Gerry O’Connor’s reflections on his life and music with Eithne
Eithne and I were both from Dundalk and had known each other from secondary school times ; her brother Feilimí was a friend of mine and we would sometimes meet the Ó hUallacháin family members, when we (the local Comhaltas branch musicians) would provide the entertainment at various Gaelic language events in the town. Eithne had learned the whistle with the Sisters of Mercy and I remember Eithne telling me that she was encouraged by Rory Kennedy, the leader of the Comhaltas at the time, to come to the classes, but she rarely managed to do this.
Her interest in music and particularly song, developed further during her time at the University of Ulster, Coleraine, County Derry where she befriended other undergraduates including Brian Mullen, Gary Hastings and Ciaran Curran. She struck up a very close relationship with Diana Skillen, who, along with her boyfriend Nigel Boullier, was developing their music and interest in traditional music and it was here that Eithne found a natural home to socialise and play music amongst a passionate, yet fun loving, musical community.
At Christmas 1976 Eithne phoned me, as she had a few times before, to find out where the sessions were happening in the Dundalk area over the holiday period. I was at this point an established young musician on the local traditional music scene and we made arrangements to meet a few times that week in Marks Bar, where, at the time I was the regular musician. For New Year’s Eve we were invited to Drogheda to Sean and Helen Corcoran’s home for a house party after a session in Carberry’s Pub; Eithne invited me the next day New Year’s day 1977 to go to Balloo House in County Down for a session with her college friends and where local musicians, including Ernie Swain and the legendary fiddle payer Jackie Donnan were gathered. By now our match was made!
This and visits to Belleek, County Fermanagh on the invite of Maura Mc Connell (sister of Cathal ‘Boys of the Lough’ McConnell) who ran regular weekends of tradition music sessions there, and we became frequent weekend visitors and performers there as young musicians who could hold their own and be part of a living tradition still in existence there . We played regularly with Eddie Duffy and Mick Hoey and spent time in McConnells listening to, and recording, music from their vast collections of privately made reel to reel and cassette recordings, all the while being entertained by Mrs McConnell and Maura with stories, all washed down with scalding tea and ‘Currenty Scones’
From 1978 onwards for a number of years we also made regular weekend visits to Ballaghadereen where we stayed with Carmel and Jim McHale at The Western; a home of traditional music in north Roscommon. Fiddle player John Henry, a brother of Carmel generally there, and with tunes and songs we contributed to the evening’s entertainment and learned our craft. This became our way of life during these early years together. ∙
Cosa gan Bhroga, Gael Linn & first foray into recording
Having got married, and whilst living in Navan, we became an established fiddle /flute songs duo on the trad music scene. I was working in Tara Mines and Eithne was teaching in Trim. Fello Dundalk man and singer Finbar Boyle would invite us occasionally to play in The Tradition Club in Slattery’s of Capel Street Dublin. This led to a number of engagements and our weekends became a series of concert appearances and sessions throughout Ireland. Our first born Dónal was a regular attendee at local sessions and his musical education had begun!
From this experience we reflected on our cultural identity and took a positive step to re-interperate the music and song of our home area. Desi Wilkinson and I had played together for a number of years, touring in Brittany and England, and we found ourselves both in County Louth and holding a weekly session in the Claremount Arms Bar, Blackrock.
I was now travelling weekly to Cork to study Violin- making and commuted home to Dundalk where we had relocated to in 1983 when Eithne got a teaching job in Gaelscoil Dhún Dealgan. By now we had our second child Siubhán and the pace of musical activity began to slow down a little. Eithne was invited to take part in a Northern Ireland Arts Council tour and with the help of her mother we managed to fit everything in.
Over these early years both our mothers had been a great support to us, realizing that music was an integral part of our existence and supporting us fully in these heady years. With Desi, we recorded our first album Cosa Gan Bhróga on the Gael Linn label. We had the good fortune to work with Nicky Ryan (who later worked with Enya) and Eithne revelled in her time in the studio. She had begun to realise the potential which she had within her as a singer and song writer.
We had visited Brittany in the mid 80’s to play at Lorient and she was fascinated with the living culture of singing there .We returned in 1990 on holidays and were invited by flute player Jean Michel Veillon to a weekend of workshops and concert in La Chapelle Neuve (now with our third child Feilimí born) and met with Gilles le Bigot for the first time. Eithne saw the possibility of Gilles’ sympathetic guitar picking with the traditional gaelic song working for her and we invited Gilles to come and record with us in the Homestead Studio in Randalstown, County Antrim in 1991.
La Lugh, Recording & Touring
By now we had focused our attention researching mostly local sources of music and song ; Eithne trawled the collections of Lorcán Ó Muirí (Amhráin Cuige Uladh) Enrí Ó Muiríosa ( Céad de Cheoitaibh Uladh), and naturally she included the song tradition of Donegal, where her father had collected songs and stories. Eithne’s grasp of the Donegal singing tradition came naturally to her as she had spent so much time as a child in the Gaeltacht on Arranmore Island and later as a student and teaching assistant in Rannafast.
Historically County Louth took its name from the pre Christian god, Lugh Lámhfhada or Longhanded Lugh. Lugh was the grandson of Balor of the Evil Eye from Tory Island, County Donegal, and father of Cúchulainn the central figure of the great Ulster epic Táin Bó Cuailghne (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) the setting for which was the Cooley Mountains, where we chose to live in 1989. Lá Lugh , “The Day of Louth” or Lugh the God of Creativity was thus chosen as the band title in order to highlight and celebrate the music and song tradition of the South Ulster / North Leinster region where we lived and drew our inspiration from. Eithne wrote new melodise for two songs on the eponymous album and was comfortable developing ideas and arrangements with Shaun ‘Mudd’ Wallace, with whom she developed a creative and musical friendship. Mudd would listen to Eithne’s ideas and musings; with Garry Ó Briain’s generous input on guitar and piano and suggestions to arrangements and harmony lines; Neil Martin’s ‘cello work gave Eithne and instrumental input which created a different dynamic to most other recordings of that time and Gilles’ fresh approach to the accompaniment of Irish song gave us many possibilities to interpret the sean nos singing tradition in a most sympathetic way.
Eithne and I would discuss the options and developments and the tracks would come together in a most organic way. . After a long day Mudd would suggest we go for a bite to eat; he would then finish off the editing, working late into the night and would resurface the next day at lunchtime with all the previous day’s work in a much better shape so we would continue with the next track!
With the band Lá Lugh we were able to introduce the music and song of South Ulster to an international audience for the first time. Our first concert on the completion of the Lá Lugh album, at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham Dublin, with Garry O’Briain and Neil Martin, we performed before the polyphonic choir The Mysterious Voices of Bulgaria to a well briefed audience at the Dublin Tradition Music Festival in 1993. At this time, Eithne also took part in The German Irish Folk Festival Tour run by Carson Linde. Part of the tour promotion involved new recording of three traditional songs for a tour album.
The positive response to our performance gave us a profile and confidence to present the material on stage at European festivals. On account of our family and job commitments we had many line ups of great musicians including Garry O’Brian, Seanie Mc Phail, Martin O’Hare, Clare O’Donoghue, Siobhan Kennedy, Don O’Kane, Jimmy Johnstone, Mario n’Goma, Martin Quinn, our son Donal O’Connor, Jens Kommnick, Neil Ó Callanain and later Gilles le Bigot.
At this time, our lives had settled into a very enjoyable mix of family life, creativity, travelling and domestic activities. We often took the children for a walk on a stretch of coastline called The Lynns between Dundalk & Castlebellingham where there was a wildlife sanctuary. On one occasion I had brought a new camera and took some random shots of the family and of Eithne herself, much to her protestations. We have used one of these as the cover for this album.
Although Eithne enjoyed performing she was coming to the realization that she was deriving more pleasure in the writing and recording of newly written work. Eithne had toured with Capercaillie in Germany in 1993 and also performed with Dan ar Braz’ Heritage de Celts at Festival Cornauille in Quimpaer, Brittany. Enthused by these experiences, she began to further focus on writing songs and melodies. In April 1995, having recovered from her initial period of illness, we began to record a second album which included a greater number of Eithne’s original compositions written over the previous couple of years. Our previous touring experience had inspired the use of ‘world music’ influences and these rhythms and sounds were used by Eithne in her writings. In the context of the ongoing peace process in the North, she took the idea of the traditional song Nil Sé ‘na Lá and developed it with a positive slant into Tá Sé ‘na Lá. Those memorable times also inspired the song Brighid’s Kiss which provided the title for the album. In general, she focussed on the re-creation of new melodies for old songs which had lost their voice and this, in turn, influenced the writing of entirely new compositions. Omeath Music and Brighid’s Kiss were examples of her method of gathering snippets of old songs and developing them with new melodies or taking old airs to be matched with newly written lyrics, many with particular emphasis on the mythology of Louth. Bealtaine Song or Babog na Bealtaine was another song on the album which was dedicated to our son, Finnian who was born in the early stages of the formation of the album and who was present at much of the recording. We toured many summer festivals with this album including Tonder, Forde, Copehhagen, Mistlebach (Austria), Hallien and Quimper. We recorded with Donald Shaw in Findhorn, Scotland as part of a collaborative series of television programmes called Tasci for Scottish television – some of which can currently be found on Youtube.
Signing to Peer Music, Sony Records & Senex Puer
A local sound engineer, Derek Turner, introduced us to Dara Kettle who represented Peer Music in Ireland. And we began our association with Dara by assigning our creative works to Peer Music to act as publisher. This led to a signing with Sony Music in France in 1997 for the album Senex Puer which was generally a mixture of previously recorded tracks from La Lugh and Brighid’s Kiss and the German Folk Festival tour recordings. The only new track on this album was the title track which again showcased her innovative ability to take something old and develop it into something entirely contemporary while retaining the soulfulness of the original. These years were a time of great musical activity; Eithne presented a paper on Traditional Song at the Merriman Summer School in Co. Clare and touring became a family affair as Dónal joined the band on keyboards and the younger children joined us for some of the longer summer tours. Two of Eithne’s songs were also released as dance mixes by Sony. It was a bemusing experience to be brought to a Parisian basement studio where two local techno musicians had stripped the tracks down to the vocal line to re-record it with synthesizer, guitar and programming, and were seeking our approval on the results.
Development of Bilingua Material
Alongside performing and raising her family, Eithne continually worked on her song-writing during this period with the idea of recording a solo album as well as preparing material for future Lá Lugh recordings. Her creative writing was often inspired by the readings and discussions with the ELF (Experiencing Life’s Fullness) and Mount Oliver creative groups ; these were loose amalgams of disparate friends who met regularly in the mid 1990’s to read poetry and mythology, ranging from Greek to Celtic to modern writing, whatever was suggested by a member. Her notebooks are full of references to these readings. Many unfinished songs and poems are there with additions and changes, honing her writings. We started to experiment with a four-track recording device at home but Eithne felt more comfortable with the traditional method of pen and paper using a selection of diaries and notebooks. Many of the earlier notes are undated. Further periods of ill-health curtailed her performing career and she took the opportunity to return the studio to focus on recording of her work. This began in February 1997.