CD launch officiated by Dr Liz Doherty
Good evening everybody.
Thank you Mick and thank you Roisin and the Inishowen Traditional Music Project for inviting me to speak this evening and to formally launch the CD that Seamus Grant recorded in 2004- ‘Traditional Fiddle Playing from Inishowen’. We are very aware that Seamus is not with us in person tonight, but I hope for Bridget and all the members of the Seamus Grant family, for Seamus’s long term friends, and those of us who knew him for only a short time, that tonight is not a sad occasion but rather one that allows us to celebrate and take joy from the fact that the music he loved so much – and about which he was so quietly passionate – will live on, be passed on and passed out far beyond Inishowen.
When it comes to fiddle music, Donegal in general has not always had the best of recognition. The tunes and styles of the region were often dismissed further south in the country as that ‘Auld Scottish music’ they play up in Donegal; indeed, we were often criticized for getting that wrong too- “bad Scottish music”. And within Donegal itself, Inishowen music was often, if not forgotten, then certainly less foregrounded than that or other regions such as Glencolmcille, Teelin, Glenties. But maybe in the grand scheme of things, that’s not such a bad thing. The music was – and is – alive here. We had – and continue to have – our own distinct voice within the mosaic of styles that make up the Donegal tradition. And we have our own stars, our own masters, of the tradition. Every now and again, when we take our traditional music beyond Inishowen, or when the outside world takes a look in, they continue to be surprised and impressed. And why wouldn’t they be.
Growing up in the metropolis of Buncrana, I have to confess that I never came across Seamus Grant and his music in the years when I was first playing the fiddle; in fact, it wasn’t until I was a student in UCC, that I became aware of him, through the research work of Damhnait Nic Suibhne (Clement Sweeney’s daughter) who was taking the same course as me. I was reading her project which focused on Seamus and Francie Mooney, and reading about Mozart and Beethoven at the same time – so they all came to acquire equal stature in my head.
When I did eventually begin to meet Seamus at the odd gathering in Culdaff or Clonmany I was always highly impressed by how much he knew- about everything. I remember one night coming out of the Isle of Doagh with him and I was heading off to play in New Zealand the next morning. Seamus was asking was I going to the North Island or the South Island, or this or that area; – so I asked him when he had lived there. Of course, he laughed and told me he’d never lived there, never travelled there but had read about it. I remember thinking, wow; I’m so busy caught up in the getting there and back and never fully appreciating /maximising the opportunities I am having handed to me. It was the same when I would chat to him about music. I have a bit of an obsession about Canadian music and I couldn’t believe it when I met Seamus and he knew all of these players – in fact, often ones I had not come across myself. And again, not from touring about the place, travelling etc, but from a genuine interest hunger to learn, and as Mick has already pointed out, from having two unique gifts 1) of being able to listen and 2) having time for people and their stories. In my academic work I’m constantly intrigued by how one’s personality is often completely reflected (mirrored) in one’s playing style. Think of someone who might be, shall we say, a colourful character – often their music can be described in the same way- flamboyant, full-on. Or someone who has a bit it of a glint in their eye, a bit of a devil, a bit of craic- that too comes out in their music. Seamus’s playing, for me reflects the personality of the man – that calm, unhurried nature, assurance, and quiet confidence of his personality that allows the tunes to breathe exactly as they should. As it stated so eloquently in the sleeve notes: “with every considered note Seamus enriched it with the generosity of his spirit and the charm of his soul”. His style too reflects his quest for learning and explaining his musical knowledge – he moves easily in and out of positions for example on Dark Inishowen’ – always impressive to a traditional player (my own fiddle doesn’t go above high B!).
I spent a lot of time in Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. The music there basically came from Highland Scotland in the 18th century; and there was a great quote I heard from the legendary Scottish fiddler, Hector MacAndrew, when he came across the Cape Breton style in the form of a fiddler by the name of Winston Scotty Fitzgerald. He said – “you’re very close to the truth”. For us in Inishowen, Seamus’s music is indeed the truth. He totally encapsulates what our music is about. He came by his music honestly, he crafted his talent within the local community, he developed and expanded his knowledge and his ability in every way open to him – and he shared it and passed it on with a generosity that was second to none.
Back in 2004 I was doing a short tour around the country with my band at the time which included Ryan MacNeil, from Cape Breton, – a great exponent of that very full, vibrant syncopated piano style that is totally distinctive to that tradition. Through Roisin Mc Grory and Angela Mc Laughlin of Inishowen Traditional Music Project, it was organized to get Ryan and Seamus together to record a few tunes and see how it all went. Well, the two boys totally clicked. I went off to work and when I got home in the evening they were still sitting round the kitchen table (Jim in the middle of them) drinking tea and talking tunes! The second day the ‘rehearsal’ was down in Seamus’s house and he had dug out all these video tapes he had made over the years of various Canadian musicians to play for Ryan. The very first one he put on was of a band called the Barra MacNeils – who turned out to be Ryan’s own brothers and sisters. Ryan was blown away – he had to ring home to relay that story to his folks that night! Then they got down to the music- and the result of that is what we are here to celebrate tonight. By any standards this fantastic CD, recorded here in this very room, has a real live feel to it, and a sense of connection between the two musicians that transcends a 50-year age gap and a 4000 mile ocean.
There is an accolade that I would like to bring to your attention with regard to this CD; again, while Seamus was aware of it, he never made any great song and a dance about it. Back in 2005, when the CD had been recorded (Nov 2004) and the conversations were beginning about getting it completed and out into the public domain, the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealain was reviewing its whole policy and funding regarding the traditional arts […]. It was easier to get support if you were a classical violinist or an opera singer – and I mean not only financial support but also that validation that comes from the Arts Council recognising that an artistic project is worthy and valuable. A scheme called ‘Deis ‘ was set up in order to recognise the traditional arts and traditional artists and Seamus Grant and this CD project was actually the very first recipient of a Deis award.
At this point I would like to take the opportunity to acknowledge the Inishowen Traditional Music Project and the tremendous vision and dedication they have shown in bringing this project to fruition. In particular to Roisin and Angela McLaughlin who drove it from start to finish. And to Mick Denieffe who was involved in advisory capacity and who co-wrote the sleeve notes with Roisin. The Inishowen Traditional Music Project, which has been on the go since 1999, is a fantastic organisation doing great work in passing on and promoting the music of the area and ensuring that that local voice of which we should be so proud continues to grow from strength to strength. To all the young musicians who are part of it, you are a part of something really special -I hope you enjoy every minute of it!
One of the great things about Irish music can be the great names that are given to tunes and tucked away in the set list of tunes on Seamus’s CD there is a great name of a barndance- ‘If there weren’t any women in the world’! Well, there would be a whole lot less chat- so I’m not going to detain you for a whole lot longer. The world will of course and quite rightly go to Seamus this evening when we hear a few tunes that we will always associate with him; I for one don’t think that I’ll be able to hear ‘Our Highland Queen’ played anywhere in the world again without thinking of Seamus. Before that- when I was asked to speak tonight, I took the liberty of contacting a great friend and huge inspiration to me, Professor Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, Chair of the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick, and asking him if he’d like to pen a few thoughts to contribute to tonight’s proceedings. Mícheál had, of course, performed with Seamus at the McGlinchey summer School in Clonmany and then interviewed him for a series he was recording for Lyric FM. So, I’ll declare Seamus’s CD officially launched and leave you with Mícheál’s words:
From Professor Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, Chair, Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick
‘A Memory of Seamus Grant, Fiddler’ (February 2011)
When I visited Seamus a number of years ago to interview him for an RTÉ Lyric FM radio series, it was our first meeting. Liz Doherty had made the all-important introductions, so I was hitting the ground running in that regard. He invited me to his home and there I got the first sense of the presence behind the music. The fire was lit, all things were present and correct in their proper place. The clock ticked in time- not a few minutes before to hurry you on, or a few minutes behind to say ‘it doesn’t matter’ – but right on the beat. Because it did matter. Music mattered.
I was in the presence of a gentleman fiddler. I had heard the term gentleman piper used especially in 19th Century sources, but never applied to a fiddler. It was the well-mannered manner of his timing, his noble bow hand, his attention to what the Dublin fiddler Tommy Potts might term ‘the finer points’ – all of these served to make the music-making.
We were in the presence not just of a great tradition-bearer, but in the presence of a kindly king, a leader of his music-people, a great turner of the earth-sound of a mounting renaissance of his inherited sound.
If Heaney’s spade was the nib of his ‘squat pen’, Seamus dug his sonic ground with the fiddle bow, and never was turf cut so neatly with a loy, never lifted in the air so adroitly, and never stacked away with such care and efficiency to warm the world of future generations of young musicians gathered around the communal fire – but yet to find the path back to the original sound-cutter.
This celebration serves to open up the path further so that the young musicians of today can all the more easily find their way through the undergrowth of tradition back into the open field in their search, “till times and times are done/ the silver apples of the moon/ the golden apples of the sun.”
They will not be disappointed.
For Liz Doherty