Kathleen Loughnane

Kathleen Loughnane

Kathleen Loughnane

The Harpers Connellan: Irish Music of the late 17th century

The Memoirs of Arthur O’Neill – really a rambling collection of anecdotes, speculation and information rather than a formal memoir – recounts the rambling, rumbustious and alcohol-fuelled life of the old Irish harpers. The patrons of the music seem to treat the arrival of a harper as an excuse for a display of generosity, of feasting and drinking – with half the company ending up asleep on the floor in the early hours of the morning (as at Pléaráca na Ruarcach/O’Rourke’s Feast, in Swift’s version: ‘O there is the sport!/We rise with the light/In disorderly sort,/From snoring all night’).

As harpers were very often blind, there is opportunity for further hilarity, with the harper Carolan, for example, fooled into thinking that one of his despised rivals is in the room and has claimed one of his tunes as his own. The contrast between unruly life and sweet or plangent art is striking – and is vividly evoked in Carolan’s Farewell, a novel by Canadian Charles Foran.

On first hearing, I found Kathleen Loughnane’s latest CD, The Harpers Connellan: Irish Music of the late 17th century, almost too well-mannered, far indeed from O’Rourke’s Feast. On closer acquaintance, however, there is plenty to enjoy. Still, it is best to be clear about what is presented here. Loughnane has researched the lives and music of William and Thomas, the Connellan brothers, and an illustrated book is available containing the results of her researches along with arrangements for the harp. From the sleeve, the CD might appear to be a solo effort, but we all know that there is almost no such thing as a truly solo recording in traditional music these days, and Loughnane plays alone only on a handful of tracks. As there is uncertainty about who composed what, or who stole what, and as Thomas spent time in Scotland, Loughnane has a certain latitude in her choice of music.

A sense of unhurried ease, of unshowy accomplishment, presides over the playing – reminiscent perhaps of Ceoltóirí Laighean in times past, or of course of Dordán, the group with which Loughnane is most associated. Marbhna Luimní may lack that last drop of lonesomeness, but the dance tunes are elegantly carried off. The song arrangements are very fine, the voices of Seán Garvey and Éamonn Ó Bhroithe accommodating themselves completely to the music: so much so that I wish they could be transplanted onto some Ó Riada recordings. Cormac Cannon’s playing could not be faulted, but is the uilleann pipe sound a little alien in this context? Alec Finn on tenor guitar, Adrian Mantu on cello and Liam Lewis on fiddle contribute happily to the overall concept.

Published on 1 December 2009

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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