‘GAA Jersey’ should be modern-era anthem for Irish native sport

If versatility is a sign of artistic talent – painters turning their skills to oils, watercolors and acrylics, landscapes as well as portraits; writers penning cross-genre, including poetry, short stories and novels – then musician-singer-songwriter Pat Gallagher can rightly claim membership of this rare cadre of gifted people.

As amply displayed this weekend at the Balor Arts Center in Donegal, Gallagher – supported by his outstanding group, ‘Goats Don’t Shave’ – can soften the hardest of hearts with poignant songs of lost lives and lost loves as in ‘The Volunteer’ about the 1916 Irish Revolution with its sad but uplifting refrain, ‘Close your eyes my little darling, may the angels keep you safe tonight, tomorrow in the new light you will rise,’ while also setting hands clapping and feet tapping boisterously with the dynamic ‘Crooked Jack,’ about an Irish gigolo, enlivened by mesmerizing fiddle and banjo playing by Stephen Campbell and Gallagher respectively.

As for musical genres: west Donegal-based Gallagher seems to have mastered them all (bar, perhaps, early 17th century flute-based Baroque sonatas, though he’ll probably achieve that too soon). Gospel, listen to ‘Strange Star, Middle Earth’ and ‘Dance For The Crowd.’ Blues, the homespun tune reminiscent of his home county, ‘Turf Man Blues.’ Country, ‘When I Grow Up.’ Traditional, ‘Evictions.’ Folk, ‘God Takes Visa.’ Rock, ‘Let It Go.’ Romantic, ‘She Looked My Way.” Celtic rock, ‘Arranmore.’

To cap it all, Gallagher and his multi-faceted band have just been traipsing the hallowed ground around Dublin’s Montrose House playing on one of Irish TV’s most popular entertainment programmes, ‘The Late, Late Show,’ with yet another creative musical invention – a lively, winning number combining hip-hop and Celtic rock performed with Letterkenny-based group, Phat Kiidz, entitled ‘GAA Jersey.’ So popular is the song it went viral, notching up around hundred thousand views on YouTube and media outlets nationwide and had the Balor audience rocking in the aisles as the hip-hop group emerged side-stage in psychedelic lime green jersey and fur-rimmed hoodie.

If the often less visionary elites of Ireland’s native national sport don’t play this song – repeatedly – during pre-match entertainment at Croke Park before this Saturday’s much-awaited football final replay between Dublin and Mayo, they deserve to be garroted with nylon guitar strings.

One catchy lyrical phrase alone ‘skinny jeans with the GAA, with the GAA jersey’ may set an enduring fashion trend, as well as return to the fold many young players whom some executives of the Gaelic Athletic Association complain have drifted off to ‘foreign’ soccer fields. And if anything is to put an end to the enduring curse that plagues the Mayo team, it could well be this inspiring song.

Who knows, maybe one day, a Platinum album will hang proudly on the wall of the ‘GAA Museum’ reflecting the song’s soaring sales. With lucrative proceeds from two 80,000-plus capacity crowds for the football final and replay (an estimated 8.5 million euro from ticket sales alone), the GAA could easily afford to buy enough copies of the record to move sales beyond platinum into the realm of diamond.

Can anyone think of a better, more timely musical gift for friends and supporters of the nation’s largest sporting organization both in Ireland and abroad? After listening to the rousing rendition at the Balor Arts Center concert last night, it had better hurry and place its order – they could all be sold out soon.

Dressed down-home in white T-shirt and dark waistcoat, his red hair flecked with gray or gray flecked with red, or whatever, with a baldheaded drummer, guitarist in ‘pink pyjamas,’ bass player in check shirt, fiddler intriguingly discreet in the shadow of a felt hat and mandolinist under a flickering crimson light, Gallagher and the Goats featured powerful voice backed by powerful musical prowess.

Such was the evening’s musical feast, even Conor Malone, manager of the Balor, joined in, the sweet notes of his saxophone wrapping themselves naturally around Campbell’s fiddle tones like a loving couple lingering late in bed on a Sunday morning – specially on the song ‘The Killer,’ about a Scottish boxing champion.

Then there was ‘Mary, Mary,’ an amusing tongue-in-cheek take on one of Ireland’s oldest talent contests and the swaying rhythms of ‘Drinking My Money,’ ‘The Glasgow Bus’ and, of course, the rousing standing ovation from the hand-clapping, merry swaying throng that greeted the ageless ‘Holy of Holy Hymns From The Goats’ – the pulsating ‘Las Vegas In the Hills of Donegal.’

The band were joined on-stage for a grand reunion by Malone, the lovely Donegal-based singer, Jacqui Sharkey, accomplished harmonica player, Dermot Donohue, singer-guitarist, Dean Maywood, who was the support act for the Goats, and the Phat Kiidz.

Kudos then for a riveting musical evening to Gallagher (vocal, guitar, banjo), Mickey Gallagher (drums), Patsy Gallagher (lead guitar, mandolin, vocal), Odhran Cummings (bass), Shaun Doherty (guitar, vocal) and Stephen Campbell (fiddle), as well as guests, Malone, Donohue, Maywood, Sharkey, and the Phat Kiidz comprising Jay Kay, DoDa and Hapz.

Advertisements

From Burtonport to Bucharest: a restless heart keeps creative juices flowing

“Some people write poems, some write novels, I write songs…”

Such is how Donegal-based Ian Smith sums up the special craft he has practiced for more than half a century.

I first met the friendly, fair-haired Scotsman when he kindly introduced himself to my wife, Columbia, and I at a gig some years ago in the hauntingly beautiful Poisoned Glen in the shadow of Errigal where he was both musician and an organising team member at the annual Frankie Kennedy Winter Music School.

Our friendship strengthened after we asked him if he could arrange a group of Irish musicians to play concerts throughout Romania where we were then living as part of our combined inaugural St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and national Corporate Citizen Awards in that struggling post-Communist country.

Ian Smith musician, folk music Donegal

After his arrival in Bucharest, I remember distinctly his shock upon seeing a huge multicolored banner stretching several floors of a city centre building featuring him strumming guitar. Only then perhaps did the full significance of playing before audiences of thousands including the nation’s President, Prime Minister, Mayors and international Ambassadors truly dawn on him.

St. Patrick's Day celebrations Eastern Europe, Irish music Romania

Through snatches of conversation in airports and on winding roads between Romanian cities such as Cluj-Napoca, Oradea, Brasov and Constanta and in Donegal’s very own Hiudái Beag’s, Teac Jack and Leo’s Tavern I managed to patch together a tapestry of the life of the talented musician-cum-songwriter.

Smith recalls being seduced initially as a young 14-year-old “by the dark and complex lyrics of Lennon and the more upbeat and happy ones of McCartney” before his musical interests expanded quickly until they encompassed Carol King, James Taylor, Steely Dan, and Joni Mitchell. “I could have listened to Joni’s ‘Blue’ album 25 hours a day,” he says.

singer songwriter Ian Smith, Donegal musicians, St Patrick's Day musicians

A moment of pure concentration.

Living in Ayrshire, with such local talent as Gerry Rafferty, Billy Connolly and Barbara Dixon, the air around him was filled with artistic creativity. Smith must have inhaled it deeply as now, many years later, the 65-year-old has three albums under his belt – the wonderful ‘Restless Heart,’ ‘Keadue Bar’ and ‘A Celtic Connection,’ the latter labeled by ‘Irish Music Magazine’ as the recommended album of the year in 2011. He has also produced a two-track mini CD featuring the lovely songs ‘When it Snows In New York City’ and ‘On Keadue Strand’ – all reflecting the diversity of his song-writing abilities and the beauty of his guitar-playing.

As if that wasn’t enough, he has also hosted gigs both in the US, including one at the legendary Woodstock, and across Europe and Scandinavia, touring and playing alongside many international stars such as Nanci Griffith, Benny Gallagher, Christy Moore, Paul Brady, Mary Black, Altan, Dolores Keane, Maura O’Connell and Liam O’Maonlai. He also recently hosted a group of international writers at Teac Jack during the annual Ireland Writing Retreat, granting them insights into the art of songwriting.

Interestingly, the man from Kilmarnock didn’t begin adult life as a musician, instead working in the textile industry before his true passion took him on whirlwind adventures across England and Scotland either performing solo or with bands such as ‘Nessie.’

On one of these tours he met Donegal woman, Breda Ward, and love being the irresistible force that it is, the young, long-haired lead guitarist gave up the fast-moving world of rock music for donkeys, carts, whitewashed cottages and west Donegal rural tranquility where they reared two sons, Daniel and Mathew.

That was 34 years ago but rather than marking the end of his music career, Smith’s move to Ireland’s ‘Forgotten County’ simply signified his entering onto new stages – in the literal sense.

After renovating their home, word went out there was a new musician in the area. Soon there was a knock on the door. ‘Can you play a few songs for us at our Dungloe festival?’

writing songs, Donegal musicians, Ian Smith songwriter

Ian enjoys a moment of post-concert relaxation with international participants and teachers at this year’s Ireland Writing Retreat at Teac Jack, Glassagh, including Gortahork’s Rose Sweeney (centre front) and bearded former CNN editor, John DeDakis from Washington.

That was the beginning of Smith’s baptism into the local melody scene. His skills were in high demand at clubs and pubs throughout the county, and beyond. Smith tours Germany each year with the dynamic dance show  ‘Danceperados’ for which he wrote the song, ‘True Travellers,’ has a music residency in Clare and plays at a number of other venues.

He has also been deeply involved in key community projects – the annual summer ‘Trad Trathnóna’ hosted by the organization Tionscnamh Lugh, at Ionad Cois Locha in Dunlewey, that promotes Irish music and the Frankie Kennedy School, where my wife and I first met him.

Such is his love of music he also hosts intimate concerts in his own home, with creative US-based singer-guitarist, Buddy Mondlock and Benny Gallagher (of Gallagher & Lyle fame), among those playing in his cozy living room.

Buddy Mondlock, Benny Gallagher, Gallagher & Lyle, Ian Smith

A memorable concert at Ian’s home featuring (l to r) Ian, Benny Gallagher and Buddy Mondlock.

You’ll also hear Smith playing with local band, ‘Vintage,’ featuring Letterkenny musician, Ted Ponsonby, on slide guitar, Englishman, Dave Wintour and Gary Porter from Lifford.

Smith sums up his approach to songwriting in the phrase, ‘One and one equals three.’

“It’s all about sharing,” he says. “Working with others – even up to four people together – can make a song so much better. Lyrics should create word images. Songs are really four-minute novels, with beginnings, middles and ends.” No surprise then that he is a regular participant at festivals such as Songcraft, enjoying the camaraderie of artists just like himself.

In Smith’s view, time matters little in songwriting. “In Nashville, a place filled with great talent, songs are churned out like clockwork, but that’s not my thing, I don’t set a specific time to complete one,” he says. “One song, ‘James,’ about my father, took nine years, it was a tough emotional journey. Yet ‘Restless Heart,’ the title album of my first CD, took twenty minutes in my kitchen. As I get older, I write less songs but, hopefully, better ones.”

Looking back over the years, Smith says, “I consider myself lucky in life. I have a passion for melody and the guitar has helped give me a voice of my own.”

From Donegal to Transylvania – Irish music helps lift the veil

Organizing the first-ever Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations in Romania and pairing it with the nation’s inaugural Corporate Citizen Awards was how I first came to appreciate the skilled musicianship of the wonderful Donegal group, Arcanadh, which launched its third album, ‘Light From The Water,’ at An Grianan this past Saturday.

Having gone to the eastern European country from the US after the fall of Communism as a volunteer to establish the first journalism schools and train evolving charities and NGOs in media relations skills, I thought I’d raise the flag and launch the first-ever March 17 celebrations.

But that’s hard to do unless you have some very fine Irish musicians.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So I searched the length and breadth of the country for some of the best, flying over traditional musicians from Belfast to Dublin, betwixt and beyond, for a nationwide tour that encompassed the capital, Bucharest; the Black Sea port of Constanta; Cluj-Napoca, in the very heart of Transylvania; and other towns and cities besides.

When I bought my house in Bun na Leaca, Gaoth Dobhair, my search was over.

Among the excellent Donegal musicians who have mightily entertained thousands of delighted Romanians including Presidents, Prime Ministers, Ambassadors and Mayors throughout the land of Vlad the Impaler have been singer-songwriter-guitarist Ian Smith from Keadu; fiddle player extraordinaire Theresa Kavanagh from Gortahork; accordionist Marie Clarke; as well as Letterkenny-based singer and banjo-mandola player Colm Breathnach; his wife, singer-guitar-whistle player, Sinead Gibson; harpist and singer, Maria Corbet, and the other multi-talented members of what must surely be voted the most accomplished traditional band in all Ireland.

Then Arcanadh had no albums to its name, now they have three quality ones – ‘Soundings,’ ‘Turning Of A Day’ and now ‘Light From The Water.’ So good are they, they’re invited to play at venues and festivals from Boston to Brittany (luckily, you can hear them in concert as part of their promotional tour at Westport House, Westport, Mayo, this Friday evening at 8 pm).

Being fortunate enough to see them in concert at An Grianan in Letterkenny a few nights ago, I wrote an appreciation of that standing ovation performance.

To whet your appetite, read on –

Irish traditional group, Arcanadh, acclaimed with standing ovation in Donegal

Versatile and multi-talented, deftly harmonious, wholesome, warm and welcoming – the album-launching concert by Arcanadh, one of Ireland’s leading traditional music groups, at An Grianan theatre Donegal this past weekend brought all these adjectives to mind, and more.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From ancient classics to modern contemporary, from songs in English to others in Irish, from tear-jerking ballads to foot-tapping sing-alongs, the diverse repertoire of this six-member band is truly impressive.

And with the launch of their third album ‘Light From the Water,’ more people will have the good fortune to hear them as they continue a national promotional tour, with the next stop being Gracy’s Bar, Westport House, Westport, Mayo, this Friday evening, 8p.m

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A haunting quality pervaded Waterford-man Colm Breathnach’s beautiful opening of ‘The Swallow’ enhanced by the echoing voices of the others as they coalesced to create soothing, multi-layered complexities. Master of mandola and banjo and the main on-stage interlocutor, Colm’s family background provides him with a sound platform for his musical endeavors. As he informed a packed audience good humoredly in Letterkenny, he is one of 11 children and his mother would often sing to help keep peace among them. It is from her he learned many of the songs he performs including ‘Barr na Sráide’ (Top of the Street).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In contrast to the strong masculine tonality of his voice, his wife and fellow schoolteacher, Sinead Gibson’s can best be described as  ‘whispery,’ somewhat akin to feathers rustling in a breeze, as in her version of the Gaeilge ballad ‘Méilte Cheann Dubhrann’ (Sandy Hills of Ceann Dubhrann).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

With eyes closed, I could almost imagine her breaking into a soft, breathy, seductive rendition of “Happy birthday, Mister President, happy birthday to you.’ At other times, however, her voice is downright sultry-sexy Southern as when she skipped nimbly along the lyrics of the American Bluegrass song ‘One More Dollar.

A strong hallmark of an Arcanadh concert is not only their musical prowess and collective light-heartedness but the interesting anecdotes they tell before each song, which grants the listener added insights through context.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Of this, Colm is a master in the telling. A classic example at An Grianan was the Gaeilge song ‘Trathnona Aoine’ (Friday Evening), written by Paidin, one of Colm’s brothers, with music composed by Sinead about two teenager boys lost at sea near Waterford while out on currach boats lobster fishing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Award-winning Mags Gallen, who completed a Masters degree at the Irish World Music Centre at the University of Limerick, sang a wonderful version of the Scottish poet Robert Burns’ classic ballad, ‘My Love is Like a A Red, Red Rose’ while accompanying herself on grand piano, as well as ‘County Down’ by Tommy Sands.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Her brother, Martin, a guitarist, displayed his singer-song-writing skills with his homespun ‘Turning Of A Day’ and his soothing version of Christine Kane’s ‘She Don’t Like Roses.’

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Musician and band manager, Maria Corbet, not only weaves an almost ethereal tapestry of melodies from her harp but is an accomplished singer to boot, as evidenced by her lovely interpretation of ‘Anachie Gordon’ and the poignant ‘John Condon,’ the heart-breaking story of 14-year-old Irish boy who finagles his way into the British Army during World War One only to die on his very first day of battle in the fields of Picardy, Belgium.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Adding even greater variety to the timbres of the gathered ensemble, Fiona Walsh, who plays fiddle and tin whistle, sang ‘Horo Johnny’ impeccably and enlivened an appreciative audience with her dizzying lilting on ‘Ceol An Phíobaire’ (Music of the Piper).

Appropriately, the band finished off a terrific evening of entertainment with their arrangement of ‘The Parting Glass,’ drawing a well-deserved and enthusiastic standing ovation.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

To sum up Arcanadh and their intricate interweaving vocal and instrumental harmonies, I borrow the words from a song the group performed bilingually, ‘Coinleach Ghlas an Fhomhair,’ (From Time to Time), with the single change of one word, from ‘love’ to ‘music’  – ‘If this be music, then there go I.’ 

Arcanadh’s album, ‘Light From The Water,’ was recorded at Stiuideo Cuisle Ceoil in Gaoth Dobhair, west Donegal, by Hughie Boyle, assisted by Brid Ferry and Padraig Grogan, with graphics by Ali Deegan.