FolkWorld #75 07/2021
© Whinstone Publishing

Old & New Tunes & Arrangements

Fintan Vallely is a performer and workshop teacher on the Irish wooden flute since the late 1960s. He has released five albums and written and edited more than a dozen books. Fintan's latest endeavours: new tunes written by himself, old tunes stemming from all over Ireland.

Merrijig Creek: New Tunes and Arrangements

Fintan is privileged to be buoyed along by the enervating nerve of this company: Sheena’s sympathetic flute pulse, Caoimhín’s thrilling Cape Breton-style lift on piano, and with Brian Morrissey accenting moods on bodhrán, tambourine and bones. Dáithí Sproule, who Fintan played with in Scotland and America in the 1980s, is on guitar on track five, Liz plays fiddle on several sets, and Gerry joins on the finale tunes.

Fintan Vallely

Artist Audio Fintan Vallely "Merrijig Creek: New Tunes and Arrangements", Whinstone, 2021

Making new tunes

There are many beliefs and assumptions about the ancientness of the airs and dance tunes in Irish Traditional music: “from back in the mists of time”, “learnt from the fairies”, “heard on the wind”. The stories are comforting folklore, and most are at least partly true, for thousands of jigs and reels have indeed been distilled by musicians out of centuries-old song melodies, in times when musicianship was held in high regard, and believed to be supernatural. Generally, too, the tune-names that are the handling tags for performers do always have some organic connection with real lives and happenings. The best tunes had probably already been made and were in wide circulation by the time of late twentieth century revival, making possible the phenomenal institution we know as the ‘session’.

Yet tunesmiths still manage to come up with unique, compelling new melodies. In addition to this, there is also an endless potential for re- composition in the melodic contours of existing tunes - their ‘set, accented tones’, a term used by Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin for the key notes which mark out the boundaries and turns of any melody. Like an aleatoric selection-box of phrases, these are subconsciously picked through and re-applied diversely in composition. Potential is expanded further by the challenge of the Irish-music spectrum’s twenty or so different tune-types, and these themselves can be explored for additional depth and breadth by changing the key, octave or tempo. Refreshing dimension can also be given by juxtaposition of different instruments and timbres, displayed elementally in solos as ‘the raw bar’, and with aesthetic sophistication in arrangements. Ethos absorbed from other equally distinctive musics can breathe further new life: the post-1950s fascination for bass, beat and crossovers boosted revival, and orchestration has for more than a century brought out yet other drama and power.

Fintan Vallely

Artist Video Fintan Vallely @ FROG

The tunes and arrangements on this album, however, were made, as most tunes are, without consideration of any of this, casually and unplanned. Some emerged out of the headiness of days-long session immersions in counties Dublin, Sligo and Clare, others in pensive exploration while on long road trips on the neighbouring island. Like a jigsaw that begins with just two pieces, a melody starts with a few notes - maybe a favoured passage, a riff. This is gradually teased out from both ends until a phrase emerges, eventually reaching the call-and-response unit that is the first part of a tune. That then is noodled into a diversion which typically reaches up into the second octave, goes off on a brief skirmish and then lands securely back at the starting point. If the muse gets courage, the second part may lead to a third, fourth or fifth, each related to its predecessor, but eventually all returning logically to the opening. And always, in Irish music, with the invitation or compulsion to repeat the whole tune two or three times over.

Eighteen of these twenty-eight tunes were made by me between the years 1977 and 2017; the other ten are favoured, complementary pieces that came out of travel, session playing and critical listening. The older tunes and Lucy Farr’s pieces are felt as a leavening matrix for the newer material which has been honed, re-worked and rationalised at various times, and was eventually coaxed to finality in the head-space freed up by a Deis grant from An Comhairle Ealaíon / The Arts Council of Ireland. A couple of the new tunes have been recorded with Mark Simos in 1992, but most have not been played in music circles before, though I did play them from the mid 1990s though to 2007 in Ireland and Scotland with the poet Dermot Healy as part of the spoken-word presentations The Ballyconnell Colours and Fool’s Errand for which familiar tunes were just not appropriate. The naming of the new tunes follows the convention in Irish Traditional music: their titles indicate stories, history, places, significant events and people over the course of my performing life. So too with the group-titling of the ‘sets’, which is related to personal and circumstantial associations, a practice that has been with us since the advent of the CD in the eighties.

The musicians

Here are a dozen and a half new tunes on concert flute marking Fintan Vallely’s fifty-seventh year playing music. With him, on flute too, is his sister Sheena, who as a painter as well as musician has lived much of her working and playing life in England, in Manchester, London and Bristol. Joining them is their cousin Caoimhín Vallely, also born in Armagh, a tremendous pianist, a founder-member of North Cregg, a band with which he toured and recorded for a decade, and of the radical Buille in which he plays with his brother Niall; Caoimhín’s uplifting piano draws here on his broad experience of accompanying and working with leading innovators in Irish, Breton, Spanish and Scottish traditional musics. With bodhrán and percussion is Brian Morrissey, a Tipperary-born musician who has also worked with leading artistes including Béla Fleck, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, Kevin Crawford and Máirtín O’Connor. On fiddle is Liz Doherty, a Donegal lecturer and music-teaching innovator who is an authority on Cape Breton music; she formed Fiddlesticks, and has played with Nomos, with Laoise Kelly in The Bumblebees, and with leading Scottish and Cape Breton musicians in the all-women String Sisters. Also on fiddle, Gerry O’Connor from Dundalk is a versatile soloist in Irish music who has toured Europe with the band Skylark, with Lá Lugh, and solo in the USA; with Fintan he also performs the audiovisual concert shows Compánach and Turas. Guitarist Dáithí Sproule, as both a soloist and singer as well a member of Skara Brae, has toured and recorded with Altan and Liz Carroll.

Compánach: Music from All the Counties of Ireland

Two hours of music, song and dance from all Irish regions. Irish-traditional tunes, song and dance performed on acoustic instruments, with Gaelic songs, ballads in English, and old-style percussive step-dance.

Fintan Vallely

Artist Audio "Compánach: Music from All the Counties of Ireland", Whinstone, 2021

Two hours of music, song and dance named for each of the counties of nineteenth-century Ireland, music of the island from the pre-electric age. Fifteen different tune-types are played in thirty sets of solos, duets and trios, built out to tremendous richness by uilleann pipes drones, with rhythm marked in dance steps and historic tambourine. Older song-airs and laments are set alongside local jigs, reels and hornpipes, popular dance-forms like quickstep and barndance, continental rhythms polka and mazurka, and Scottish ‘highlands’. The performers are Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn on uilleann pipes; Gerry O’Connor, fiddle; Fintan Vallely, concert flute; Sibéal Davitt, old-style, hard-shoe step dance; and singers Karan Casey, Máire Ní Choilm, Róisín Chambers, Maurice Leyden, Stephanie Makem, and Roisín White.

In Ireland, old music is regarded by its players as ‘traditional’ rather than ‘folk’, as it has had an ongoing use-value among the greater number of people over several centuries, and also because it takes in melodies and practices from a variety of aspects of cultural life on the island. It includes high-status or Court music of the old Gaelic ascendancy, recreational music of the poorer classes, some music of the Anglo Irish Ascendancy, and music of Irish-nationalism and Imperial loyalism. It also includes song and music shared with and borrowed from Scotland, England, the USA and Canada; and it has much emigrant-era song dating to the mid-1800s. Yet it is a contemporary music, with many modern-day melodies in addition to old harp tunes, ballads and sean-nós song.

This album takes its music cues from the fabulous, 1832 Daniel Maclise painting Snap Apple Night, the earliest picture of group music-making in Ireland which has fiddle, flute, pipes, tambourine and dance. It presents tunes named for towns and places in each one of the thirty two counties of the island of Ireland - as it was before the present-day states were formed in 1921, a time when all social classes indulged to some extent in indigenous music.

Tunes and place

Companion to Irish Traditional Music

Fintan Vallely (ed), Companion to Irish Traditional Music. Cork University Press, 2011

»Companion to Irish Traditional Music« (FW#27)

»Companion to Irish Traditional Music« (FW#47)

Songs can obviously represent ‘place’ best - in that they refer to named localities and well-known people and events - but music does it just as well, by association. A look at the major collections of Traditional music shows that music gathered among Irish communities in exile - especially those in the USA - notes ‘place’ often. The biggest of these collections, that by Francis O’Neill, assembled in the early 1900s, has some 22% of its tunes named for towns, townlands and regional topography. The reason for this is partly and old sense of reverence for place, home, and ancestry. But it is also likely that when the collector brought in musicians to play tunes to be noted down, they may not have names for the pieces, and perhaps the easiest thing - or the player’s preference - was to name them after musicians’ home-places or favoured spots in ireland? Thus we have such as ‘The Humours of Mullinafawnia’ presumably transcribed from a Co. Offaly player from that townland; or ‘The Humours of Lissadell’ named or composed by a musician local to or fond of that part of Connacht. Supporting this is the fact that the older collections - such as Bunting’s, Goodman’s, Levy’s, Pigot’s and Petrie’s - which came from among Irish people in Ireland, have fewer place-names in their titles; so too with the more-modern collections.

Yet, playing tunes named for one’s own area does still hold charm today, and the fashion of naming new music after places persists. Poet Paula Meehan has indeed built one of her lyrics around the idea that styles of music - like speech accents - amount to an alternative map of the island: “you could tell where you were by the music”; remarkably, that is still a feasible rule of thumb. And, in the same way as speech accents survive being diluted or altered by migration, public news-media and National education, yet still remain distinctive, music styles and sounds also tend to remain coherent in geographically-defined regions despite the proliferation of listening to and learning from recordings from other places.

Place, titles and style

This collection of performances is exceptional in that it is the first album to represent the entire island and much of its cultural spectrum in named tunes and song, while at the same time being a catalogue of all historic dance-music forms. Each of the tune types here had a function in the pre-media ages: for dance, socialisation and recreation, the music being the main social vehicle for courtship, an essential community function, and the songs mediated emotions. At one and the same time Compánach localises music initiative and acknowledges musicality as a cross-class, island-wide artistic compulsion in the pre-electric past. Many tunes of course do have a variety of names, and the titles they carry here are not intended to prove a lineage; but they illustrate the spread of places in which this music was being played in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Music and musicians have always travelled and interacted without limits - following topographical and social contours rather than county and political bounds, so spreading and sharing melody, dance, verbal arts and meaning. Some of the tunes played here do reflect political issues - largely through their use as ‘party’ song airs and associated marching tunes - but they also assert the idea of ‘place’ via the political loyalties of the songwriter and performer. All of the ’big’ National and Loyal songs are carried on melodies that originated mostly in Ireland, but also in Scotland and England. Some, like ‘The Bould Orange Heroes of Comber’, have opposing-loyalty versions: a good air is a good air.

But the story is not simple, since Traditional music is also related to history and to emigration; the main styles in melodies, singing style and dance music are defined by regional accent or association, and human traffic, not by politics. And so, in Donegal, for instance, song has a close affinity with that of Gaelic Scotland, this rooted in ancient history. But the dance music in Donegal also has a strong more-modern-Scottish style, which is the result of a century and a half of seasonal migration to Scotland. Such variety can be heard throughout the two hours of this album’s performance, not just in the range of tune-types, but in the differences among these. The oldest melodic repertoire is from harpers, the earliest here by Sligo player Thomas Connellan (c. 1680), played as it appeared in the first major published collection of Irish tunes, by Edward Bunting, following the Belfast Harpers’ assembly of 1792. Elsewhere, harp style is heard in the Baroque flavour of its era, in Co. Derry harper Ruairí Dall Ó Cathain’s ‘Tabhair Dom Do Lámh’, and in the 18th century ‘Lord Mayo’.

Fintan Vallely, Sing Up!

Fintan Vallely (ed), Sing Up! - Irish Comic Songs and Satires for Every Occasion. Dedalus Press, 2008

»Sing Up! - Irish Comic Songs and Satires for Every Occasion« (FW#39)

The song

Songs show regionality well, often explicitly extolling the supremacy of local topographical and vegetational features to such an extent that song-collector Tom Munnelly could quip: “Clare songs were written by a travel agent”. But they can also demonstrate a passion for linguistic colour, often in spectacular hyperbole. This is most notable during the period of suppression of the Gaelic language, when bi-linguality led to the use of Hiberno-English - Gaelic expressiveness which utilised the full glamour of English’s rich vocabulary - to praise place, community and personality and to convey trauma, emotion and catharsis. ‘Dobbin’s Flowery Vale’ is in the clearly-stated Ulster style; ’The Shamrock Shore’ is a journalistic denouement of greed and disregard for indigenous industry which still applies today; ‘Sweet Omagh Town’ likewise eulogises the homeland seen through the lens of an emigrant’s longing; ‘Kate of Glenkeen’ likens a loved one’s beauty to spectacular features of local landscape; ‘The Faughan Side’ reflects on locale from the distance of exile. The ballad may well be an English-language form, but each of these lyrics, when allied to Irish melodies, shows how the model has been distinctively adapted and incorporated into Irishness. The indigenous dimension of song - in the Gaelic language - is more profound and long established, and is distinctively different. Thus ’Na Comeraigh Aoibhinn Ó’, ‘An Sceilpín Draighneach’ and ‘Líontar Dúinn an Crúiscín’, differ from the narrative approach of the English-language ballad in that they are declarations of passion and celebration - about place, person and social occasion. Indeed, the beauty of the airs of many of these songs has led to them being wonderfully applied to later ballads in English, and all have been refashioned rhythmically to create the present-day body of dance tunes.

The logistical limits of representation in this recording may give the impression that singing is mostly female. But in the past that has only been partly true, for both men and women sang, and although making dance-music was once mostly a male practice, today the greater number of the couple of hundred thousand people of all ages who can and do play this music socially is female, particularly in the younger age-groups. However, among the considerable number of professional and semi-professional performers, dance-music today is more male, with most singing done by women.

Dance and percussion

Several of the sets in this concert recording have old-style step dance - so-called ‘sean-nós’ dance. This has been the dominant and form of percussive, and non-melodic, engagement with music in Ireland. The dance is tight, more free-form than the dance-school ‘Irish dance’, and (as in Co. Antrim) ‘festival’ dance; its patterning and rhythms may also be heard in Irish social dance of both the early 19th century (quadrilles or ‘set’ dance), and post-1860s ‘céilí’ dances. Today, the percussion impulse that affects all music listeners is more generally expressed by tapping the foot (not in hand-clapping, which is taboo). But some are compelled to take up the Irish drum, the bodhrán. This is the modern-day version of the tambourine, an instrument imported by touring performers to ireland in the early 1800s, and played sporadically, more often by itinerant musicians. But at that time it was not affordable in subsistence culture in rural Ireland, so children and wanderers might improvise, and imitate it, by beating on the then-ubiquitous household skin-tray, a utensil known as ‘booranne’ or ‘borrane’. A century after that had become redundant, its name in Gaelic - ‘bodhrán’ - was transferred to Irish-made tambourines. These have now taken off to remarkable high status worldwide following the drum’s use by the avant garde composer Seán Ó Riada in his experimental radio ensemble Ceoltóirí Chualann in the late 1950s.

Instruments and music

Vallely, Tuned Out

Fintan Vallely (ed), Tuned Out: Traditional Music and Identity in Northern Ireland. Cork University Press, 2008

»Tuned Out: Traditional Music and Identity in Northern Ireland« (FW#38)

On this recording we tend to follow Ó Riada’s melodic system of multiple solos, duets and ensemble playing which permit unimpeded ‘ghost’ overtones and leave further rhythmic interpretation open to the listener. Following the Maclise painting, we use a tambourine, a unique replica copy of the one depicted by Maclise, the earliest image of it being played with melody instruments in Ireland. This is struck both with the hand (track 2) and stick (not, as the modern bodhrán just with a stick), and it has jingles. The pipes which Maclise depicts were likely in the key of B♭ or C, as would also have been the small band-flute he shows; his fiddle would have been standard, but tuned down to match flute and pipes. Compánach here uses the same violin, the modern uilleann pipes in concert pitch, and the original wooden ‘concert flute’, an instrument developed in 13th century Switzerland, the ancestor of which came to Ireland with the British military as the fife or band-flute in the 1700s. Since Maclise also has people dancing (judging by deportment, most likely a jig), and since the image of Daniel O’Connell on a shawl suggests that ballads would have been part of the occasion, these too are part of our repertoire.

We can of course only speculate as to the song and dance on the night. But since the music of that time was collected by James Goodman after the Great Famine, and republished by the Irish Traditional Music Archive a century and a half after that, we open the album with a selection of barndances/hornpipes from him. As the music progresses, all forms of the ‘jig’ are engaged - slip-, hop-, single, double, quickstep and slide. There are also all the variants of 4/4 time - hornpipe, barndance, march, song-air, highland. In 2/4 time are polkas, old clan marches and some songs, and in 3/4 time are older harp tunes, song airs, and 19th century waltzes and mazurka. Time is given too to the ‘slow air’, typically the melody of a poignant, deep or reflective slow song, often played without words as a dirge or lament. Such ‘slow airs’ are generally played solo, permitting the musician expressivity and open-ness to creative variety, and the listener to shape their emotional response without distraction. Tunes are not played in the customary sets of the same kind, but are linked to highlight both the geographical extent of traditional music and its variety of rhythms and tempos.

The music and song

Compánach follows the A-Z route of the encyclopedia Companion to Irish Traditional Music. It goes alphabetically through the counties to create a musical gazetteer of the entire island of Ireland, showing that music-making has been a universal in all parts - not just in the perceived ‘big’ tourist-savvy regions such as Galway, Clare and Kerry which have a long-established experience of presenting local culture as an attraction for visitors. But those counties are, of course, deservedly well represented too, reflecting the scale of their present-day public respect for Traditional music. We divide the island in two, running in Disc 1 from Antrim to Fermanagh, and in Disc 2 from Galway to Wexford. Each one of the 32 counties of historic Ireland - covering Northern Ireland and the Republic - are visited in tunes. Several are indicated in songs, and the old-style step dance reflects pre-20th century practices in all counties and communities regardless of religion or politics. Yet all of this is just is a tiny sample of the still-tangible fruits of not only the last two centuries of music revival, but the previous millennium of artistic exploration in the music of Ireland.

The music and song on Compánach

Compánach follows the A-Z route of the encyclopedia Companion to Irish Traditional Music. It goes alphabetically through the counties to create a musical gazetteer of the entire island of Ireland, showing that music-making has been a universal in all parts - not just in the perceived ‘big’ tourist-savvy regions such as Galway, Clare and Kerry which have a long-established experience of presenting local culture as an attraction for visitors. But those counties are, of course, deservedly well represented too, reflecting the scale of their present-day public respect for Traditional music. We divide the island in two, running in Disc 1 from Antrim to Fermanagh, and in Disc 2 from Galway to Wexford. Each one of the 32 counties of historic Ireland - covering Northern Ireland and the Republic - are visited in tunes. Several are indicated in songs, and the old-style step dance reflects pre-20th century practices in all counties and communities regardless of religion or politics. Yet all of this is just is a tiny sample of the still-tangible fruits of not only the last two centuries of music revival, but the previous millennium of artistic exploration in the music of Ireland.


Artist Video

The Performers

Gerry O’Connor is a Dundalk fiddle player, a versatile figure in Irish music who is solidly ‘of his place’ in the music’s traditions. He has toured Ireland and Europe solo, with the bands Skylark and Oirialla and with Breton guitarist Giles Le Bigot. He plays also in the USA and Canada, and has many recordings, among them the seminal albums of Lá Lugh with Eithne Ní Uallacháin (Bilingua, 2016). His solo albums are Journeyman (2003) and Last Night’s Joy (2018), and he teaches fiddle internationally.

Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn is an award winning Uilleann Piper from Monaghan who began playing uilleann pipes at the age of nine with The Armagh Pipers Club. Holder of four Fleadh Ceoil All-Ireland titles and two Oireachtas titles he has toured widely in Europe and has recorded widely, both solo (Reggish Paddy, 2017) and with Máire Ní Bhraonáin of Clannad, Stephanie Makem and harper Laoise Kelly (Ar Lorg na Laochra, 2016).

Fintan Vallely is a flute player and is director of Compánach and editor of Companion to Irish Traditional Music. From Armagh, he has performed and taught throughout the world, was a critic and lectured for many years on Traditional music. He has written and edited several books, and has recorded solo (Merrijig Creek, 2018) and with singer Tim Lyons and guitarist Mark Simos (The Starry Lane to Monaghan, 1992).

Sibéal Davitt is a sean-nós dancer with a deep knowledge of ballet, jazz and contemporary since the age of five. She has achieved numerous awards including TG4’s ‘Glas Vegas’, and has performed nationally and internationally at such as Electric Picnic and Celtic Connections, and with bands such as The Chieftains. A student of film, she has produced shorts on dance; she teaches sean-nós, and creates and performs collaborations of Irish traditional and contemporary dance.

Karan Casey is a Co. Waterford singer who learned both local Traditional and Classical repertoires and techniques, and had a particular interest in Jazz. While studying this in New York she sang with the band Atlantic Bridge, then became a founder member of Solas in 1994, subsequently performing solo and recording and touring with concertina player and composer Niall Vallely. She has numerous solo and other recordings, bookended by Songlines (1997) and Two More Hours (2014).

Máire Ní Choilm is a Gaoth Dobhair, Co. Donegal singer in Gaelic. Her distinctive voice and interpretation of local songs have gained her National awards at An tOireachtas, the Fleadh Cheoil and the Pan Celtic Festival. She has performed at Celtic Connections and Festival Interceltique de Lorient, and recorded Nuair a théid sé fán chroí in 2010.

Roisín Chambers is a sean-nós, Connemara-style, Irish-language singer and fiddle player from Dublin. She has performed with Salsa Celtica and The Bonnymen, and has won the highest honours in Oireachtas, Fleadh Cheoil and Siansa competitions. She has played in Celtic Connections and has recorded

Stéphanie Makem is the great-granddaughter of the celebrated Ulster folksinger Sarah Makem and grand-niece of ballad singer Tommy Makem. She sings a South East Ulster repertoire in English and Gaelic which includes many of Sarah’s songs, and recorded on Ceol is Píob with Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn in 2008.

Róisín White is a singer from the Mourne Mountains in south County Down who learned from her mother in an environment of Irish language, song and story. Influenced in later years by Joe Holmes, Len Graham and Sarah Anne O’Neill, she went on to record a solo alum The First of My Rambles in 2001, has been a guest and tutor at song festivals in Ireland and Britain, and was awarded the TG4 Gradam Amhránaí in 2015.

Maurice Leyden is a Belfast based folk-song collector, singer and broadcaster specialising in Ulster folk-song. He has written on urban traditional songs in his book Belfast, City of Song, and on children’s singing games in Ireland in ‘Boys and Girls Come out to Play’, and is recorded on The Tern and the Swallow. A lecturer on song too, he has performed in Britain, Europe, America and Canada, and teaches Ulster singing style with Belfast Trad.

Photo Credits: (1),(3)-(6) CD/Book Covers, (2) Fintan Vallely, (7) Turas, (10) Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn, (11) Maurice Leyden, (12) Gerry O'Connor (unknown/website); (8) Dáithí Sproule, (9) Karan Casey (by Walkin' Tom).

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