CD Review: Dublin Made Me – Liam O’Connor and Seán McKeon

CD Review: Dublin Made Me – Liam O’Connor and Seán McKeon

Dublin Made Me / Na Píobairí Uilleann (NPU CD 017)

Dublin Made Me
Na Píobairí Uilleann (NPU CD 017)

Fiddle and uilleann pipes are rightly regarded as one of the classic instrumental combinations in Irish traditional music. We’re lucky to be able to trace a path all the way back to duettists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, such as the Hanafins, for example, and we can follow this through to more contemporary pairings such as Mick O’Brien and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Ronan Browne and Peadar O’Loughlin or Robbie Hannan and Paddy Glackin. The instruments are well suited to duet playing, and there’s always a pleasant change in the contours of the music when the concert pitch pipes take a break and make room for the flat pipes as happens from time to time on this outstanding new recording, Dublin Made Me, by Liam O’Connor (fiddle) & Seán McKeon (uilleann pipes).

Dublin Made Me is a collection of fifteen tracks that includes marches, set dances, a single jig and an air alongside a solid collection of reels and double jigs all of which are traditional apart from two tunes credited to John Dwyer and Liam O’Connor. The artists’ choice of repertoire, like their performances, shows a very high level of mastery of the familiar (‘The Pipe on the Hob’ or ‘The Stony Steps’) and an even-handed approach to reviving or excavating material that has either slipped out of popularity (‘The Hunt/An Súisín Bán’) or that which has been liberated only relatively recently from old printed collections such as Goodman and Joyce (‘The Races of Ballyhouley’).

There is a strong sense of continuity and transmission implied throughout the notes, and this carries over into the performances which are saturated with musical references to past master musicians, but which speak with a contemporary, individual and distinctive voice.

It’s unusual these days, in my experience, to hear recorded music of this intensity; with a few exceptions the performances are entirely self-reliant – by this I mean delivered solely by the musicians themselves – and unsupported by anything other than the forceful musical personalities and creative memories of McKeon and O’Connor. Aside from guest percussionist Ciarán Mordaunt, the only additional resources (dare I say ‘enhancements’?) that are used are occasional and discreet use of double-tracking and some scordatura on the fiddle.

One of the really striking effects is that within a very short time I had stopped noticing the technical daring and the occasional technical brilliance of the playing. I think that it’s this ‘performance beyond technique’ that elevates this recording to a special status. Staying confidently within the structural constraints of Irish traditional music, this framework, with all its limits, seems to goad McKeon’s and O’Connor’s curiosity and their appetite for exploration. The solo tracks on pipes (‘The Ladies Bonnet/The Pinch of Stuff’) and fiddle (‘The Duke of Leinster’) crystallise this and it’s the dominant theme throughout the duet playing.

If I had to pick out just one characteristic of the music I would probably focus on the rhythm, which comes from a complex mix of pace, phrasing and innumerable technical devices; it’s often bouncy, joyous, and free; at other times more measured and maybe even sounding taut, but it’s never trapped by the basic predictable linear structure of the music that can tire the listener so easily.

It would be easy to say that the freshness, invention and energy that imbues these performances comes from youth, but saying that would do these musicians no service at all, for it’s a lot more complicated and interesting than that. Maybe that’s for another day, along with a discussion of the long-overdue (and provocative) claim by Seán Potts Snr who in his excellent introduction to the CD identifies something of a mission for this CD: ‘to counter the consensus view that Dublin is merely a point of contact for musicians with myriad influences.’ This music is certainly big enough to stand up to that question.

Published on 1 April 2009

Dermot McLaughlin is a fiddle player and currently Chairman of the Irish Traditional Music Archive.

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