Miltown on Monday

At the petrol station, I met Breandán ó hEaghra. It’s about two years since we’ve met and he’s moved back to An Cheathrú Rua.

Breandán writes a regular column in Irish for the JMI. We talked about his latest column on Des Bishop, about the fact that there’s now a Chinese take-away in his home village, and he mentioned he was thinking of writing a piece called ‘Recession Music’ given all the talk in recent weeks.

On the drive home I listened to a radio discussion on the economy. There was a told-you-so element to it, and they mentioned the 1980s. I turned it down and thought of the atmosphere of that decade. I don’t recall the adults around me ever having much money, but I do remember being brought to stuff, and there was a richness in that. Festivals, plays, sessions, pubs, lectures, concerts, dances, films, galleries – all the places you don’t tend to find too many children today, my siblings and I were there, getting in the way, unable to stay quiet. Terribly boring for us a lot of the time, and yet those occasions are mostly what I can remember of that decade. In fact, it’s not even the occasions I remember, it’s the atmosphere.

In Miltown Malbay on Monday night, at the annual fiddle concert, I saw parents doing the same thing. A mother stood near me with her two children. They were taking it in for the first forty minutes and then became restless. She too seemed to find it hard going – she had no seat – but there was a determination to see it through and make sure her children heard what was some exhilarating music. So she invented a game for them, involving writing down various things and handing around between them a piece of paper. It could have been Xs and Os; they may have been writing down the names of the tunes as they were called out; perhaps they were learners themselves.

I went to the concert because I consider it an annual chance to hear almost every exceptional fiddle player in the country, to hear in particular new players, to hear their choice of repertoire, their style. Because every musician only gets to play one set of tunes, it is a particularly condensed version of what they want to say. Several chose to start with a slow air and go into a reel. Many others worked in duets. Tommy People playing with his daughter Siobhán, and Martin Hayes duetting with Francie Donlon both seemed to be working on a higher level. Ciarán Ó Maonaigh and Aidan O’Donnell were impressive, carving out new territory, and received the biggest cheer of the night. Martin Dowling’s set was impeccably played and still rings in the mind. Liam O’Connor’s command of the instrument, and his ability to work intensely and inventively on tunes, continues to place him at the centre of fiddle playing today.

The concert also affirmed that that the decline of regional styles is no myth. Even between players from very different parts of the country, who would be known as exponents of a particular style, the differences were far more subtle than they once might have been. In the era of iTunes, perhaps it was naive to expect anything else.

On stage, it was notable how several of the fiddlers – everyone from Oisín MacDiarmada to the MC James Kelly – recalled their childhood attendances at Miltown, the players they heard, the groups of players, the duets, the rooms, the friendships, the style of playing, the atmosphere. We never really know what music goes in to a child’s mind, but atmosphere, it would seem to me, is the cloak that allows art slide in unnoticed. As I watched the mother work her magic with her two children, I realised I had no pen to take notes for a review, if the mood hit me. I half thought of asking to borrow hers, but how could I!

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