How often do we consider the significance of crossing Ireland’s longest river? For centuries, the Shannon was a divider in this country, separating Connacht from the rest of Ireland, and often key to its defence. Now the water’s impact is concealed, a ten-second flash of blue expanse as you travel across it on the motorway. The Shannon’s power is not lost on Roscommon though, its eastern border, its personality, literally defined by it.
These thoughts never occurred to me when I stood in Doorly’s Corner House bar in Roscommon Town in the summer of 2009. Separated from a packed music session by a pub partition, I stood up on a cushioned bench to take a peak. In amongst half-a-dozen flutes, an accordion, teenagers on fiddle, and a haze of others, John Wynne played hour upon hour among his community. I hopped up and down for much of the evening, trying to time my short inhalations of music to catch John, or perhaps his former teacher, Patsy Hanley, in full flight.
The occasion was the launch of John Wynne’s second album, Ar Nós na Gaoithe, and how the precision and control of the recording contrasted perfectly with the loosened approach of the session. But every now and then there would be a breach in the collective hum and Wynne’s music would leap out. As the night developed, I understood better why John places such an emphasis on the Roscommon roots of his music. It’s about more than geography and history; it’s the community of musicians and listeners that inhabit the county, that nourish him.
Towards the end of the evening, an Englishman, another flute-player, told me of leaving the UK and coming to live in Roscommon because his father came from there. A construction worker, the lull in the industry – and this is over a year and a half ago – didn’t discourage him. It was Roscommon’s cultural richness that he was looking for; the land of flute-players (the Chieftains’ Matt Molloy among them); county of the village Keadue where the harper Carolan lived and wrote much of his music; the place that produced Douglas Hyde and where the experience of hearing Irish-speaking locals generated the passion that bore the Gaelic League; the birthplace of the great songwriter Percy French.
Ostensibly, the title of this tour, ‘Crossing the Shannon’, is because three of the musicians grew up in, or have connections with, the west of Ireland. Roscommon is not only John Wynne’s homeplace, but also where Birmingham-born John McEvoy’s parents come from. Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, having grown up in Dún Chaoin, immersed in the culture of the West Kerry Gaeltacht, now lives in Murroe, Co. Limerick. Though reared in London, John Blake is no stranger to the west, having lived in Ennis and Galway previously. In fact, a connection with the west is almost a prerequisite for all Irish traditional musicians. Crossing the Shannon, whether to Miltown Malbay, Ennis, Connemara, Galway, Roscommon, Sligo, Westport or any other spot where music spills out, is part of a traditional musician’s apprenticeship.
The musical style of Wynne and McEvoy is in part defined by their repertoire – the versions of tunes that they have absorbed from the musicians of Roscommon over the years – but also by their rhythmic approach. Highly ornamentative and always flowing, it is brisk music that points to the modern flute-playing legends of the North Connaught area, Peter Horan (who only died last October aged 84), Séamus Tansey and Matt Molloy, and fiddle-players such as Paddy Ryan and Kevin and Jack Cullen.
There is an instinctive understanding between the two. On ‘The Mountain Top’ and ‘Ciaran’s Reel’ on Pride of the West, when the momentum of the tune calls for a spike of intensity, they speed up together for just the briefest of moments, only to revert to the regular tempo a second later. It’s the kind of flexibility with repertoire that is made possible with a genuine connection.
As soloists, the apparently relaxed approach of McEvoy’s fiddle-playing betrays the complexity in fingerwork and bowing that is ongoing all the time. Deploying the full range of ornamentative techniques but using variation carefully, it’s a style that can also be heard in his fiddle-playing son Conor. Despite this elaborate paddling beneath the water’s surface, John McEvoy manages to create a sense of great space in his music, suiting Wynne as a flute-player and in part explaining the success of the duet.
Wynne’s solo playing is often a tour de force of expression and ornamentation, his interpretations of tunes forever turning this way and that, allowing all the diversity of contemporary traditional flute-playing come in to play. At times a detonation of virtuosity, Wynne’s precise approach always keeps the tune within command. With a diverse solo repertoire, he is capable of a variety of approaches and that flexibility makes him an ideal duet partner.
Similarly so with John Blake. The accompanist of choice for a new generation of traditional musicians, his partnership with flute-player Harry Bradley and fiddle-player Jesse Smith in particular, working under the title Tap Room Trio, produced one of the most electric albums of the noughties, a recording of momentum and colour that never seemed to pause to take a breath. John is a key musician in the traditional music scene that you will see in many different guises, playing flute in sessions, piano with the Tap Room Trio, guitar with fiddlers Liz and Yvonne Kane or Liam O’Connor, bouzouki with others, his ability to adapt and respond to the mood of soloists always finds him in demand. A subtle guitarist, the fact that he is a terrific flute-player also adds to the dimension he will bring to Wynne and McEvoy’s music, and to Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh’s song.
Over the past ten years, Nic Amhlaoibh has emerged as not just one of the south-west’s most gifted artists, but also one of the finest Irish singers of her generation – in all genres. The exquisite timbre and low register of her voice is regularly remarked upon, but it is her courage as a singer, her willingness to allow herself to be entirely absorbed by a song, that also stands out. Her focus as an artist allows her to tackle a broad repertoire, from big songs such as ‘Boys of Barr na Sráide’ or the traditional ‘Slán le Máigh’, which she has made her own, to the contemporary, crafted beauty of Richard Thompson’s ‘Persuasion’ or ‘Never Tire of the Road’ by Andy Irvine. The latter has such a distinctive songwriting and singing style that it any rendition requires a real command of the material. Or consider her album Dual with the Scottish singer Julie Fowlis in which she slips in and out of Irish and Scots repertoire and language. An exciting collaboration, it speaks of an artist whose rich cultural background has provided a love of singing and songs that, to our benefit, can move in many directions.
Her influence is growing all the time, as I learned from my own local session in Conamara. An evocative song named ‘County Down’ which has been regularly performed there for months was written by Tommy Sands, but it is Muireann’s interpretation which she recorded with Danú in 2003 that is responsible for it becoming so popular. For a song to find its way into sessions so relatively quickly points to a significant artist at work.
There is one more possible river-twist to this tour in that Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and John McEvoy play traditional flute too, meaning the chance of a set of tunes played by all four during the concerts is high. A group of flutes at high velocity, that vibrant sound that North Connaught has made its own, is just one of the pleasures that people have for ever been crossing the Shannon to hear.
Notes for a Music Network traditional music tour by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, voice, flute; John Wynne, flute; John McEvoy, fiddle; and John Blake, guitar, flute, bouzouki. 12–21 January 2011.