Cathal McConnell is one of Ireland's best and most highly regarded traditional musicians; respected not only by those who come to listen to him play the flute or whistle, or sing, but also by his fellow musicians. Many who read this will have met him as a member of the Boys of the Lough. However, years before helping to form that band he was well known to lovers of Irish music.
In 1962, at the age of eighteen, he won the All-Ireland Championships in both flute and whistle; but behind this lies a long family tradition and years of apprenticeship.
His great-grandfather, who rejoiced under the nickname of "Stuttering Mickey", was reputedly a good flute player and singer. His grandfather also played the flute and sang, as did his father, Sandy. Sandy also played the melodeon and was a storehouse of traditional lore and songs. In him the family had a continual source of encouragement to any that showed an interest in music. Cathal tried the fiddle first but by the age of eleven he had decided that his brother's whistle was more to his liking. Outside the family an early influence was Peter Flanagan, a neighbour who played the whistle and fiddle. Cathal still speaks of him with great respect, "Without him I wouldn't be the musician I am today!".
From there on in it was music all the way. He listened to old 78s of the great musicians of the past. He went to Fleadhs and played with whoever would let him. He played in various ceili bands and travelled round Ireland to meet and play with the old masters and those of his own generation. However, he always returned, as he does on this album, to his native Fermanagh. Cathal holds a great love and respect for the music and musicians of his home county, for John Joe Maguire, whose flute style made a great impression on him at an early age, for John McManus, Tommy Maguire, Tommy Gunn, Eddy Duffy, Mick Hoy — men you may never meet but whose music makes up the tradition which Cathal McConnell proudly carries.
The sum of all this is a record which shows many sides of this great musician. He is a musician of inspiration, and at the same time, taste: a virtuoso who can play the most technically demanding music but who does not ignore the beauty of a deceptively "simple" tune; a man who knows and is much influenced by the past but who lives very much in the present. Most of all this in the record of a man who loves to play music.
The Dark Woman of the Glen — Perhaps one of the most famous and best loved songs in the Irish language. As an air it is a great favourite, especially among the pipes of Ireland. In Gaelic the title is Bean Dubh an Ghleanna.
The Maid Behind the Barrel — This reel was recorded many years ago by John McKenna, the great flute player from County Leitrim. He emigrated to America in the early part of this century where he made a number of recordings. McKenna had a very strong melodic style and was an important influence, especially on flute players of his native county. Packie Duignan, who was born near McKenna's home, proudly plays in the McKenna style. You can hear him, with fiddler Seamus Horan, on a record they made together for Topic called Music from County Leitrim 12TS339.
Erin the Green — Robin Morton gave this great song to me. He got it from the late John Maguire from Roslea — a man who had many lovely songs. The time is basically the same as is used for the classic song about Napoleon The Green Linnet.
Johnny Going to Ceilidh, The Gossoon that Beat his Father & The Long Slender Sally — Three unusual titles for three unusual tunes. The first two came from the late Johnny Maguire of Co. Cavan, the father of fiddler Sean Maguire. Johnny's instrument was the whistle and he played these tunes in a fifing style, a style which I attempt to recreate in my playing of them. Sadly this style seems to have become obscure in recent years. I learned the last reel from a whistler, at the Kilnaleck Fleadh, a few years back. He told me it was one of the "Sally" reels, the Sally Gardens being the well known one. It lent itself to the piping style as well.
All the tunes get a great lift from the bodhran. Robin says, "they are just made for the bodhran."
The Maho Snaps & Jenny Lind — The jig came from my good friend, fiddler Mick Hoy, from the Derrygonnelly area of Co. Fermanagh. The Maho Snaps was the name given to body-jolting bumps which were a well known feature on the road from Enniskillen to Belleek.
Jenny Lind also came from Mick and another Fermanagh flute player called Eddy Duffy. They told me that their uncle, F'elix McGarvey, another flute player, used to use this polka at the old time dances.
The Wedding of Molly, The Three-Hand Jig & Peter Flanagan's — The air is a song tune that used to be sung in the Derrylin area of Co. Fermanagh. The words appear to have been lost. I got it from John McManus, a fiddler and singer from that area.
The Three Hand Jig is a dance tune from Trannish Island on Lough Erne. I learned it from Tommy Gunn, the fiddler from Derrylin. He told me that the dance involved two men and a woman.
Peter Flanagan from Kinawley was the man who taught me to play the whistle. He also plays the fiddle. He had his tune from his father and it seems to be a version of Down the Broom.
Peoples' Reel & Lady Montgomery — These two reels come from the playing of Tommy Peoples, the amazing fiddler from Co. Donegal. We have swapped many tunes over the years. I don't know the name of the first one but it has a Scottish sound about it. Tom Anderson of Shetland tells me that the second is definitely originally Scottish, where it is called Lady Montgomery.
Willie Johnson from Shetland accompanies me on guitar here. Willie is a remarkable accompanist of traditional tunes. Years of practice accompanying Shetland fiddlers like Tom Anderson and Aly Bain have seen to that. He is also a brilliant jazz guitarist. My thanks to him. McConnell's Gravel Walk, The Laurel Tree
The first tune is the Gravel Walk reel which I made into a jig. As a reel it is sometimes called Granny's Gravel Walk. The Laurel Tree is a well known Sligo reel but this version is an obscure one. I learnt it from Edward Curran, a fiddle player from Co. Fermanagh. Once again, Robin's bodhran helps to emphasise the interesting rhythms of the tunes.
Andy Kerrin's Set Dance, McHugh's Reel & The Primrose Road — Here are three more tunes I got from Edward Curran. Eddie told me that the first was well known in the area where he lived. The first reel he learnt from a fiddler from Arny, Co. Fermanagh, called John McHugh. The second reel is one of two versions that I know, still played in Fermanagh. Willie Johnson again lends me his support here. The Shannon Breeze, Nugent's Reel
The first reel is one of my favourite tunes and it is well known throughout Ireland. Another name for it is The Lady's Top Dress and it is also called Roll her in the Rye-grass. The second tune is probably related to Speed the Plough. I learnt it from Sean Nugent, fiddler and accordion player from Lack, Co. Fermanagh. I used to play in his Ceili Band, The Pride of Erin, years ago.
St, Donard's Cairn — Donard was an Irish chieftain, converted to Christianity by St. Patrick, at the end of the fifth century. The story has it that afterwards he confined himself to a cell on the summit of the peak in the Mournes, which has since taken his name, Slieve Donard. The remains of the cairn are still there.
I composed this air about two years ago.
Edmund on Lough Erne's Shore — This song is attributed to Peter Magennis, a poet, who lived in the Derrygonelly area of Co. Fermanagh. A book of his work can still be found in some libraries. He died in the early part of this century. The tune is a variant of Boolavogue and the song came to me from Mick Hoy.
Carolan's Concerto — This is one of the great harper's best known compositions. Hearsay has it that he wrote it in rivalry with an Italian composer, when both were guests at the same "Big House". The story may be little more than tradition but the tune is certainly a great one and seems to owe a lot to the Italian music of the time.
Although I play it on the whistle I have tried to play it in a harp style.
Big John's Reel & Kitty the Hare — Two little known reels from near my home in Co. Fermanagh, and still played today. I got both from Big John McManus, who got them from his uncle, the late Hugh Gunn. Once again, Willie Johnson gives me a "bump" on the guitar, as they say in Shetland.
Siney's Jig & The Noon Lasses — Siney Crotty, a singer from Clare, lilted this first tune for me about two years ago and I was immediately attracted to it. The Noon Lasses is a version of Lord McDonald's Reel. I got this from Tommy Gunn and I like its unusual quality.