Irish Music Stories is the show about traditional music and the bigger stories behind it, like how important, ancient songs and little short folk ditties lodge in the heart, not the ears… or the eyes. In this episode, fiddle player Séamus Connolly shares early experiences of playing and collecting Irish music, and also recent challenges and insights. Also woven into the show are a few thoughts from poet and scholar Louis de Paor about tradition and innovation, and how the structure of old ballads and poems can resonate today.
Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Ian Bittle, Finian McCluskey, John Ploch, Brian Benscoter, Chris Murphy, Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, David Vaughan, Suezen Brown, Paul DeCamp, Susan Walsh, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Gerry Corr, Jonathan Duvick, Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, John Kerr, Charlie Durfee, Bob Suchor, Maureen Callanan, Margaret Sloan, Donna Kolojeskie, Mark Haynes, Michael Schock, Rachel O’Meara, and Jock Harkness.
Episode 59-Shortcut to the Heart
Revisiting conversations with Séamus Connolly & Louis dePaor
This Irish Music Stories episode aired April 12, 2022
Speakers, in order of appearance
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories
>> Séamus Connolly: Master fiddle player, educator, and festival organizer with ten All-Ireland solo fiddle championships, National Heritage Fellowship, and Boston College Faculty Award
>> Louis de Paor: Cork-born Irish language poet and Director of the Centre for Irish Studies at NUI Galway
>> Shannon: I’m Shannon Heaton. And this is Irish Music Stories. The show about traditional music and the bigger stories behind it.
[ Music: “Crossing the Bar,” from Land of Fish and Seals
Artist: Keith Murphy ]
Like how important, ancient songs and little short folk ditties lodge in the heart, not the ears… or the eyes.
There’s this simple little poem that fiddle player Séamus Connolly’s dad Mick used to recite. I was recently fretting about things, and Séamus sent this along:
>> Séamus: This is the little verse that my father gave to me one time. It’s about life, and hope, and believing, and not to worry about too many things.
Tell your cares to the birds and the bees.
They will tell the leaves on the trees.
The leaves on the trees will bow to the breeze.
And the breeze will blow them away.
>> Shannon: Growing up in Killaloe, in North County Clare, Séamus heard that verse a lot. He also heard his dad’s 78 recordings of fiddle superstars Neillidh Boyle and Michael Coleman, which sparked his own fiddle passions.
[ Music: “Heartstrings Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
In fact, Séamus went on to win the Irish National Fiddle Championship ten times, and the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, the NEA National Heritage Fellowship, and a 16 year Artist-in-Residence position at Boston College’s Center for Irish Programs.
But first he had to learn how to set up the fiddle…
>> Séamus: When I started to play first, my fiddle was tuned in fourths instead of fifths.
>> Shannon: Wow, how long did you go like that?
>> Séamus: I was playing about maybe 10 months. And Dinny O’Brien, Paddy OBrien’s father came to see me playing. And he was puzzled by it all. And then my uncle—he was the the local barber—and a man came into him one day. And that man was from Feakle in County Clare. His name was Tom Touhey in his shop. And of course my uncle was very proud that I was playing the fiddle. And Tom said “well, I play the fiddle, too. I’d love to hear him.”
And I went that night with my uncle and Mr. Touhey was sort of fascinated, too. And he asked me to give him the fiddle, and of course he couldn’t play. So he tuned it up to the concert pitch tuning, you know the standard tuning and played away. He was a very good fiddle player, you know East Clare fiddle style. And then he gave me back the fiddle, and I couldn’t play a note. I had to start all over again.
>> Shannon: Oh, no!
>> Séamus: So I went home. My mother was in bed. And I went up to her to say good night to her. She says how did you make out with the man? I said I didn’t. I’m playing wrong. Ah, she said, never mind him. Just keep going, she said. You’re doing just fine, she said.
When I grew up in Ireland there wasn’t much music around where I came from. And my father collected the old 78 records. Basically in the beginning years of my learning, my music came from the old 78 records. And one of the—probably the first fiddle record that I ever heard in my house, was I think recorded in 1937 by the great fiddle master from Donegal, Neilidh Boyle. And that was one of the first fiddle records that I ever heard.
Of course after that we heard the Sligo masters like Paddy Killoran, and Jimmy Morrison, and Michael Coleman.
>> Shannon: All those fiddle players had emigrated to the States, so those recordings were coming from America, and getting sent back to families all over Ireland.
[ Music: “My Love is But a Lassie,” from From Ballymote to Brooklyn
Artists: John McKenna & James Morrison ]
>> Séamus: And then with the advent of the reel to reel machine, I started going around to the Fleadhanna Ceol and the various concerts, and got to hear people like Peadar O’Loughlin, Paddy Canny, and Paddy Murphy, and all those great players. And Leo Rowsome. And so I went on from there. And then of course the advent of the cassette machine, that was easy. You’d be bringing around a big Grundig tape recorder and sticking it in the plug in the wall!
And then we had the the battery cassettes. And it went on from there. So I started collecting, and I’ve been recording music for almost 60 years.
[ Music: “Chimes,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]
>> Shannon: Some of these recordings ended up in the Séamus Connolly Collection, which published by the Boston College Libraries in 2016. It’s online and available for everybody.
But as Séamus reminded me, “One’s own heart is the best place in which to store the few things of life that really matter.” He told me Kipling wrote that, and it’s amazing to think about all the tunes and words and wisdom that’s all lodged in Séamus’s heart…. even if he isn’t able to hear it all anymore.
Séamus is adjusting to cochlear implants. So all the music and verses he’s spent his life learning and collecting—well, he’s having to find new ways to access and share that, like talking about the tunes over the phone. Or even like singing a few small phrases. We can still do that.
[ Music: “The Rambling Rake,” from The Banks of the Shannon
Artist: Séamus Connolly ]
>> Shannon: Séamus first came to the States on a Comhaltas tour. (Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann was founded in 1951 to promote Irish music and culture). And in 1972 he performed around the U.S. with other musicians and dancers from Ireland. Then in 1976 he immigrated here and settled in Boston where he taught — and prepared students for Comhaltas competitions.
>> Séamus: I honestly do believe that Comhaltas are responsible for a lot of the great music being played today. And I think Comhaltas are to be complimented for keeping it alive. Some people are critical of them, because they are being told how you should play in competition style. But I suppose someone has to happen to put somebody on the right track as well. And then, you know, they’re more free when you’re done with competition.
When I was growing up competition-wise, I felt like I was boxed in very much. I felt like I had to adhere to a certain way of playing. And I’ve talked to fiddle players here in America, too, you know, the various fiddle competitions. They feel they have to play a competition style to win. Does that make any sense?
>> Shannon: Oh, yes!
>> Séamus: Yeah, and so I think you’re inhibited by that. Because the things that you want to do in your music you’re not allowed to do it. It has to be what the judges want to hear, you know? And I’m totally against that. I think it should be free and coming from the heart, instead of feeling you need to play what you’re told to play.
>> Shannon: So that sense of freedom and individuality. But also rooted in what has come before… can kind of have a nice dialog within different playing styles?
>> Séamus: Absolutely! That’s why I love what you play.
>> Séamus: You have the feeling of the old players, but yet you add your own touch to the music as well. And for me that’s what makes it exciting.
>> Shannon: Haha. I feel lucky that we’re all part of this here in Boston, too.
>> Séamus: What I love about it today, Shannon, is that almost all the young people are great scholars of the music, you know? Whereas when I was growing up we didn’t question it. We didn’t know if we were doing it right or wrong. We hoped we were doing it okay. But the young people today, they can teach you so much about all this stuff, because they have looked at and studied it—where it came from, and where it’s going. Actually they have a great vision, you know? But at the same time, they’re very respectful of where it came from, too.
So I’ve always liked preserving what was there in the past, for historic reasons. But we can’t stay locked in the past either.
>> Shannon: So this process of where it comes from, how it grows, how it gets passed on… this Séamus Connolly collection of Irish Music, this is a way to kind of present the living tradition, to show the trajectory of the tradition?
>> Séamus: Yes. With the recordings that I made over the years, I chose tunes that meant much to me—you know, the historical content of them, and the people from whom I learned them. That’s very important, lest we forget them. And so I used those as a source recording. And then I asked various people, including yourself, to interpret these particular tunes in their own way, in your way. I got about about 70 people, Beth, involved in the whole project.
>> Beth: Oh, I think closer to a hundred I think.
>> Séamus: Really? With accompanists and everything, you know?
>> Shannon: That was Elizabeth Sweeney chiming. She’s the librarian for the Irish Music Archives at Boston College and plays fiddle and piano. And she was a driving force in pulling together all the different recordings, and bits of information, and people involved in the Séamus Connolly Collection.
>> Séamus: You know, people like Finbarr Dwyer, Shannon Heaton, Jerry O’Sullivan, Liz Carroll our great friend, Martin Hayes, and Kevin Burke — were so gracious. And they took the time to learn the tunes and put their own interpretation on them. So you have 30 seconds of the older ones and the newer ones side by side, just examples. So people get a general picture of where it came from. Because it’s hard to comprehend it. And it may not mean as much if the people don’t hear the sources.
>> Shannon: For Séamus, it’s mostly about the sources. About the people.
>> Séamus: There’s a sense of closeness and camaraderie about all of it. It’s not all to be kept in a box. It’s to be shared with people. And we can all learn from one another. We go to a session, somebody plays a tune: “oh, what’s that Shannon, I’ve not heard it before. Would you play it again? Do you mind if I tape it on my phone?”
It’s not a reel to reel machine anymore, you know?
And so maybe the next time I can get together with you, if I’ve had time to practice, you’ll play it with me again. So that sort of a thing. So it’s for sharing. And it’s the friendships that we make in it—lifelong friendships, as well! So it’s the music that brings us together.
>> Shannon: Yes it is.
>> Séamus: It’s great therapy. It is.
>> Shannon: Séamus loves this quote from John Adams: “Think of no other greatness but that of the soul, no other riches but those of the heart.” That speaks to the gift of Irish music, these little tunes—these little gifts—that get shared from one person to the next.
[ Music: Crossing the Bar reprise ]
And, of course, as they get shared and they move around—as people move around—the music changes and evolves.
>> Séamus: It’s a living tradition. And the younger people that are playing the music have to add to the music how they feel it should be interpreted. And give us something new. But at the same time we shouldn’t forget what the older people did, too. What they put down. And that was in their time. But now it’s 21st century. And there’s new people coming along.
And it keeps it vibrant and it keeps it alive, by the new and exciting things that young people do. But as I said, we should forget what went on behind us.
And when I’m gone and when the young people that are there now playing it—when they become older, they will hear something different as well, with the new people. So it’s very much a living tradition, and it should be that way.
>> Louis: We’re at the tail end of a couple of hundred years where originality was the key to creativity. And more recently people are beginning to have a better understanding of the creative element of what we call traditional.
[ Chimes reprise ]
>> Shannon: Poet and scholar Louis de Paor spoke with me about Irish music and poetry back in 2016, when he was a guest lecturer at Boston College. We met again in Galway, where he directs the Centre for Irish Studies at the University there. And we spoke about the limits and possibilities of the concept of ‘tradition.’
>> Louis: Tradition is a kind of scaffolding, if you like, rather than a structure that remains impermeable to the weathers of time.
[ Music: “The Sand Hunter,” from Celtic Colours LIVE Vol. 2
Artists: Maeve Gilchrist & Nic Gareiss ]
But nonetheless, when we talk about tradition, we’re talking about something that is given. The transmission from one generation to the next has been oral, rather than through written forms. And that seems to still be very important for the relationship between the person who passes on the song and the person who acquires the song. It’s nice that you’d often hear the singer saying “Well, I got the song from such and such a person.” And you know, it’s an easily parodied form of deference in the tradition. But I think there’s something very heartfelt about that. And it’s also a way of keeping the dead alive somehow…
>> Shannon: There’s deference—and there’s definitely tension, and maybe richness—in working within a structure and also forging a new path. Whether you’re doing that really dramatically, or you’re just taking one little tiny piece of a tune and changing it around a bit.
Séamus Connolly was talking about that old hornpipe, the Plains of Boyle.
[ Shannon sings the beginning ]
Right? Over the phone he sang the little variation that Paddy O’Brien used to do in the beginning.
[ Shannon sings the variation ]
That one little triplet. [sings] It’s tiny. But singing through little inventions like these with Séamus—and going through the little verse from his dad… We took a lot of time to get it all right:
Tell your cares to the birds and bees, he told me.
They will tell the leaves on the trees
The leaves on the trees will bow to the breeze.
And the breeze will blow them away.
[ Chimes reprise ]
When you take the time to really digest a version of a tune or a poem and solidify it, you can appreciate the turns and twists and variations. Even the tiny ones. Because you know where things diverge.
>> Louis: All too often, the word tradition is associated with something that’s dated, outdated, tyrannical. And we’re impatient of it. But there are rules. It doesn’t mean that we have to observe them in all and in every situation. But if you’re going to play with the rules, you need to know what they are first. And that applies to language. And it applies to the vocabulary and grammar of music also, I think. And um, it is still the case that music and poetry are next door neighbors in the imagination.
[ Brian oHairt sings first verse of Dark Woman of the Glen ]
Tá bó agam ar an slíabh agus táim le seal ina dhiaidh
Ó chailleas mo chiall le nuachar,
Ó seoladh soir is siar san áit a dtéann an ghrian
Ó mhaidin go dtí an trathnóna.
Nuair a fhéachaim féin anonn san áit a mbíonn mo rún
ritheann mo shúil sruth deora
is, a Rí ghil na gcumhacht, go bhfóirir ar mo chois
mar is í Bean Dubh an Ghleanna do bhreoigh mé.
>> Louis: The great songs, the big songs are survivals from the Medieval or early modern literary tradition. They are between three and six hundred years old, some of them. They’ve survived orally. And they represent some of the best love poems and laments in the Irish language tradition.
And then there is this very particular style of singing that seems specific to the Gaeltacht regions, and does not seem to have travelled very far outside of them. Except as taken by people who acquired that tradition in Connemara or West Kerry, of the Ring Gaeltacht, or Donegal.
[ Brian sings SECOND VERSE ]
Bean Dubh an Ghleanna an bhean dubh a b’fhearr liom,
Bean Dubh ba deise gáire,
a bhfuil a gruaig mar an sneachta is a píb mar an eala
is a comh seang singil álainn.
Níl óganach cailce ó Bhaile Átha Cliath go Gaillimh
nó as siúd go Tuaim Uí Mheara
nach bhfuil ag triall is ag tarraingt ar eacha donna deasa
is iad ag tnáth leis an mBean Dubh álainn.
>> Shannon: Brian oHairt sang those two verses of Dark Haired Woman of the Glen—one of the big songs, about unrequited love—from his kitchen in Portland, Oregon. Brian has set his heart on learning and sharing the Irish language and the sean nós singing from the Irish speaking Gaeltacht of Connemara.
>> Louis: Sean nós singing is very much a living tradition, understood and appreciated and performed by quite young people now. Although it had almost been wiped out 30 or 40 years ago, it would seem it has undergone a considerable revival. The interest outside of Ireland is partly responsible for that revival.
The first recordings of Irish music were made here in the United States and then sent back to Ireland.
>> Shannon: This track was recorded in New York in 1929, with John McKenna on the flute from County Leitrim. And James Morrison from County Sligo on the fiddle.
[ John McKenna recording]
>> Louis: Without that, that link would have been permanently broken, perhaps.
Ireland is a country defined historically by the experience of out migration. It’s an even greater achievement, it seems to me, for somebody born in American or Australia to be able to recuperate the ancestral tradition, you know?
[ Music: “The Low Hum,” from California Calling
Artist: Laura Cortese & the Dance Cards ]
>> Shannon: I’ve spent many winters in Clare and Galway. But Irish Music Stories is a product of Massachusetts, and I write most of these episodes while running and hiking my local Middlesex Fells Forest Preserve. It’s a pleasure and privilege to share some of these Irish Music Stories with listeners around the globe; and I feel chuffed to be your (American) tour guide. Thank you for supporting the show by listening—and to those of you who’ve kicked in recently with financial support, here’s my kid Nigel to thank you.
>> Nigel: Thank you to Ian Bittle, Finian McCluskey, John Ploch, Brian Benscoter, Chris Murphy, Irish & Celtic Music Podcast, David Vaughan, Suezen Brown, Paul DeCamp, Susan Walsh, Rick Rubin, Ken Doyle, Chris Armstrong, Gerry Corr, Jonathan Duvick, Sean Carroll, Isobel McMahon, John Kerr, Charlie Durfee, Bob Suchor, Maureen Callanan, Margaret Sloan, Donna Kolojeskie, Mark Haynes, Michael Schock, Rachel O’Meara, and Jock Harkness.
>> Shannon: Support and encouragement can fuel a podcast, or a revolution. And so can tension. Creative solutions emerge from problems, and struggles, and conflict.
>> Louis: There’s a need for some people to preserve intact the tradition as handed down from one generation to the next. I mean, there needs to be a conservative element and a progressive element in any artistic form, and in any cultural practice. There will aways be brawling elements in a tradition–we can call them conservatives and progressives, even though very often the conservatives are the real radicals in holding on to something against prevailing fashions.
>> Shannon: The rise of conservatism and the desire to GO BACK vs. the push for progress. For evolution.
Tension makes great art.
But it also makes uncomfortable neighborhoods. And war.
And what’s the antidote to that? Compromise? Which pleases no one.
Or a new script that acknowledges—and builds on—that which came before. That doesn’t reject and discredit the olde garde? Maybe that gives some of us a chance to catch up. Before we all make something new?
>> Louis: I can see a way of incorporating what’s there into something a little bit different that creates a new tension between what was and what might become something entirely new. There’s never anything entirely new—nor, maybe should there be—but some kind of proper tension between the tradition and some new direction within it.
>> Shannon: Right, and you can’t know what that is until you know the canon.
>> Louis: You can’t actually smash the canon unless it’s there to begin with. And you need to know what it is before you can actually decide that it’s not sufficient. You know, you need to know an awful lot about what you’re throwing out before you throw it out. To throw something aside without taking the trouble to consider and understand it is reckless.
[ Music: “The Plains of Boyle,” from An tOileán Aerach
Artist: Johnny Connolly ]
>> Shannon: Traditional tunes, language, songs, poems, and steps—they’re all given. As they are passed along, they adapt. And so do the people who carry them.
We humans carry, we preserve, and we evolve.
Every time we face obstacles and resistance—every time new ideas and challenges emerge—we have to mount responses. There’s never agreement on those responses. There’s usually a faction calling for change, and a counter faction resisting change. And even with no clear winners, incremental and big changes take place regardless.
Our music, and art, and language, and political dogmas, and medicine are shaped by and disagree with the past. We are always leaning on what we know and what’s been given, and choosing how to carry that into present circumstances. And like the birds and bees and trees that bow and sway with the breezes of time, we endure because we are dynamic and moveable.
Séamus Connolly is evolving. With the help of transmitters that send thoughts to his brain, he can hear speech, and we can talk on the phone. And he’s learning to recognize music sounds, too. He told me he never stops thinking about the tunes. About the sound of them. And also abut playing them with other people. By focusing more on those little tune puzzles and the memories of playing them, and less on the frustration and unfairness of the master fiddler who’s losing his hearing, Séamus said it was like what Willy Shakes wrote in the Taming of the Shrew: “Frame your mind to mirth and merriment, which bars a thousand harms and lengthens life.”
>> Louis: It’s as if music and poetry sometimes come in at another level, below the level of the rational intellect. I don’t want to romanticize it too much. But nonetheless there’s a truth to that. That there is kind of a shortcut to the heart, if you like, in the best songs and poems
[ Music: “Séamus Connolly’s,” from Traditional Music From Doolin Co. Clare
Artists: Kevin Griffin, Eoin O’Neill, Sharon Shannon ]
>> Shannon: This episode was produced by me, Shannon Heaton. Thank you to everybody who’s kicked in, and who’s believed in me and this project. Thanks to to Matt Heaton for the production music. Thanks to Nigel for acknowledging our sponsors. And thank you, Séamus and Louis for the lovely thoughts in this episode. You can hear the full original conversations with both Séamus Connolly and Louis de Paor from Episode 05—and you can hear five seasons of shows—at IrishMusicStories.org.
Episode guests in order of appearance