FolkWorld Issue 35 02/2008; Article by Seán Laffey

The Good Old Stuff
Johnny McDonagh and Arcady 3

Right from the start we wanted to show the young guns just how good the old stuff really is, says Johnny McDonagh. Seán Laffey spent a day in the west of Ireland with Johnny and his group: Arcady 3.

There's an awful lot of people in the new Arcady, or so it seemed when I tried to meet them in early October, like many bands in Ireland the individuals are shall we say: dispersed.
Arcady 3
  Icon Sound @
In Arcady's case that means folks based in Kerry and Sligo meet up in Oranmore Galway for rehearsal. Why Oranmore? Simple answer, that's where the band's lynchpin Johnny McDonagh lives.

The band, which we'll call Arcady for short (more of the magic number 3 later), had its first real outing at the Gathering Festival in Killarney in February 2007. Now over half a year later they were getting ready for the Feile Frankie McGann in Strokestown and after that a weekend in Denmark at the Copenhagen Irish Festival.

OK time for the obligatory numbers stuff, for those with a John O'Regan grasp on recorded Irish music history you'll know that Arcady have been around for a few years (archaeologists trace them to before the 1990s ), and this version of the group is officially number 3. The current group consists of founder Johnny McDonagh - bodhrán & percussion, original band member Patsy Broderick - piano, Rick Epping - harmonicas, and concertina , Seamie O'Dowd - guitar, viola, vocals, Jonas Fromseier - banjo and Greek three course bouzouki, Maureen Browne - fiddle, and Mairead Ni Fhlatharta on vocals . Mairead has some big shoes to fill as previous incumbents include Frances Black, Seán Keane and Niamh Parsons, Mairead is up there with that crowd and has a lively sense of humour that should transfer easily to centre stage where singers naturally perch themselves.

We all meet in Johnny's house on a quite new estate a couple of minutes from Oranmore, it's a neat pad, beautifully kept, he tells me he's done the rural idyll stuff, which became an inevitable cycle of house renovation and organic gardening, but now he's into something more low maintenance, a place where he can have the time to his music and his album collection. We discuss transferring old vinyl to MP3, technology is no stumbling block to the tradition. Talking of collections we are soon joined by Rick Epping who brings in some organic veg grown on his own patch, and yes we all agree it's been a terrific year for apples, but spuds well that's another thing altogether. That ability to talk outside the music is vital when it comes to holding a band together, it adds a whole set of new dimensions to the friendships that build up as the group matures.

Over a lunch of wonderful fresh bread, tuna salad and pots of steaming hot tea, the talk turns to instruments acquisition syndrome. Rick spent 18 years working for Hohner, he knows free reed from any angle, he tells me that sometimes it was cheaper to replace an instrument than repair it, a perk of the job was being able to rescue the write offs. His home became a hospice for old boxes, and as the bits grew work merged into hobby, he now has as a sizeable collection of vintage squeezable stuff. Seamie O'Dowd tells tales of life on the road with Dervish and the mandolin scene back home in Sligo.
Johnny McDonagh
Johnny McDonagh
Jonas Fromseier shows me a trichord bouzouki he's just bought off Ebay, direct from Greece, there were he says a few language problems, but the instrument arrived in excellent condition and he passes it around so we can all have a go. It's got that evocative DAD sound, you know the one that Alec Finn could produce in DeDannan, and Jonas gives me a demonstration of its prowess, impressed, you bet I am.

Time I was out of here and doing what I'm supposed to, if not I'll be itching to twiddle with the zook all day.

It's a bit of a blustery day and I'm booked to do a photo shoot with Johnny McDonagh and the band. I've been promising them the benefits of my click-click now yer ready for photoshop obsession, for a few months now, and finally in early October we've all made it to the same spot, and there's a bonus, it's still daylight. The wind is going to play havoc with the girl's hair and unless we find shelter there's going to be an element of wildness in the publicity shots. Cars are loaded and I marvel at the number of German autos the band own (there must be something psychological there).

We head for the cosy gloom of Moran's of the Weir, probably the most famous oyster bar in Ireland. We're just a few days late for the oyster festival but there are still a few hangers on sipping their porter and swallowing shellfish while their helicopter is waiting for them on the quayside about two hundred metres away from the pub.

Johnny McDonagh is full of chat but there's not a whiff of nostalgia about him, this pragmatism is brought as we walk through the door of the pub, what's playing on the Hi Fi? Well it's Galway and you'd be right if you guessed DeDannan, I take a look at Jonas and he smiles and tells me it's the "Mist Covered Mountain." Johnny smiles a little too, but lets the moment pass, no need to wallow in what was then, Arcady is where he is now and it's all coming together very nicely thank you.

This is the third version of the band, which he formed when DeDannan split back in 1988. They started with great intentions, featured some fabulous musicians, made two impressive albums: "After the Ball" and "Many Happy Returns", but events conspired to keep
Maureen Browne
Maureen Browne
them on the back burner, Johnny mothballed the band when he got a chance to be the lead percussionist in Riverdance in 1996 and after more time on tour his health wasn't the best. Today he's coming round nicely, he's taking care of himself, yes years on the road have taken their toll but he is enjoying the music and has friends around him who are willing the Arcady project onwards.

There's hardly any space in the pub to take a photo, we move tables and chairs and I end up behind the bar, the lads ask should they pose, no says I, look natural, better still just play, get into the zone, and dutifully they oblige with a set of rolling reels. I struggle with the light and lack of space and turn like Houdini in a sardine box to get a shot. I'm focussing by infrared, I can see nothing in the viewfinder, but the band are lighting up the whole room with their music and soon the lads are truly in the zone and the sparks are flying, there's an energy here that is palpable. Eventually we have enough shots taken indoors and we head out side, there's a cottage next door and someone jokes that it looks like the west of Ireland. We knock on the door to ask permission to sit on the lawn and look Celtic, there's no one at home, we invade the turf to make a mock bonfire of the instruments, the band pose against the ivy covered wall, shades of the Waterboys in that I think. Then it is off to the quayside for individual shots and more indulgence as each player gets lost in the music, it really is great fun for me as I circle around them pushing a Fuji paparazzi style into concertinas, banjos and fiddles.

Soon the picture taking is over, we shake hands and waive our goodbyes, the girls head back to Moran's for some warming soup, the lads load up those dependable German cars and drive down the back lanes to Oranmore, Kerry and Sligo. I'm left alone wondering where I'd put my car keys and counting the couple of hundred pictures I've taken. For the moment, there's no new album to plug, no huge tour to announce, but the work is building up, folks know Arcady are back and this time they really can cover all the bases from straight Irish trad to bluesy Americana.

Yes down the road there will no doubt be stories to tell of their evolving music, but for now what's important is to get the word out. Back a few steps though and Johnny allows a brief moment of nostalgia for the notions behind the first Arcady, right from the start we wanted to show the young lads just how good the old stuff really is. Some things never change, and no matter what genre you are dealing in, the classic is still classic, of all the bands with pedigree and potential Arcady have the finger on the past and present pulse of the music, so here's to 2008 and Johnny McDonagh's up and coming all stars, Arcady 3.

You can see lots of pictures from Seán Laffey's photoshoot at:

Photo Credits: (1) Arcady 3, (2) Johnny McDonagh, (3) Maureen Browne (by Seán Laffey).

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