Album Review: Liam O Connor, The Loom

This is Liam O Connor’s first solo album and more then confirms his place amongst the elite of Irish fiddle players. The playing is joyful, fresh, innovative and considered. A Dublin born musician, he follows in the musical footsteps of fellow Dublin fiddle players, Paddy and Seamus Glackin, Sean Keane and especially Tommy Potts who clearly influence his style. The playing is exceptionally dynamic and tending towards the virtuosic without ever parting with the tradition.
The influence of Tommy Potts is evident in many of the tunes and indeed, the title track was one of Potts’s favourites. Potts, of course, was famously innovative, a musical magpie who robbed from jazz, classical and pop music and greatly enriched the emotional and melodic possibilities of traditional music.

O Connor doesn’t quite follow him into the moody brilliance and emotional turbulence that makes Potts one of the most interesting artists of 20th century Ireland but the character of his playing, the way he grabs the tune with both hands and adds his melodic inventions and innovations is heavily influenced by Potts. If I may be glib, he sounds like Potts in good mood.

The sheer joy in his playing is refreshing and his technical mastery of the violin, his clear bright tone, is always evident but is always sensitive to the melodic rendering and rhythmic subtlety inherent in the music.

The opening track, a set of three reels, opens with the Tarbolten which is given a strange and slightly surreal rendition with drone accompaniment from strings that references Sibelius’s violin concerto in D minor. The tune itself is played in the unusual and slightly surreal key of G minor. All very fresh. The second tune is credited to Imelda Roland and is a thoroughly gorgeous composition. The switch to G major is a beautiful modulation. The finishing tune, Master Crowleys, is a tune much associated with Potts and gives a magical end to a stand out set.

The jigs that follow, Miss Thornton’s and The Coolelan Jig are given a contrasting lyrical, light treatment. Repeal of the union follows and is another Potts classic.

Track five features two of my favourite hornpipes, Galway bay and The few Bob (which is surely amongst my favourite tune titles too!). Both are given a lovely, considered treatment here.

Easter Snow, the next track, is a well known slow air. Although, a technically accomplished rendition, I was a little unconvinced by it. It lacked a certain spaciousness and plantiveness that I seek in slow air playing. Molly from Limerick and nine pints of knavery follow and are nice jigs in major keys with an ebullient, jaunty feel.

Small by nature, is a jig composed in memory of Martin Small who died tragically in a car crash. The tune is suitably plaintive and the melody is very special. A Liam O Connor composition.

Two well known reels follow, the High Road to Galway and The Graftspey. The High Road to Galway is a lovely tune but for some reason, I dislike the Graftspey as a tune. There is no good reason for these likes and dislikes sometimes and certainly nothing to fault Liam O Connor on here. A joyful, virtuosic performance.

Another favourite hornpipe of mine, The Rights of Man follows along with another Liam O Connor composition The Rights of Women, composed in honour of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. Great composition.

Two hop jigs follow, The Buncranna Boy and The loom. The loom is a Potts composition. Hop jigs are strange creatures with an usual 3/8 rhythm and Potts jig is a melodically exhilarating jaunt through the staccato like rhythm of the hop jig. It is wonderful music.

An intricate version of the Bucks of Oranmore, one of the most commonly played tunes, and O Dowd’s reel, another tune much associated with Potts, bring us to another slow air, The Wild Geese, which recalls the tumult of the 17th century. Again, I felt the tune could have been more spacious and plaintive but no faulting O Connor’s mastery of the violin.

A stunning album overall, that gives a bright, cheerful and rich take on many common and uncommon tunes. O Connor is at his best in joyful, extrovert tunes and can clearly compose beautiful plaintive melodies also. The slow airs didn’t quite do it for me emotionally, but there is never any doubting the technical brilliance and dynamism at his playing. A brilliant solo debut overall.

Rush out and buy it !
from liamoconnor.ie

 

Blarney Castle

Blarney castle with its famous Blarney stone is high on the agenda for most tourists. The thing to do is to climb to the top of the castle where you lean into the machicolation ( gap between floor opening at top of castle through which oil or projectiles could be hurled at attackers) and kiss the Blarney stone. Kissing the stone itself is supposed to bestow eloquence and persuasiveness and the very word “blarney” now means to waffle aimlessly.

The origin of this dates lies in the 16th century when queen Elizabeth the first sent the duke of Leicester to seize the the stone from the McCarthys who were the Gaelic lords in possession  of the castle at the time.  As the Gaels were firmly defeated at the time and were unable to mount a military defense the best the head of the McCarthy clan could do was stall the queens emissary with excuses and promises etc.  When the queen received the reports from the duke she dismissed the talk of the McCarthy elder as “Blarney”.

The stone itself as a dazzling array of origin stories associated with it including (brace yourself), that it was the famous lia fail stone on which Kings were crowned, that it was taken during the crusades of the middle ages, that it was a gift from Robert de Bruce as a gift to the McCarthys following his help in sending men to assist in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 and another tale tells that it is made from the same material rock as that at Stonehenge. The University of Glascow put a dampener on all this “blarney” however when they analysed the rock and found it was made of local limestone in 2014. Ah well.

The grounds of the castle are beautiful and relaxing and contain many interesting plants and includes a poison garden which features mandrake, wolfsbain, ricin, opium and cannabis. The latter are of course illegal in Ireland which goes to show that there is one law for the rich.

The castle is still in private ownership and it has to be said that the castle does not appear to have been refurbished to any extent beyond the minimum required to meet  health and safety, although the gardens are immaculately maintained. On a rainy day , lines of tourists are exposed to the wind and rain as they queue to kiss the iconic stone.

There can be long queues to kiss the stone and if you want to avoid the queues my advice is to go early. This is very much part of the tourist trail and most tourists arrive after travelling from Kilarney in the morning. This means it gets busy from 11/11:30 each morning. If you can get there before then, there is a much better chance that you will not be caught up in large queues. While it can be fun, especially for teenagers, there are often queues and it does make you feel very consciously like a tourist. The gardens are gorgeous though and I do find them very relaxing to visit.

Entry is 13/5Euro and there is ample parking just opposite in the Blarney Castle hotel and Blarney Woolen Mills car park. The Blarney Woolen Mills shop is very popular with tourists and has really excellent products for reasonably good value. It is a wonderful place to buy Irish clothes and the perfect place to pick up a quality souvenir.

So my advice, if you go, go early and take time to enjoy the grounds as well as the castle.

How Catholic is Ireland today ?

It certainly is a current issue at the heart of our zeitgeist at present. Switch on a radio this week or have a look at our newspapers and they are full of shrill arguments in the media about abortion rights and about church ownership of schools and hospitals.

This is because, by  a curious coincidence, in the same week that the citizens assembly recommended amending the constitution (which requires a referendum)  to allow for the parliament to legislate for abortion provision in Irish hospitals, a huge controversy has blown up regarding the baffling decision to gift a hospital to the sisters of charity because the hospital is to be built on their lands.

It seems official Ireland is still happy to keep church and state solidly intertwined. The general population has moved on however. Nothing illustrated this better then the public vote to legalise same sex marriage in 2015. It wasn’t , of course, the first country to do so, but it was the first country to do so by public vote and the 76% in favour was a stunning endorsement of a liberal policy change.

None of which is necessarily bad news for Irish Catholicism. We still have the highest mass attendance in Europe with 46% attending weekly and 65% attending monthly. We still listen to the church, we just don’t always agree.

The church is also still a huge part of family and community life in Ireland. Just this week, I brought my daughter to a preparatory mass for her communion later in the month. It was a very pleasant experience and the gentleness of the service was striking. Although I don’t attend mass regularly, I was very happy for my daughter to share in the spiritual experience of prayer, community and eventually communion. In these materialistic and superficial days, I hope that it can provide  a spiritual grounding in a religious tradition. As someone, who is not a practicing Catholic but is happy to acknowledge the role of tradition and spirituality I suspect that I am pretty representative of my generation.

We are slowly but surely coming to the point where religion can have its role as a spiritual servant of the people who want it and not the master of our institutions. But we are not there yet !

 

 

Flute meeting, Cruinniú na Flúit

If you are looking for some genuine good craic and great music this weekend April 20-22nd, you can’t go wrong with the flute meeting (Cruinniú na Flúit) in Ballyvourney.  This festival has become an annual event and draws flute players (and other musicians) from all over Ireland and indeed the world.

Ballyvourney is a small village in West Cork where Irish is still spoken, although it has to be added that it is only occasionally now that Irish is heard there. The festival is concentrated in only three venues, The Mills bar, The Abbey hotel and the Ionad Cultura (cultural center) . This helps to create a friendly and intimate atmosphere.

This is a great time to go to a traditional music festival. The crowds are not as large as at summer festivals and the atmosphere is just that bit more laid back. These sort of small festivals with a strong line-up of musicians are often the best ones to visit either as a musician, or listener.

The concert on Saturday night features the groups Dingle fife and drum  band and locha  Bhogaigh and the flautist Ciaran Fitzgerald. Ciaran Fitzgerald is a phenomenal flute player and well worth seeing in a concert setting but the groups are not unmissable.  Bear in mind that there will be tremendous music in the Mills and the Abbey hotel also. The final concert on Saturday night will no doubt feature the tutors and should be very enjoyable also if you want to see a concert and enjoy great music in a lovely setting.

My advice is to approach the festival in a relaxed way. The nature of these things is that the best music can break out at any point informally in the pubs and half the fun is trying to be in the right place at the right time. If the pubs are a bit crowded in the evening you can go the concert and enjoy the music in a more spacious setting.

Accomodation in Ballyvourney will be booked out by now, so my advice is to stay in Killarney or Macroom which lie within a 30 minute drive of Ballyvourney. Staying in Killarney offers the oppertunity to mix the festival with some enjoyment of the beautiful sorroundings of that town and for the non musician this is probably the ideal combination.

Giant’s Causeway

Perched on the North Eastern edge of Ireland, if you travel through the loyalist towns with their Union Jack flags, lies one of my favourite spots in the country, the giants causeway.
The causeway is a strange looking series of hexagonal basalt column’s that extend a few hundred meters into the ocean. There they sit and have sat for up to 40 million years, withstanding the ocean’s daily assaults and the ice sheets that come along every few thousand years or so. If rocks have spirits it must seem to them that  the ice-age comes every five minutes or so.
I will tell you where these strange hexagonal rocks came from but the Gaelic myth associated with the causeway is much more fun and I’ll start with that. The story concerns two giants ( with giant sized ego’s! ). On the Irish side of the Irish sea is the mythical giant Fionn MacCumhal. On the Scottish side of the Irish sea is the giant Benandonner. The two get into a ferocious argument and start to threaten each other. Eventually an enraged Fionn decides to settle the argument once and for all. He starts to pick up rocks and hurl them into the ocean to create a path across the sea so that he can cross to challenge Benandonner. When he gets to Scotland however, he realises his mistake as Benandonner is much larger than him. He hightails it back to Ireland and tells his wife, Oonagh, about the trouble he has made for himself. Luckily he has married a clever woman and she invents a plan to save him. She disguises Fionn as a baby and when Benandonner comes looking for Fionn, Oonagh lets on that the infant is their son. When Benandonner sees the size of the baby, he is shocked at the size of the baby and thinks to himself that the father must be a fearsome prospect indeed. He himself then runs back to Scotland as fast as he can and for good measure destroys most of the pathway after him, leaving only the few hundred meters of causeway that are visible today off the coast of Belfast.
The scientific explanation is actually simpler ! The rocks were formed in volcanic activity from 50-60 million years ago. The molten lava formed a lava bed and as it cooled it contracted into the hexagonal vertical structures we see today.

The causeway itself is accessible via a beautiful coastal walk of about 30 minutes from the car park and buses run also which only cost 1£.  If you are able do the walk. It really is a very pleasant stroll and is not demanding. I absolutely love clambering over the  irregular rocks. I always get a giddy thrill from their surreal aspect, jutting out as they are into the ocean. Their black shiny surface sitting in a stony defiance against the ocean is so emblematic of the Ulster spirit !

There is a visitor center at the causeway which documents the scientific explanation and how it was arrived it by geologists in the 19th century and there is also a beautiful video installation which chronicles the mythological explanation beautifully. It is well worth a visit but a bit pricey at 10.50£ adult and 5.25£ for a child, with discounts available for groups and families. Also the shops, cafe and toilet facilities are all located inside the visitor center, which you must pay to access.  There are free toilets in the carpark but these are not as pleasant as the ones in the visitor center.  Note that the causeway itself is entirely free.
Important note on Admission and parking:  The National Trust operate the Causeway and charge per adult using the facilities. Visitor center and admission is charged together. This means that if you drive to the visitor center carpark you will be charged 10.50£ /adult for parking and entry to the visitor center.
But be aware that admission to the Causeway itself is totally free. You can either park at the railway carpark (6£/day) or park in the nearby town of  Bushmills and get a bus to and from  the Causeway.
For families, I’m going to recommend that unless you are very cost conscious,  that you go ahead and pay for parking and admittance to the visitor center. It is a much more pleasant experience to enjoy the cliffs at your leisure and have access to the visitor center afterwards for bathroom facilities, coffee and, of course, education !.  Family tickets are available for 22.50£.
If you area  party of adults and are not interested in the visitor center then it makes sense to park for 6£ in the railway park, use the toilet facilities in the nearby hotel and walk to the causeway.
Private coach tours are available from Dublin, Belfast and Derry. From Dublin travel time is over three hours each way so you will be on the bus for much of the day. From Belfast or Derry, I would argue that the Causeway is an absolute must.

 

Cliffs Of Moher

The Cliffs of Moher are one of Ireland’s most visited tourist sites and easily the most visited attraction outside of Dublin. The cliffs themselves rise up to 214 metres above sea level and the sheer vertical descent makes for wonderful, dramatic views. On a clear day one can see the Aaran islands in Galway bay as well as great views of the surrounding ocean and countrywide. They are located on the West Coast of Ireland in the county of Clare and are accessible via day trips from Dublin, Galway or the nearby village of Doolin.

There is a wonderful visitor center that is a beautifully constructed, hobbit like, construction that is built into the hill adjacent to the cliffs. It was opened in 2007 and features geo-thermal heating, solar panels and grey water recycling. Here you will find the Atlantic Edge exhibition which contains a wealth of information about the local geology, coffee shops and shops. Admittance is 6Euro/adult which also covers parking. If you travel by private coach, the admittance fee will usually be covered also.

Cliff walk. There are 20 km. of cliff walks running from Doolin to the Cliffs of Moher and down to Liscannor. The stretch from the visitor center to Hags head is about 5km and is doable within an hour and a half, or up to three hours there and back. I’m going to suggest that if you are relatively fit and able this will add immeasurably to your experience of the cliffs. Driving the coast of Ireland is a beautiful experience but to get off-road and feel the elements in your hair and face is a refreshing and bracing experience.  The cliffs are, of course, a major tourist attraction, so the walk will also enable you to escape from the hoardes and have some quiet time with nature in all its splendour. Please be mindful of weather conditions and note that the route is not advisable for children U12. See https://www.cliffsofmoher.ie/plan-your-visit/beyond-the-cliffs/  for more information on these walks.

A note on the weather: The West coast of Ireland has a notoriously changeable climate and it is often foggy or even raining at the cliffs. That too is nature in all its glory ! One can only enjoy the weather one gets. The surly drama of an Atlantic rain storm or watching the fog and mist roll gently up over the cliffs is all part of life here too.

The cliffs are a beautiful, scenic and iconic part of Ireland’s coast but to be honest, much  of Ireland’s West Coast features similar scenic beauty, much of it as breathtaking as the iconic cliffs. So is it worth the trip ?

If you are staying in the vicinity of Galway or Clare then a visit to the cliffs is relatively easy proposition. From Galway the Cliffs are an hour and a half drive but the drive itself is worth the trip as you travel down the coast enjoying wonderful views of Galway Bay,  and drive through the pretty towns of Kinvarra and Doolin. These towns are also well worth stopping in with a pleasant tourist oriented atmosphere in summer and a more local, but always welcoming, feel outside of the tourist season.

From Dublin, the drive to the cliffs is three to three and a half hours across the midlands of Ireland so you won’t enjoy much coastal scenery on route. Of course, if your trip is entirely city based then it can make a welcome break from the city but you do need to ask if it is worth the drive. If you want to get out into nature for a day then I would suggest exploring the possibility of visiting Glendalough or Powerscourt  in Wicklow which are within an hour of Dublin. It is not the Atlantic coast but has its own special magic and you will be able to take more time there because it is nearer. If you are intent on visiting the cliffs, then why not spend a night on the West coast. It will make the whole experience more relaxing and you will have more time to savour rural Ireland.

A note on admission: The cliffs themselves are free but you pay for parking and/or entrance to the visitor center.

Visitor Center Admission: 6Euro/adult, 4.50 Euro Seniors and students, U-16 -free

Getting There:

Driving:

If you are driving, you can park in the car park adjacent to the visitor center. Cost of admittance to the visitor center is 6Euro/adult which also covers parking.

Public Bus:

From Galway or Doolin the 350 bus will get you there and back with plenty of time to enjoy the cliffs. Check out http://www.buseireann.ie/news.php?id=1490&month=May for information.

Cost – 20 Euro approx. return.

Private Coach tours:

Private coach tours are available from Dublin, Galway and Doolin

 

Guinness Storehouse

The Guinness Storehouse is Ireland’s most visited tourist attraction with over 1.6million visitors in 2016. With Dublin full of wonderful things to do, I want to help you decide if it is worth your while.

My first impressions of Guinness storehouse was that it was an overly commercial venture with little cultural and educational value. Indeed, I have not changed my mind on that score but my view has been tempered somewhat by both my own experience visiting it and by chatting with others who have been there.

Now my view is that it is an incredible place. It is an ode to our modern culture of branding and commerce. It is living proof of the expression “nothing succeeds like success”. Commercial branding is, of course, a hall of mirrors and the Guinness storehouse is effectively that. It is a mirror to our society and culture. The brand is legendary because it is successful, successful because it is legendary. And the Guinness storehouse is opulent and translucent in its depiction of all this. Come and look at the legendary advertisements it tells us. Admire our marketing genius and sink a pint of the legendary black stuff after, it intones with a knowing wink and mischievous smile. Guinness is the magician who can’t resist telling you how it’s done and knows that you will love him for it anyway. Guinness knows that even though you have seen the magicians trick you will still be seduced by the magic.

For all this chuzpuh, marketing brilliance and pychological double bluff Guinness deserves a visit. It does make a perfect foil for a morning spent exploring a museum or art gallery. The exhibits on advertising are excellent but the sections on brewing are pretty ordinary and standard for this kind of thing. There is also the opertunity to learn how to “pull a pint” which celebrates the art of creating “the perfect pint” from the tap and there is also the Gravity  bar on the top floor which has wonderful views across the city. It also has an excited and  almost skittish atmosphere that is as intoxicating as the brew itself. It is, of course, a bar full of hard working people on their holidays.

And really why not come here? It’s where everyone goes, isn’t it ?

Getting there:

Bus no. 13, , 40 from college green (outside Trinity), 123 from O Connell street or college green.

For a real luxury tourist experience you can share a jarvey (horse and cart) ride back to the city center after !

Cost.:

20Euro if you turn up (13.50Euro) for children. Over 18’s get a free pint.

Online discounts available in advance from as low as 14 Euro @ https://www.guinness-storehouse.com/en/tickets.