Exploring Loss Under Lockdown

Charlie Lennon in 'Ben's Departure'

Exploring Loss Under Lockdown

A new short film about the passing of the great fiddle-player Ben Lennon during lockdown last year, as narrated by his brother Charlie, was premiered at the Galway Film Fleadh. Adrian Scahill reviews.

Ben Lennon was one of the true legends of Irish traditional music, known for his good humour, his love of sessions, his teaching, his general presence as musician, and through his recordings; the snappy, bouncy rhythm of the region was immortalised for me on Dog Big and Dog Little, the album he made for Claddagh Records with Séamus Quinn, Gabriel McArdle and Ciarán Curran.

Born in Kiltyclogher, Leitrim, his home was well-known as a céilí house, and he grew up within a vibrant musical community. A link back to the pre-revival tradition, he learnt fiddle from a Ballyshannon dancing master, Sean O’Donoghue, and later played at house dances and house visits until he emigrated at the end of the 1940s. Later in his life he became a fixture at festivals and summer schools as a teacher, performer, and enthusiastic session musician, and made other recordings both solo and in the company of others. (For more on Ben Lennon’s life and music see Fintan Vallely’s book The Tailor’s Twist, or the wonderful blog by Alan Woods published by the Irish Traditional Music Archive.)

Ben Lennon sadly passed away on 30 March 2020. This short film reflects on his relationship with his family, their sense of loss, and the additional cruelty wreaked on them because of the limitations on funerals imposed during the height of the Covid lockdown last year. Shot in black and white, it is directed by Darach Mac Con Iomaire and is produced by Stiúideo Cuan, the Connemara-based studio and soon-to-be venue established by Ben’s younger brother, the fiddler, composer and pianist Charlie Lennon, and the latter’s daughter, fiddle-player Éilís Lennon.

It is Charlie’s voice that is heard throughout the film: he fondly recollects Ben introducing him to the music of a visiting fiddler as a child, remembers him being impressed by his playing of ‘The Derry Hornpipe’ (which is heard underneath the narration), and recalls their visiting other musicians in the area. Their connection is not just familial, but one forged through music – a form of sonic bonding, as the ethnomusicologist Thomas Turino calls it. This is memorialised through the tune ‘Ben’s Departure’, a composition of Charlie’s which he plays at the beginning of the film.  

These memories are accompanied by many still photographs from Ben’s life and music, including those of Nutan. But where normally this type of documentary remembrancing celebrates a musician’s life and works, in Ben’s Departure these moments are fragmentary and fleeting, mirroring the disrupted process of marking the passing of family, friends, and in this case traditional musicians, and in a wider sense reflecting the fragmented nature of the traditional community in a covid soundscape. In a sense, then, this documentary short is very different from the style of biographical films often produced about celebrated musicians – the subject, and their music, is mostly absent. Instead, the film focuses on the stasis and limbo enforced on his family by the Covid restrictions, as experienced through Charlie’s account of his departure.

Reviewing such personal material seems almost intrusive, but at the same time the film skilfully evokes the isolation experienced through its cinematography and sound: the effect is of a musician cut off from others, playing piano in an empty house, which offers only a temporary relief from the almost oppressive silence that the film conveys. It also offers a starkly arresting image of the inability of those who lost loved ones during the lockdown to process this through the traditional rituals of mourning and grieving. We see and hear the reels played at the graveside by Fr Séamus Quinn (who attended the burial and delivered the euology) and Ben’s son Brian, through a mobile phone screen perched on a kitchen table – the presence and catharsis of such an act compressed and detached from the human contact we require.

The unnaturalness of this is further heightened by the use of colour for the mobile phone screen – a window into a world made inaccessible by the pandemic. The tone here is not just one of loss, but of the inability to experience loss: the comment that they ‘put the instruments away, and that was it’ bleakly summarises all that was lacking. And yet it closes with hope: that there will be an opportunity to grieve, that Ben Lennon’s legacy and music will be celebrated as it should. Until then, this deeply personal film stands as a tragic memorial, and its simplicity and directness helps to convey (as much as is possible) the traumatic experience of enduring a loss in these circumstances.  

Published on 28 July 2021

Adrian Scahill is a lecturer in traditional music at Maynooth University.

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