According to an ancient Irish Legend, Chieftain O'Neill found himself in a struggle with another Gaelic Lord about the Kingdom of Ulster. Both agreed to settle their dispute with a boat race. The first to touch the far shore would win the land. From the start the race was close. Nearing shore, O'Neill fell behind. But just before his rival landed, O'Neill grabbed his sword, cut off his own hand and hurled it forward. The bloody hand touched the shore the instant before his opponent landed.
I didn't follow his example, for, unlike O'Neill, I still wanted both hands to pluck some chords. I was fed up of music behind museum's bars and I wanted to catch the living tradition when I landed on the shores of Ulster. The north of the "Emerald Isle" is not only worth seen for the famous Giant's Causeway, but also for the picturesque Glens of Antrim. The once quiet and remote area (made accessible by a military road) were home to fiddler and moonshiner Mickey McIllhatton, who learned his trade from the fairies. At least, that's what they say. Christy Moore recorded "McIllhatton", which was written by Bobby Sands in the H-Blocks. "I think of a time when some of these songs will be sung and no one will care who wrote them. The best songs outlive the significance of their authors. It becomes incidental after a time, and the songs themselves reverberate down the years."
It was a soft day, i.e. it was raining cats and dogs. If you ever wanted to know how that sounds, here's the answer: "Bliain le Baisteach" (a year with rain). Sean Taylor and Mikael Fernström of the University of Limerick built a computerized neural network and fed it with a database of 1,000 Irish jigs, reels and polkas. Then they reversed input and output and loaded the year's daily rainfall data of 200 Irish weather stations. Various parts of the country were mapped to particular instruments, e.g. violins to Ulster and violas to Munster. Tunes were tied to particular stations, so that if Valentia had the highest rainfall on a particular day, a Kerry polka would predominate. "It always hits Donegal first," Fernström says. "So you can hear the second violin hitting the coast first and then the spreading of the composition through the island."
Anyway, I was not coming for the Irish Rain Festival - Jan 1st thru to Dec 31 - as they say. It was late in the year, that means every music caught being a genuine affair and no "Touristical Irish Music". I passed the Crosskeys Inn, unfortunatly burned out last year. Yet two fund raising albums are determined to revive the famous music pub. Nearby Portglenone, home of traditional band Deanta, hosted a small music and dance festival: "Gig'n the Bann". Three Presbyterian churches, an Orange Hall, teenagers in motorcars driving up and down the Main Street, the radios playing the international world beat. Friday night was getting slowly into top gear. Eventually a bunch of kids gathered at the "Wild Duck Inn" and started the "sez".
The session continued Saturday afternoon and was steadily growing older. Eventually there's also an electric piano joining in. But the night was reserved for the marquee behind the house. As the cold creeps in, Tommy Sands opens the night's entertainment with wit and humour. The McNeillstown Pipe Band is joined by the Allen School Dancers. Scottish piping and Irish dancing, what a combination! Hands across the devide? Then, Robert Finnegan on the accordion transfers us to the Alps. Well, not really, but that's what I feel about it. Willie Drennan and John Trotter give a survey of the Ulster Scots folk tradition. The staccato beat of the odd Lambeg drum, must be heard for miles. Usually associated with those villainous-looking fife and drum bands like the Cloughfern Young Conquerors: "We're a blood-and-thunder band, kick-the-pope music. There's other bands go for melody. We're not into that. Others play diddle dee dee wee Irish tunes. We're just your old-fashioned traditional no messing band." However, some argue these bands are a vital safety-valve for young people who might otherwise become involved in paramilitary violence. Finally, Sligo's Dervish hits the stage, driving the audience wild. Who said Traditional Irish Music is an exclusively Roman Catholic and Nationalistic business?
The next week I was strolling along the boreens. I was walking the Mourne Mountains, hence passing the town of Rostrevor, home of the Sands Family. In the Interpretative Centre of Navan Fort (Emain Macha), the ancient capital of Ulster, I listened to the sound of 2,000 year old bronze horns, a kind of didgeridoo type instrument. At the Ulster American Folk Park I got informed about Ulster-American relations and learned that the name "hillbillies" came because the people of the Appalachian mountains sang songs about King Billy.
Then I was heading for the border. "There's no border anymore," I was told, "only those between the rich and the poor." A pre-Christian Janus figure on Boa Island at the shores of Lower Lough Erne seems like a "symbol of the divided Ireland: two faces inseparably connected, yet looking in opposite directions" (F. Rathjen). The Fiddlers Stone at the entrance of Castlecaldwell commemorates fiddler Denis McCabe who fell out of a barge into Lough Erne and drowned. The weathered inscription from 1770 reads:
Eventually I entered Donegal: The book shelves were occupied with the life and wisdom of Clannad's Maire Brennan. Here we may learn the ups and downs of the folk business, including a history of heavy drinking. By the way, Maire's father is still running his famous singing pub "Leo's" in Meenaleck. Now construction works started for a theatre, a museum, a restaurant, a shop and a small hotel. A thriving family business, indeed. However, it's Monday night and I wasn't into singing. My destination was the home turf of Altan's Mairead ni Mhaonaigh, "Teach Hudi Beags" in Bunbeg. Already at the bar there's a Canadian fiddler diddling some of his swinging tunes. Later that night when the session is in full swing, we have eight fiddles, including patriarch Proinsias O Maonaigh himself, as well as whistle, guitar, mandolin, and accordion. One Gaelic and some English songs are thrown in for good measure, but jigs & reels dominate. Well, chiefly reels, cause that's the Donegal way.
On the way back to my B&B, the spirits high, I stepped into a deep puddle. Now anyway, I'm coming back. It's certainly not for the rain. And there's hope: "Perhaps in the future, by making music from rain data, we might be able to forecast the weather through musical expectation?" (M. Fernström)
Maire Brennan: The Other Side of the Rainbow, Hodder & Stoughton 2000 (dt. Mein irisches Leben, Brunnen-Verlag 2001)
Christy Moore: One Voice - My Life in Song, Hodder & Stoughton 2000
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