. When I said I wouldn’t contribute because I supported the North, the man holding the cup replied, “Well, you can get out, then,” which I did after finishing my beer. Even so, I still returned to that same bar on other Saturdays without experiencing any problems.

During my seven months in Pittsburg, a teacher of mine at Pittsburg State gave one or two parties in which the undergraduates in his poetry workshop were invited. Toward midnight, he brought out his records of Irish music and played them loudly on the stereo. Although he had visited Ireland and had ancestors who had originally emigrated from Ireland, his fondness for the culture seemed more like an affectation, that is, something expected of a poet who admires Yeats.

About ten years later, when I was pulling poems out of me almost weekly for my graduate classes in creative writing, I began pursuing traditional Irish music more vigorously. It served as a link to my own past. From studying the Green Linnet catalog and in hoping to avoid songs in praise of the Troubles, I began pursuing instrumental music, beginning with Matt Molloy. Matt Molloy’s music led to Kevin Burke and the Bothy Band. Within this music, I admired the energy inherent in reels and jigs. It’s the energy and the overall intensity that kept me coming back to this music.

When living in Kansas City after my wife and I had earned our MA’s at Kansas State, we had the good fortune to see Altan in concert in 1992, before Frankie Kennedy was diagnosed with cancer. When we returned to Kansas City after earning our PhD’s, we managed to see the Celtic Fiddle Festival and Lunasa perform in concert. There has been talk about Liz Carroll coming to Kansas City sometime in the future as well, but the Missouri Valley Folklife Society has been experiencing low turnouts at their recent concerts and has had trouble raising money for upcoming concerts. Kansas City, up to now, has been fortunate to have such well-known musicians stopping by for a brief visit.

I continue to prefer traditional instrumental Irish music. Many of Triona Ni Dhomhnaill’s songs are quite lovely, however, such as “As I Roved Out From the County Cavan,” “Sixteen Come Next Sunday,” “The Factory Girl,” “How Can I Live at the Top of a Mountain?” These songs capture that feeling of melancholy present in Far From the Madding Crowd and in Patrick Kavanagh’s poems.

Even though I have overcome my own biases regarding Catholics and the Southern Irish that I inherited from my mother, I still consciously avoid political songs. Similarly, I cannot listen to “Kilkelly” (from Music at Matt Molloy’s) because it makes me cry and reminds me of the distance that I have known since my parents returned to Northern Ireland in 1973 after my father retired. They have missed my wedding, the birth of their only grandchild, my graduating with the PhD (and the MA and BA), and all of those weekends and holidays we could have spent some time together. The feelings are so strong that even I have to put the Irish music aside sometimes.

Desert Island Picks
(in no particular order)

Matt Molloy—Heathery Breeze
Matt Molloy & Sean Keane—Contentment Is Wealth
Seamus Connolly—Notes From my Mind
Seamus Connolly—Here and There
Martin Mulhaire, Seamus Connolly, Jack Coen—Warming Up
Kevin Burke—Up Close
Bothy Band—First Album
Bothy Band—Old Hag You Have Killed Me
Celtic Music Festival—The Celtic Fiddle Festival
Celtic Fiddle Festival—Encore
Altan—Angel Island
Altan—Horse With a Heart
Altan—The Red Crow
Lunasa—The Merry Sisters of Fate
Lunasa—The Kinnitty Sessions
Liz Carroll—Lost in the Loop
Liz Carroll—Lake Effect
Kevin Crawford—In Good Company