Mercoledi Musicale

A Touch of Irish Music for the Season

I suppose it is the time of year, and possibly the fact that there has been no travel for an extended period of time, that has led me to go back over photos of our trip to Ireland, England and the North Atlantic last September.  That and you are now reading a missive from the newest member of the Benevolent Irish Society of Prince Edward Island – founded in 1825 it is one of the oldest organizations on the Island.  It was established to assist Irish immigrants and as an aid society for families in need.  Today the emphasis is on preserving and presenting Irish history, arts, culture and its heritage here on PEI. A major part of that heritage is a musical one; not the “Irish” music of tin-pan alley or the pseudo-Celtic sounds mingling with the healing potpourri that drifts through your local holistic food shop but the music as it was and is played in the Four Provinces.

I’ve mentioned previously that on our journey on the Grand Hibernian we had entertainment every evening after dinner in the Observation Car.  Traditional artists include a Celtic harpist (from Trois Rivières Quebec????), a local storyteller, The Baileys and a husband and wife duo.  All were exceptionally fine performers but unfortunately Belmond didn’t provide us with the names of the performers and had the Baileys not given us one of their fine discs I would not have been able to give them their credit.

Nan Tom Teaimin – one of the great Sean-nós singers – at Ard Bia in Galway.

Perhaps the most serious omission when it came to introducing artists was on our visit to Galway and our lunch at Ard Bia.  We were in a private room on the second floor and prior to a splendid lunch begin served a singer was introduced.  Though the room had a country charm it was strangely set up and all angles; this meant that one end of the room could neither see nor hear the lady and the other couldn’t hear the introduction.  That introduction was perfunctory at best , and hardly worthy of Nan Tom Teaimín one of the great singers of Sean-nós or “old style” Irish music.   It is a style of music that I knew only very slightly but have started to investigate more deeply – it is certainly not what most people think of as “Irish” music and many of our fellow travellers were puzzled by her performance.

The first of these three pieces on this clip is a Sean-nós song The Flowereen Bán as sung by Nan Tom Teaimín – unfortunately I haven’t been able to come up with a translation except I do know that “bán” means “white”.  The two pieces that follow are performed by Martin Dowling and are traditional Irish fiddle music: an Air: An raibh tú ag an gcarraig? (Have you been to the rock?) and a reel: The mother’s delight.

As I was writing this I thought of my late brother who, where ever he may be, is chortling and I hope highly pleased at all this.   A chuimhne grámhara mo dheartháir.

On this day in 1888:  the Anglo-Tibetan War of 1888 begins.

Mercoledi Musicale

As I mentioned last week the good folk at Belmond made sure that every evening after the splendid dinners created by Chef Alan Woods and his crew we were entertained with some of the best entertainers in Ireland.

At our overnight stop in Athlone a Celtic harpist from France joined us in the Observation car and gave a concert of traditional airs, jigs and waltzes.  She also chatted about her recent visit to Quebec and also the complexities of her instrument – particularly the tuning and bridge pins that allow the harpist to give a remarkable colour and variety to the music.

The last evening Michael Banahan and Anthony McDermott (The Baileys) along with a young lady, whose name I unfortunately didn’t get but who knew how to pluck a mean banjo, gave an impromptu Irish equivalent of a “jam session” for a few of us die-hards who weren’t afraid to stay up late.

The Baileys – Michael Banahan and Anthony McDermott – along with an extremely accomplished banjo player “jammed” into the late night for a small group of us on the Grand Hibernian.

Though Pete St. John’s lament for a Dublin long gone wasn’t amongst the numbers it is included on the CD that they very kindly presented to us. I thought I’d give you a taste of the sound of these two old friends who are very much a part of the traditional music scene in Ireland.

On this day in 1810:  First Oktoberfest: The Bavarian royalty invites the citizens of Munich to join the celebration of the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen.

Mercoledi Musicale

On our recent trip on the Grand Hibernian we were treated each night to entertainment by a variety of local performers – a story teller, a remarkably accomplished Celtic harpist, one of the great Celtic singers Nan Tom Tiamin, and on our last evening The Baileys.  Several of us lingered in the Observation car with our whiskies and late night pint listening to these extremely talented lads and were introduced to a few songs that are not part of the standard “Irish” repertoire including this lovely little ditty, performed here by Mary Black and the Black Family back in 1986.


The colcannon that the Blacks and the Baileys so fondlycolcannon_recipe_on_bag_of_potatoes_cropped remember is one of the traditional dishes, along with those potato cakes from the second verse, that Irish cookery gave the world.  When done properly it is the perfect accompaniment to a Sunday roast or an addition to a fine big breakfast with poached egg and Cumberland sausage.

I wasn’t surprised to see that there are as many variations for this wonderful potato dish as there are cooks out there.  Everyone’s ma or grandma had their own version – and you can rest assured that their way was the only “right and proper” way to make Colcannon.  Some use kale, others cabbage; a few add bacon (though bacon was that rare in most homes that Eamon Kelly has a wonderful, if slightly scatological, story about a few precious rashers); and one or two add leeks or chives.  But any recipe I’ve seen cautions that everything must be well drained so that the dish doesn’t become thin and watery but light, fluffy and creamy.  And of course no recipe for Colcannon would omit making “the hole in top, to hold the meltin’ flake of the creamy flavoured butter that our mother’s used to make”.

On this day in 1869: The Saxby Gale devastates the Bay of Fundy region of Maritime Canada. The storm had reportedly been predicted over a year before by a British naval officer.

Mercoledi Musciale

It’s often mere serendipity that sends us off on wild goose chases in the Celtic knot that is the Internet.  And such is the case with this lovely version of an oft performed favourite of the Irish diaspora, Oh Danny Boy.   My friend Richard drew my attention to it and remarked on the sensitive singing of John Brancy and the lovely piano accompaniment by Peter Dugan.

Of course this led to me searching the origins of this most Irish of ditties – only to find that the lyrics were penned by an Englishman and a lawyer to boot!  Though his profession was that of a barrister Frederic Weatherly’s legacy is the over 3000 lyrics he wrote for hymns, ballads and popular songs.  His first success was in 1892 with The Holy City – a much beloved anthem that I recall singing in my boy soprano days.   Weatherly was also the lyricist for many popular songs during the First Great War including the lovely Roses of Picady.

When Weatherly first penned the lyrics of Danny Boy in 1910 it was set to a melody other than the familiar Londonderry Air.   It was only after he had been sent a copy of the Irish folk melody by his sister-in-law Margaret, Irish-born but residing in the United States, that he adapted the lyrics to fit the familiar melody’s meter.

The melody of what is now called The Londonderry Air has been used in many forms – folk song, hymns, pop and love songs.  It’s appeared in symphonic suites, movie scores, cartoons and, I’m told, a video game.  The originals have been much discussed and are briefly outlined in the Wikipedia entry and more exhaustively in Brian Audley’s study for the Royal Music Association.

Whatever it’s origins it still can bring a lump to the throat particularly when sung and played so beautifully as it is here.

As a side note Mr Brancy will be singing Figaro in the Marriage of said character here in Ottawa with Opera Lyra in March.

November 26 – 2004: The last Poʻouli (Black-faced honeycreeper) dies of avian malaria in the Maui Bird Conservation Center in Olinda, Hawaii, making the species in all probability extinct.