Traditional Irish Music Essay
Trip Start Jan 23, 2007
20Trip End Jul 2007
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Musical Styles and Musicians of Sliabh Luachra, Donegal, and Clare
When speaking of regional music styles in Ireland, it is important to keep in mind that one person's idea of, say, Donegal style is another's Sligo style, and most musicians from a particular region would disagree vehemently about the definition of their "regional style." Vallely says, "The notion of a single 'Donegal Style' would still be accepted by very few, if any, Donegal players" (1999, p.126). However, as he also states, "the styles of most of the players will have many similar features, so much so that such playing can be considered to constitute a regional style" (1999, p.124). Carson adds that, "We can see them as dialects of a language" (1985, p.5), with the explanation for individuality coming from Vallely in that, "Speakers in a particular dialect will not all speak in exactly the same way..." (1999, p.125). Mac Aoidh offers a plausible explanation: "The existence of distinct styles are correlated with the existence of dialectical Irish, and the premise that these styles are, in part, due to and related to natural geographic barriers is postulated" (Irish Fiddle 2004b). With that in mind, we must now examine the factors involved in describing such a regional style, and apply them to communicate the essence of three acknowledged Irish regional styles: those of Sliabh Luachra, Donegal, and Clare.
There are many factors used to describe musical style, such as "ornamentation, phrasing, articulation, variation in melodic and rhythmical patterns ..., tempo, and repertoire" (Keegan, 1997 p.117). Vallely also points out that, "There are several possible ingredients in establishing regional difference", which he goes on to elaborate: choice of instrument, way of playing, actual repertoire, use to which the music is put, the 'gimp' of the performer (e.g. the shoulder-twitch of Sliabh Luachra musicians vs. the stoic demeanour of the northerners), and the player's 'attack' on the tunes (1997, pp.109-111). Carson comments that, "Regional fiddle styles can still be distinguished, ranging from the short staccato bowing of Donegal to the longer, more relaxed bowing of Kerry" (1985, p.20). So, using the aforementioned metrics, the regional styles of the three chosen regions will be described.
Described by Vallely as "a loose geographic area found on both sides of the Cork-Kerry border," Sliabh Luachra is a region known for fiddle and accordion playing (1999, p.349). Some of the great music masters from the region were Pádraig O'Keeffe, Johnny Cronin, Paddy Cronin, Julia Clifford, Denis Murphy, Jerry McCarthy, and Mickey Duggan (all on the fiddle) and Johnny O'Leary and Dan O'Herlihy on the accordion. Pádraig O'Keeffe, specifically, is praised as one of the greatest legends in Sliabh Luachra regional musical style. As Peter Browne puts it, "The one who towers over the region's tradition is undoubtedly Pádraig O'Keeffe" (1997, p.65).
But, before expositing on the particular musicians who help define the Sliabh Luachra style, it is helpful to describe some of the characteristics often attributed to this region. "Lightness, liquidity, rhythmic, [and] warmth" (Vallely 1999, p.349) are traits which Vallely claims are associated with Sliabh Luachra style. In addition, he points out that "strong and vibrant" (ibid) slow-air playing is a strong tradition in the area. Browne adds that, "The strong presence of an air playing tradition is in contrast to some other parts of the country where music for dancing was the much more dominant pursuit of the local players" (1997, p.65). Mac Aoidh points out that, compared to some of the other regional styles, Sliabh Luachra has a "faster pace of music which has an incredible range of musical emotion" (Irish Fiddle 2004b). He also adds that, "Probably the great distinguishing trademark of this area is the dominance of the slide and polka" (ibid). Some of the adjectives Vallely ascribes to Sliabh Luachra fiddle playing are "lively and exuberant" and "direct and rhythmic" (1999, p.125). "Ornamentation is achieved mainly with the left hand, while the bow-hand provides the characteristic rhythm," and "a particular feature is the use of open strings to provide a drone-type rhythmic effect" (ibid). Also, it was common in a duet to have one fiddle playing an octave lower than the other, a practice known as "bassing" (Vallely 1999, p.349). Of course, as Browne adds, this method "is not unique to Sliabh Luachra but is a hallmark of that style" (1997, p.65).
The preservation of regional styles is an important goal for many of their practitioners, and those in Sliabh Luachra are no exception. There are a number of festivals and schools designed to pass on the Sliabh Luachra music tradition, such as the Pádraig O'Keeffe Festival in Castleisland. Browne posits that these gatherings "have an important job to do in providing classes for younger players to learn the style of the area" (1997, p.66).
"Particularly strong is the stylistic legacy of ... O'Keeffe" (Vallely 1999, p.350) points out Vallely. He learned fiddle, accordion, and concertina, and was especially influenced in his playing of these instruments by his uncle Cal O'Callaghan (ibid). O'Keeffe also taught fiddle and accordion, his pupils going on to become famous icons themselves: Denis Murphy, Julia Clifford, and Johnny O'Leary, to name a few. His repertoire consisted of local slides (jigs in 12/8 time) and polkas, and he was "fond of reels and airs" (Vallely 1999, p.350). O'Keeffe was a "guru by the time of his death in 1963" (ibid), and his legacy lives on through the music of his pupils.
"The distinctiveness of Donegal fiddle style can be summarized as a concurrence of Scottish influence, strong volume and bright ringing tone, staccato bowing with note for note bow-direction changes, and crisp triplets rather than rolls" (Vallely 1999, p.126). Corcoran adds that, "Donegal music probably owes a lot of its regional distinctiveness ... to its intimate interaction with urban centres (Scotland) and its love-affair with the 78 record" (1997, p.28). Because of its close connection with Scotland, some claimed that the Donegal style "was aberrant Scottish music which was also played badly by its practitioners" (Mac Aoidh 1997, p.68). However, Mac Aoidh posits that Donegal has been most successful in preserving its traditional style, since, "on broader social/musical issues, the county has remained sheltered from commercial tourism pressures due to its perceived remoteness and, no doubt, its proximity to Northern Ireland" (1997, p.71).
Some of the better known players of the region are Néillidh Boyle; James Byrne; Mickey Bán O'Byrne; John, Mickey, and Simon Doherty; and Tommy Peoples. Particularly, John (Johnny) Doherty, son of Mickey Mór and grandson of Simon, stands out as "the most influential Donegal fiddle player" (Vallely 1999, p.106). Again, as was the case with Sliabh Luachra style, we see a drive by Donegal musicians to preserve the style by passing it on in schools and festivals. Specifically, Mac Aoidh mentions Scoil Cheoil Ailigh, where traditional-style musicians are brought into the schools to teach the music portion of the curriculum (1997, p.69).
The Doherty family were travelling tinsmiths whose routes lead through central and south-west Donegal. Besides tin work, they would often teach fiddle and play for house dances in the evenings. They were often known colloquially as "The Simeys," a nickname stemming from Simon Doherty, one of the family patriarchs. As previously mentioned, Johnny Doherty was the grandson of Simon, and his fiddle-playing was legendary. It was said that, "When in good playing form [his] bow moved so quickly that the tip whistled" (Vallely 1999, p.106). He, like many Donegal musicians, was greatly influenced by Scottish music, and he had "a great admiration for the Scots fiddlers James Scott Skinner and ... William McKenzie Murdoch" (Vallely 1999, p.107). "By the 1970s his commercial recordings had made him the most influential of all Donegal fiddlers ... [and] he remains the most influential Donegal fiddle player" (ibid).
Clare music is often generally described as slow and full of feeling. The fiddle is the centrepiece of East Clare music, while the concertina tends to stand out in West Clare music. Many texts isolate the styles of east and west Clare, but the crossover between the two warrants a look at the style as one piece. Martin Hayes, in speaking about Clare music, makes a point that lyricism and feeling were the "most cherished" attributes in the style (Shanachie 2001, p.4). To achieve these aims, "there was common use of a wide range of dynamics, which enhanced expressiveness" (ibid). Mac Aoidh, in an article available online, states that, "Clare style of fiddling [is characterised by] music created with the use of long, fluid strokes of the bow with several notes per bow" (Irish Fiddle 2004a). And, in relation to stylistic factors, he says that "triplets are used only when needed and very 'broad' or 'open' rolls are commonly employed" (ibid). But, going back to the feeling of the music, Mac Aoidh offers the following observation:
As you move further westwards in Clare the music still retains the slow pace of the Galway style, yet gradually relinquishes the eerieness [sic] in the music, taking on a more lighter aspect to the melody. (Irish Fiddle 2004b)
His comments are augmented by Martin Hayes: "They [in Clare] didn't like to hear it played too fast, it had to be played from the heart, they wanted tunes that spoke to their feelings" (Shanachie 2001, p.4).
Some of the well-known musicians of Clare include "Patrick Kelly, ...Bobby Casey, Joe Ryan, Mick and Tom Eustace, Junior Crehan, John Kelly, Paddy Canny, P.J. Hayes and Martin Hayes as well as Tony Linnane" (Irish Fiddle 2004b). Although no one musician is noted as obviously standing out from the Clare crowd in the popular literature, a recording featuring P. J. Hayes, Peadar O'Loughlin, and Paddy Canny is described as exemplifying the "musical ethos of east Clare" and hailed as "the definitive recording of the east Clare style of music" (Shanachie 2001, p.5). And, as for west Clare, standouts include John "Scully" Casey, Paddy Murphy and Noel Hill.
Three major regional Irish music styles have been described and note has been made of well-known musicians from each area. Sliabh Luachra is associated primarily with the fiddle and button accordion and playing slow airs, slides, and polkas. Its style consists of relaxed bowing, lightness and warmth, fast pace, liveliness, great musical emotion, ornamentation with the left hand and rhythm with the right, use of open strings for a drone, and bassing. Some of the famous musicians from there are Pádraig O'Keeffe and Johnny O'Leary. Donegal is, almost exclusively, also associated with the fiddle. It is played with staccato bowing, crisp triplets, and a ringing tone. Johnny, Simon, and Mickey Doherty, along with Tommy Peoples, are some of the famous artists playing this largely Scottish-influenced style. Lastly, Clare shares the association with the fiddle, with the addition of the concertina in west Clare. The style is characterised by slow playing, full of feeling, as well as lyricism, wide dynamic range, and long fluid strokes of the bow. The musicians well-known for playing in the Clare style are Junior Crehan, Bobby Casey, John Kelly, and P. J. Hayes.
Browne, P. (1997) 'Sliabh Luachra: a personal view' in Ó Súilleabháin, M. and Smith, T., eds., Blas: The Local Accent in Traditional Irish Music, Dublin: ColourBooks Ltd., 64-66.
Carson, C. (1985) Irish Traditional Music, Belfast: Appletree Press Ltd.
Corcoran, S. (1997) 'Concepts of regionalism in Irish traditional music' in Ó Súilleabháin, M. and Smith, T., eds., Blas: The Local Accent in Traditional Irish Music, Dublin: ColourBooks Ltd., 25-30.
Irish Fiddle (2004a) An Article from Caoimhín Mac Aoidh on
Regional Styles in Irish Fiddling, Part II [online], available: http://www.irishfiddle.com/article_on_styles2.html [accessed 11 April 2007].
Irish Fiddle (2004b) An Article from Caoimhín Mac Aoidh on
Regional Styles in Irish Fiddling, Part III [online], available: http://www.irishfiddle.com/article_on_styles3.html [accessed 11 April 2007].
Keegan, N. (1997) 'The verbal context of regional style in traditional Irish music' in Ó Súilleabháin, M. and Smith, T., eds., Blas: The Local Accent in Traditional Irish Music, Dublin: ColourBooks Ltd., 116-122.
Mac Aoidh, C. (1997) 'Donegal: a voice in the wilderness, or the voice of reason?' in Ó Súilleabháin, M. and Smith, T., eds., Blas: The Local Accent in Traditional Irish Music, Dublin: ColourBooks Ltd., 67-72.
Shanachie (2001) An Historic Recording of Irish Traditional Music from County Clare and East Galway [CD sleeve], Shanachie Entertainment Corp.
Vallely, F. (1997) 'The migrant, the tourist, the voyeur, the leprechaun ...' in Ó Súilleabháin, M. and Smith, T., eds., Blas: The Local Accent in Traditional Irish Music, Dublin: ColourBooks Ltd., 107-115.
Vallely, F. ed. (1999) The Companion to Irish Traditional Music, Cork: Cork University Press.