The Beat of a Big Heart
From left to right, Seán Reid (uilleann pipes), Jack Cooley, Pat Devenny (fiddle), Tony MacMahon and Joe Cooley (accordion). Photo taken c. 1950 in Ennis, Co. Clare.

The Beat of a Big Heart

Tony MacMahon remembers Joe Cooley, the larger-than-life musician that set him on his musical journey, and also discusses the music of Frankie Gavin and Martin Hayes, and traditional-music broadcasting.

The remarkable thing about a fall while running for a bus is the sudden collision of two states of mind, so violent that any experience of the actual motion from vertical to prone is wiped out. The thrill of the sprint explodes into two visions – a two-storey wall of steel nuts and tyre-thread, and a pastiche of still faces, gawking in expressionless silence. A pair of black hands appear from behind. I’m on my feet. I board the number 16a bus and I’m travelling up Camden Street, hanging on to a grab-bar with the good hand. Not a word spoken, or a seat offered.

Three days later I am in Madras – my third visit to India this year. For longer than I can remember, the beaten notes of the Sitar and the honeyed tonality of the tabla have been calling me softly. The air being like a thin soup, I take to the railways and belly down in a crumbling villa perched high among mountains and lakes in the village of Ooty. Sitting at a table of cool white marble, the monsoon rains of June vie with a searing sun, while soft brown voices sooth the embedded blues and greys of Ireland. Old people saunter across busy roads, backs at a side-angle to the traffic, not a seat-belt, traffic-light or air-bag to be seen among the auto-rickshaws and over-loaded, baldy-tyred trucks.

Images from the past
My walls are adorned with images from the past: fly-blown photographs of British army officers cavorting, thin-lipped, with the local Indian royalty, bejewelled from beard to balls. Outside my window the plaintive strains of fiddle and tabla call with a lulling, insistent beat… and there they are, sitting on a mat, two blind musicians, brothers in their forties, music streaming out from beneath eyes of cloudy grey. Visitors to the nearby Maharaja Palace are leaving. Those oriental eyes, so bleak in faces of such amber beauty, rocket me back to 1950s Ennis in County Clare – Michael and Christy Dunne float, trance-like, into that calm Indian space and a trickle of smoke seems to float over their lifeless eyes, their parted lips and brown darting fingers, and then the smoke thins and rises in my reverie from the tip of a drooping cigarette, hanging limply from the lips of my first mentor, the man who started me out on my musical journey.

That journey, too, began by way of such a trance, induced by the late Joe Cooley from County Galway, his memory embedded in my DNA. He came to work as a labouring man in Ennis in 1949, raising a storm of music through Clare for a few short years before taking the emigrant ship to America in 1954. He has passed on since December 1973, but he is remembered today with the reverence accorded only to the greatest: Michael Coleman, Patsy Touhey, Johnny Doran… And there was much of Doran, the great travelling piper, in Cooley. Both were waifs and strays, playing here and there, lifting the spirits of the rural poor and being, in turn, supported and adored by them. I well remember Joe’s arrival at our house on the Turnpike Road in Ennis. He had travelled on the back of Joe Leary’s motor-bike, his accordion strapped to the petrol tank. Leary was a wonderful character with a head of curly hair and a jolly face, disfigured into beauty by a serrated scar running from his left eyebrow down past the mouth to his chin. When he laughed, which was often, the face took on a shuddering life of its own, his left eye blinking in spasmodic friendship with his left cheek. His hair was of a wild and bushy brown, falling in curled abandon over his ears and forehead. His story-telling and recitations mesmerised us, his fiddle-playing thrilled, though spidery and uncertain.

Cooley was handsome, blocky and jovial, a cigarette always at the corner of his mouth, a smile that warmed the cold Clare air. He had a powerful frame and a big head of fairish brown hair. Jaunty and careless, he was a young man already on his way to being a rake. His joviality had a spike of sulphur. It was said he was inclined to fight when he had a sup taken, and if he heard raised voices he would often lend a hand.

His fingers were broad and rough from handling concrete blocks, but they seemed to taper to points when caressing the accordion keys, moving in a kind of slow motion. The big right hand covered most of the keyboard, and when he played he threw his head back, closed his eyes and seemed to sink down into his own playing, making the music go on, seemingly forever. Your senses were assaulted. The volume at which he played was so loud that you were struck as if by an electric current pulsing through your body. What he did to your head was the very opposite: a slow music-massage of your inner being, drawing out every little molecule of tenderness you had.

Inhabiting a distant space
The word everyone used to describe Joe Cooley was ‘magical’. When he walked in the door he filled the whole space with an easy familiarity; his voice was throaty, its tonality that of a deepest brown. He loved to play ‘Lady Gordon’, ‘My Love is in America’ and ‘Last Night’s Fun’, and while playing he seemed to inhabit some distant place, his eyes closed, lips slightly parted, the smoke adding to the other-worldly aura that brought you gently to whatever place his music had carried him. I remember he had an unusual way of ending a tune. Most musicians like to mark the end with a distinct note or two of finality. Cooley, on the other hand, would suddenly come back from wherever the music had taken him, letting the last few notes falter and die out in a kind of uncertain whimper, his eyes opening in surprise at finding us listening, watching, admiring. Parachuted back into our company, looking kind of lost for a moment or two, he would clear his throat and say a few words as if dismissing what he had just played, where he had just taken us. People reacted to his music not with a conventional excitement but rather with a kind of mystified air, as if reflecting on the music just heard. Cooley’s rhythm was a subject of much discussion. He was a slow player; he milked every tune, taking the music at a pace that allowed him to sink down into the loam of the music, allowing thoughts and fantasies to mould themselves sympathetically. I recall a feeling of ‘completion’ after he played a tune, even though the music had no definite end. No such thing as a rush to ask for another tune…

A definition of traditional music
The late Breandán Breathnach – piper, collector, organiser – defined traditional music as essentially the art of solo performance – a gift – to which the musician or singer devotes an apprenticeship of learning. As with the music of Cooley, it involves a search for the local footprints of those who have gone before, and care to avoid trampling on those roots when found. It requires a search for the music and songs of one’s own place, and if that is no longer possible, to search for the music with which our individual musical spirit resonates. It means having a mind-set to one’s gift that is devoid of aggression, of narrow personal ambition. It involves an innocence, a humility in being the bearer of something that can infuse both musician and listener with a shaft of luminous joy. It requires an awareness of the natural, internal rhythm of a piece, as distinct from its speed; attention to the smallest detail of a tune or a song; and care and discernment when deciding to add one’s own embellishment to a piece of music that has its own local integrity which has stood the test of time.

On the basis of Breathnach’s definition of traditional music, therefore, which is the one I care to use, I wouldn’t regard my own music either as traditional or indeed anything to write home about. A self-appointed, big-mouthed guru, I plead guilty to most of the musical sins, mortal and venial, which I have laid at the doors of others. For longer than I care to remember, I have hacked my way through tunes of beauty and tenderness on stage.

The value of music
But I insist that there are basic questions that everyone must ask. What is music for? What is its value? What can it do for us? Is it an aural carpet, a sort of ear chocolate to soothe our nerves in the tumult of daily life? Or is it a gift to humanity of such proportions that words can do little justice to it?

I sit and watch the fiddler Frankie Gavin play the most complex music with an effortless abandon, as if the music is flowing out of his system. Fingers, strings, face and body speaking in harmony. The voice lonely at one moment, it rises to a stentorian bellow then floats the listener down into a moment of the sweetest calm. Gavin doesn’t appear to be trying while playing, and I feel sure, every time I listen to his glorious music, that he doesn’t actually appreciate the beauty of what he is doing.

The beat of a big heart
The fiddle-player Martin Hayes, too, is unique. He has much of what Clare musician Micho Russell had, of what fiddle-player Paddy Cronin has: every note, every move he makes while playing or introducing his music, it all speaks with one single, lonely voice. The tonality, bowing, fingering, rhythm, the contortions of his face in concentration, his foot-tapping, hair style, spectacles, his modesty of dress, his respect for nearly every note he plays – everything about him is in singular accord. And Hayes’ massive audience is much more intelligent than many who bring traditional music to the public would have us believe.

Breathnach’s concept of traditional music also suggests the need for a maturity of judgement – an independent ear, an ability to question popular approaches, a practical language of criticism. In this regard we have to think about the opinion-makers in traditional music, those who bring this music to the public, and how they make their judgements. It seems to me that traditional music programming frequently falls into the hands of people who lack sufficient appreciation of the music entrusted to them, representing an  institutional apathy devoid of imagination and vision. Feeding off each others’ ideas and judgements, their expertise is often based on a diet of music scene guff and the wisdom of sleeve-notes. Among my own shrunken group of contacts, I can name six traditional musicians between twenty and forty who would make excellent broadcasters. Each and every one is a gifted musician, with an independent set of views and musical values, good presentation ability and high intelligence. No way will they ever sit behind a microphone or in front of a camera as presenter.

I am now four years into what I regard as the rehabilitation of my own playing, the purging of my own musical laziness. I’m being guided by advice kindly given, casually forgotten. And when contemplating whether to add a single note, or not, to a tune, I’m reminded of something James Joyce is quoted as having advised, in relation to the process of editing the written word, the continuous pairing down of each sentence in the quest for core meaning: ‘You should always exercise a scrupulous meanness.’ With, of course, the beat of a big heart.

Published on 1 August 2009

Tony MacMahon (1939–2021) was a traditional musician and television producer in RTÉ, where he produced The Pure Drop, The Green Linnet, Aisling Gheal, The Long Note, The Blackbird and the Bell and many other series. He made three solo recordings, Tony MacMahon (1972), MacMahon from Clare (2000), and Farewell to Music (2016) and recorded I gCnoc na Graí (1985) with Noel Hill and Aislingí Ceoil (1994) with Noel Hill and Iarla Ó Lionáird. Read our full obituary here:

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