MacMahon's Ghosts

Tony MacMahon

MacMahon's Ghosts

The Making of 'Port na bPucaí'.

I was asked to write this piece for the JMI on the basis of a documentary I made for RTÉ Radio 1, Port na bPucaí – The Music of Ghosts (broadcast 10th August). In the introduction that was read before the programme I said that the subject, Tony MacMahon, was an iconic figure in traditional music circles. I meant this both because it is difficult for anyone my age or younger to imagine music without him and also because of his association with at least two of what I consider the greatest recordings ever made by traditional musicians. By these I mean Paddy in the Smoke and what I’ve always called ‘the Joe Cooley album’. Arguably indeed, there are other recordings that could be included here – I’m particularly thinking of his I gCnoc na Graí album with Noel Hill.

I have to begin by asking why I made the programme and my standard answer to that question is the mountaineer’s one: because it was there. I proposed the idea to Tony on the steps of the Radio Centre in Donnybrook last March or April. Initially he was sceptical but he said we could meet and talk about it. I’d grown up as aware of Tony MacMahon’s work as a Radio Producer as I was of his musicianship. I was near weaned on The Long Note, encountering there for the first time musicians like Micho Russell, Joe Bane, Junior Crehan and Jimmy Crowley and hearing of others like Packie Duignan and Raymond Roland. When I went to London for the first time in the 70s I knew to go to The White Hart on Fulham Broadway. For me, The Long Note was as much about social history as it was ever about music. It placed musicians in context and I began to see that the context was often vital to the music. In that strange way the programme defined a part of my life. So much so that when I began to work for RTÉ Radio in 1999 I was reluctant to go looking for those archives – fearing, perhaps, disappointment.

Back to Ennis
There are various reasons why people play music; for entertainment; as an accomplishment; because it’s there and – occasionally – because they have to. MacMahon had no choice. The Ennis he remembers – the town he grew up in – was rooted in its own certainties and those certainties did not include traditional music. The music is something he associated with the hinterland of Ennis, with places like Crusheen and Kilmaley. It was present as background noise on the streets, played by travelling musicians like Felix Doran and the Dunne Brothers – who were themselves outsiders. There were also visitors to the MacMahon house in The Turnpike, visitors like Felix Doran whose flamboyant dress style matched that of his music; like Tommy Potts, whose virtuosity could explode the darkness the young MacMahon felt; visitors like Joe Cooley. It was Cooley who gave him his first accordion – a piano accordion. It was Cooley who held his listeners riveted, who carried electricity with him.

All these things, these descriptions are for me, as a programme maker, essential. MacMahon made pictures. It helped that he understood, that he knew, the medium. It was also more than that. Ideally, as a programme maker, I like to interview whoever I’m dealing with over a period of time, in different locations. Most of us carry an Ennis of one type or other in our imaginations, but these places change – particularly in urban locations and particularly in this country at this time. Over the past ten years, living in Dublin, I’ve watched pub after pub change, coteries of drinkers, communities even, driven from one venue to another – whole towns are changing like that. The Ennis we went back to has traditional music piped onto its streets by day and it’s almost unavoidable at night. But this is not MacMahon’s music – this is aural wallpaper, not much better than being ignored. Perhaps there was even more honesty with the latter. There was certainly something to react against.

In making a programme you’re making a journey and hoping too that your subject will accompany you and perhaps lead you further than you meant to go. I say this as a programme maker because the journey is usually in finding something new or doing something you hadn’t done before. In its way this is a luxury, for most of my time in RTÉ I’ve worked on current affairs programming where the prerequisite is to get the programme to air. But current affairs builds an awareness of patterns, an eye – or even an ear – for inconsistencies.

MacMahon told me one story that seemed fundamental to him. It was a story about a beating he received from a Christian Brother while he was at school. He told me the same story several times. He told it to me the night he agreed to do the programme, he told it again the first time I interviewed him and again on the streets in Ennis. It also came up when we met his sister Ita in Tulla. It was a haunting story and like any storyteller would, I used it as a climax of sorts. It was a story that drew praise and criticism for the programme. Although this programme was not reviewed by any of the usual radio reviewers it struck a chord with listeners. There was an unusual response to it, by letter, by phone-call and by email. None of what was directed to me was critical but, I have to acknowledge, that there was criticism in the phone log RTÉ keeps of listeners calls to the station, criticism specifically of this aspect of the programme. In making this point I’m merely outlining – briefly – how I approached one story I was told and how the audience responded to that aspect. I’m not making any claim for any special insight. Some of us might have read a Frank O’Connor story while at school; it was, I think, called ‘Up The Bare Stairs’ and was about how a young boy used an incident with a teacher as a means to succeed in life. MacMahon’s story provided a possible insight but it is also apocryphal – it’s a story we all carry within us. It provides perhaps too easy an explanation for things. And Tony MacMahon is more complicated than that.

MacMahon’s Ghosts
I called the programme Port na bPucaí partially for obvious reasons – obvious to those who know a little about traditional music. There is, of course, MacMahon’s association with that air: his playing of it has set a benchmark. It is an association that bears comparison with the association of other tunes with other players – names like Peoples, Potts, Cooley and Ennis. Like those names the name MacMahon alone is enough and that is a great compliment. It is as a player of airs that MacMahon is often referred to, but that sensibility pervades all of his playing. It is as if he is always on the look out for the lonesome note. And that brings me on to the other reason for naming the programme Port na bPucaí, with the subtitle, The Music of Ghosts. Almost without exception, every player he referred to during the recording of the programme was dead. I concentrated on Cooley and Potts but there were others – Bill Harte, Séamus Ennis and Micho Russell and, more tangentially, Siney Crotty and the Leitrim box player Jack Dolan – indeed there were many more. There is little doubt that these players are all touchstones of one sort or other. His point about Crotty and Dolan was that they are largely forgotten. That has not happened with the other musicians he mentioned. These are the touchstones of the tradition, but it is as if that tradition has been wholly defined and it is very difficult to move it on. All that remains is space for a few nuances, grace notes, or else some sort of anaemic experimentation.

MacMahon is seen as a bulwark of that tradition, an unreconstructed traditionalist. But it could be argued that his recent alliance with the Kronos Quartet was an experiment – arguably more experimental than, say, a dalliance with the Rolling Stones rhythm section. In the CD I received – I was not at the live performance – the accordion appeared parallel too or further back in the mix than the other instruments. It was certainly not accorded the position it would have been had MacMahon played an air with a group of traditional musicians where the ethos of ’one man one tune’ would most likely have prevailed. This made it easy for me to use the Kronos recording in the programme. It was what I’d call a ‘wash’ – in the sense that it could be used far back – behind speech – so that it would not ‘argue’ with the speech or attempt to attach emotions to it.
The use of any other MacMahon recording of ‘Port na bPucaí’ would have been a very different proposition. One of the greatest difficulties faced making radio is in incorporating traditional music because of much of its wider use, in the world of advertising and film soundtracks in particular; it comes loaded with emotion and the connotations are obvious ones. The music rarely seems to exist for itself. Making programmes about traditional musicians is the most obvious way around this. The music is, if you like, used organically. But, making this programme, I did wonder how MacMahon’s work with the Kronos had largely escaped comment.

Just before I made Port na bPucaí this summer I produced another programme about a traditional musician – The Balloon in Brosna, made with Liam O’Brien – about the Kerry fiddle player Con Curtin, who is now 80 years old. Curtin is larger than life, a Rabelaisian character; a blacksmith, a ganger for Murphy in 1960s London, and publican in the Balloon in Chelsea – one of the legendary venues for traditional music – he played on Paddy in the Smoke. He is a great story-teller and all Con’s stories are related somehow to music. He can relate everything in his life to it.
Making that programme I was struck, not for the first time, by how important ‘character‘ was to musicians of that generation. A person might be a great musician, and that would be acknowledged, but to become more than that – to have stories told about them – was an even bigger compliment. I thought of a bodhrán player who was an occasional part of the music scene in London when I was there. This man was well known for the exuberance of his playing – and that’s a euphemism. He used to get up from his stool and kick the bodhran. Once or twice, zealot as I was, I passed comments on his time-keeping. These were laughed off. Obviously, he was bringing something else to the party. With Tony MacMahon all these things are secondary. He relates everything through music. There is never any doubt that the music comes first.

The music of things as they happen
There is no doubt that MacMahon is a great musician, but it struck me more than once how little we actually hear him play. He has to be sought out; he eschews pub sessions. I had mentioned that I would like to record him with other musicians when we first spoke and, as a compromise of sorts since he didn‘t want to play in a pub, he suggested I could go with him to east Clare, to the house of his niece Mary McNamara in Tulla. I recorded him with Mary and her daughter Sorcha. This is the sort of music I love – again speaking as a programme maker. It is the music of things as they happen. Great music is, MacMahon told me, not bought off a shelf – paradoxically though, perfection can be.
He knew I was thinking of what music I’d use. We had agreed that I would record him playing ‘Port na bPucaí’ but this was a courtesy on his part. Tunes are attached to mood, as he argues. It was to be my final recording with him. Before I set up my equipment he asked me to listen to a CD he’d just received. It was of a live recording he’d made last year for Raidió na Gaeltachta, accompanied by Steve Cooney at a concert in Connemara. This is a recording of a great musician, two of them indeed. A musician who knew his audience and played with real verve and great humour and emotion – while typically paying his dues.

You see, there is Tony MacMahon the sometime controversialist. There is the Tony MacMahon who has a definite story to tell, who is not afraid to be unpopular, to rephrase ancient shibboleths. But there is also the great performer and this is sometimes overlooked. In taking a tune from that concert at the end of the programme what I was saying was, finally, ‘that’s enough talking – listen to this.’

Both Port na bPucaí and the Balloon in Brosna are available on the RTÉ website:

Published on 1 November 2005

Peter Woods is a radio producer and is co-author of The Living Note: The Heartbeat of Irish Music (1996).

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