In Praise of the Ceili Band

The Kilfenora Ceili Band, c. 1950s (l-r, back row: Jerry Lynch, accordion; Paddy Mullins, flute; Gerard O’Loughlin, drums; Jim McCormack, flute; Pat Madigan, saxophone; l-r, front row: P.J. Lynch, fiddle; Tom Eustace, fiddle; Gus Tierney, fiddle; Kitty Li

In Praise of the Ceili Band

There’s a burst of applause before the band launches into a set of reels: the pace is immediately fast and furious, and you can hear the audience in the background, whooping and hurrahing above an excited buzz of conversation. I can’t see the line-up,...

There’s a burst of applause before the band launches into a set of reels: the pace is immediately fast and furious, and you can hear the audience in the background, whooping and hurrahing above an excited buzz of conversation. I can’t see the line-up, but I’d guess two fiddles, two flutes, accordion, drums and piano. Nor can I be sure if there are dancers – it’s sometimes difficult to tell drums from feet – but it sounds like a squad of them out there, or in there, the dance-floor thronged and heaving and bouncing as the band carries them along with the music. The band ends the first tune with a coordinated bang and a split-second stop-cut of pregnant silence that jump-starts them into the next. A great cheer goes up: impelled by the general excitement, the pace quickens a little, but not too much, steady as she goes, no need to lose the run of yourself, they’re keeping great time for all that they’re pushing the envelope, and they’re flying now, full steam ahead. They play the second tune just twice, then they do that stop-gap launching-pad trick again – BANG! – before they hammer into the last tune, a very old favourite, The Maid behind the Bar, and the crowd is going wild now, and my left foot – the one not on the accelerator – is beating dangerous time on the rubber mat of the car floor, my fingers tapping the steering wheel as we drive along the banks of Lough Erne the morning after the night before. It’s pure joy, the kind of music that makes you want to get up and dance. Out of the corner of my eye I catch the eye of my passenger, my wife. She’s grinning from ear to ear with pleasure. The set of tunes ends and there’s a great roar of applause, whoops and hollers. ‘Great music,’ I say. ‘It’s real music,’ says Deirdre.

It’s Sunday, 22nd October 2006, and we’re driving home from Ballaghaderreen, County Roscommon, where Deirdre and myself had occasion to play some tunes and read some poems at the Douglas Hyde Conference. We’d purchased a few CDs at the stall there, among them Ceili House – On the Road 93, which I assume to be a selection of the Ceili House Requests programmes produced by RTÉ. I can only assume, since the cheapo production has no information on the insert beyond a name for each track. The music alluded to above, for instance, is track 9, St Malachy’s Ceili Band (Manchester). There’s no other description, no names of personnel, no date, no venue.

But it’s palpably live, and alive, and full of personality. Perhaps the disciplined wildness of the music has something to do with the condition of exile. It has also the definitive stamp of a team of individuals who enjoy playing with each other. It pulses with the joy of the moment as rehearsed over previous moments over many years perhaps, and it seemed to us, as we discussed it, that this kind of music is not too far removed from that played in a good session. Real music.

Ongoing Conversation
As it happened, we’d spent the night before in Spells pub where we had a great time playing with musicians we’d never met before: an occasion made possible by the conventions of a good session, which shares a common stock of tunes and a common approach to them. We knew a great many of the tunes played by the Spells musicians because we’d spent some time, from the 1970s onwards, playing around in the Sligo-Leitrim-Roscommon area, meeting with the likes of Packie Duignan or Patsy Hanley; and in any event, many of these tunes are known to the general run of Irish traditional musicians. We happened to hit the tunes with the same pace and rhythm as the Spells musicians: we seemed to get the gist of their musical conversation, and they ours. Listening out for each other, we shaped our playing to that of the others. We spoke the same kind of musical language, and we talked about the tunes in the same way, when there was a break for verbal conversation. And it seemed to us that a good ceili band is the result of an ongoing conversation that pays heed to similar conversations shaped over many years. It’s a team effort: the personnel might change over the years, but the band remains the same, because it recognises the same rules.

Hence the title of another CD we bought in Ballaghaderreen, Set in Stone, by the famous Kilfenora Ceili Band from North Clare, where the Burren is located. As P.J. Curtis’s sleeve-notes has it,

The Burren is unique – and though beautiful, it presents a rugged, tough, uncompromising face which has defied the rigours of the elements over the ages.

The native traditional music of North Clare bears the unmistakeable stamp of its geographical origins and of the people from whose hearts it flows, exponents of a style which, Burren-like, has resolutely withstood the onslaught of time and the cross-fertilization which has merged and blurred other types of music. Kilfenora Ceili music is set in stone.

The association of landscape with traditional music is a time-worn one. We might reconfigure this paradigm a little closer to the truth by suggesting that the Burren has been as much shaped by the elements as it has defied them. It is a dynamic environment: its limestone pavement, eroded by countless centuries into the fissures known as ‘grikes’, provides little microclimatic pockets where a variety of Arctic, Mediterranean and Alpine plants can flourish side by side. They are indeed set in stone, but they grow, they move, they evolve, as does the stone itself. For all I know – I am not a botanist – they might participate in cross-fertilisation, just as ‘Irish’ music has always been open to other influences: polkas and mazurkas, for example, are not especially native to Ireland, and the reel, the most common structure in Irish traditional music, is arguably of Scottish origin. To add another metaphor to the mix, there is no such thing, really, as the ‘pure drop’. All traditional music is a blend, albeit distilled to a traditional recipe. In any event I believe the assertion here that the Kilfenora, for all its changes of personnel over three generations or so, has retained its ‘definitive, powerful, flowing sound’; and the opening track does indeed ‘awaken one to the pulsating style that is the hallmark of this energetic collection’.

The track begins with two vamped chords on the piano, giving the rest of the ensemble – three fiddles, two flutes, accordion, concertina, banjo, double bass and drums – an immediate bump. It’s quick, zippy, tight but not so tight as to be constricted, allowing for a kind of disciplined abandon. You can hear that the players know each other very well; you can hear them listening to each other, enjoying each others’ company. It’s full of wit and panache, and you can hear occasional micro-variations in the playing of the individuals, little running commentaries on the main flow of the music. It’s great music. It’s real music, with no pretensions about it. It’s music for the sake of music, individual technique subsumed by the joy of playing it.

Foreign Bodies
Let us return to the notion of that ongoing ‘powerful, flowing sound’. In 1962 Seán Ó Riada gave a series of talks on traditional music on Raidio Éireann, subsequently published by Dolmen Press in 1982 as Our Musical Heritage. In his Introduction, he noted how Norman, Latin and English words had been absorbed into Irish, submitting to Gaelic declensions and conjugations; in the same manner, foreign literary themes were adapted to Gaelic poetry. He went on to compare the progress of tradition in Ireland to the flow of a river: ‘Foreign bodies may fall in, or be dropped in, or thrown in, but they do not divert the course of the river, nor do they stop it flowing; it absorbs them, carrying them with it as it flows onwards.’ Just so. It seems to me that bands like the Kilfenora exemplify that metaphor. However, Ó Riada saw Irish music as ‘essentially a solo effort … not a group activity’, though ‘for one reason or another, group activity in Irish music has come to stay’. He went on:

One might expect that, after a certain time, the ceili bands would have managed to work out some kind of compromise between the solo traditional idea and group activity. But instead of developing this compromise, the ceili band leaders took the easy and wrong way out, tending more and more to imitate swing or jazz bands which play an entirely different type of music and are organised on different principles. First they added piano and drums, then double-bass, then the final insult: saxophones, guitars and banjos. The most important principles of traditional music – the whole idea of variation, the whole idea of the personal utterance – are abandoned. Instead, everyone takes hold of a tune and belts away at it without stopping. The result is a rhythmic but meaningless noise with as much relation to music as the buzzing of a bluebottle in an upturned jam-jar.

There are some dodgy statements here. Does not ‘jazz’, of whatever variety, allow for perhaps even more ‘personal utterance’ than Irish music? What’s wrong with taking hold of a dance tune and belting away at it without stopping, if it makes you want to get up and dance? Are saxophones, guitars and banjos more inherently inimical to Irish music than the harpsichord, which Ó Riada used instead of the piano? Granted, we know what Ó Riada means. There were times in the 1960s when the cross-fertilisation of showband and ceili band produced some bizarre mutant music which was neither one thing nor another. But the music survived that passing, tuxedo-besuited fad. Inspired by the folk revival of the 1960s, many young musicians sought out the real thing in places like Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon. They sought to emulate the style of older musicians. And granted, perhaps Ó Riada had a hand in all that. After having ‘given a fair amount of thought to the idea of playing Irish music as a group activity’, he postulated an ‘ideal type of Ceili Band or orchestra’, which would ‘begin by stating the basic skeleton of the tune to be played; this would then be ornamented and varied by solo instruments, or by small groups of solo instruments. The more variation the better…’. He proceeded to put theory into practice by assembling Ceoltóirí Chualann, the forerunner of the Chieftains, who became a model of a kind for many young musicians in the 1960s and later.

The consequences of ‘the more variation the better’ are, for better or worse, still with us. Groups like the Bothy Band, Planxty, and De Dannan managed to incorporate individual expression without compromising the integrity of the music; in recent years, others, who shall be nameless, have reduced it to a posture of empty technique, a meaningless series of pyrotechnical ‘improvisations’ which have the paradoxical effect of making every tune sound the same. There are still others who play real music. One of the best traditional music CDs of recent years is The Godfather (1999), featuring the fiddle-playing of Brian Rooney, joined on several tracks by Frankie Gavin on flute, John Carty on banjo, Alec Finn on bouzouki and Brian McGrath on keyboards. The concept for the album came from Gregory Daly, a flute-player soaked in the tradition of his native Leitrim. It’s a very simple group activity. They take hold of a tune and belt away at it without stopping until it comes to an end. There are no solo riffs, no parades of individuality, just a bunch of great musicians coming together as a joyous ensemble, recognising that the music is greater than them, and paying it due respect. They’re playing old tunes mostly, tunes that have stood the test of time, and they’re playing them now, for the moment, perhaps recalling some of the other times they played the same tunes, as the moment moves into the future and carries us along in its flow of melody. Long may it last.

Published on 1 January 2008

Ciaran Carson (1948–2019) was a poet, prose writer, translator and flute-player. He was the author of Last Night’s Fun – A Book about Irish Traditional Music, The Pocket Guide to Traditional Irish Music, The Star Factory, and the poetry collections The Irish for No, Belfast Confetti and First Language: Poems. He was Professor of Poetry at Queen’s University Belfast. Between 2008 and 2010 Ciaran wrote a series of linked columns for the Journal of Music, beginning with 'The Bag of Spuds' and ending with 'The Raw Bar'.

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