Many strings to his bow: Martin Hayes on finding inspiration

After a long musical journey, the fiddler Martin Hayes finds inspiration in everything from Bach to Arvo Pärt and Sigur Rós

Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times

Photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times


A quiet, slow day in Feakle. Few are about in the late-summer noontime lull in this part of east Co Clare. Martin Hayes is waiting patiently outside Pepper’s pub, on the edge of the village. He has a place up the hill from here, he says, but didn’t want to send us up those boreens for fear we’d never find him.

Inside Pepper’s you’ll spot traces of Hayes in photographs and posters on the wall. It’s the local trad-session pub, and the history of Hayes the fiddler has dovetailed with places like this over the years.

It was in rooms like this that Hayes learned his trade and built a reputation for his dulcet, delicate, textured playing. It was rooms like this that helped to make him the champion musician he is today.

These days, though, he and his fiddle are as much at home in concert halls and great houses as in dark, haunted, low-ceilinged rooms like this.

Hayes’s trek began when he left for the skyscrapers and sights of Chicago back in the mid 1980s. The son of the Tulla Céilí Band leader PJ, the young Hayes was one of the most gifted trad fiddlers around, but he felt he wanted something else from life. He has said his early years in the United States were a chance to live out his teens. “I was playing old men’s music when I was 14 or 15, and it does cut you off from your contemporaries,” he said. “Coming out to America got all that out of my system.”

Playing in the rock band Midnight Court helped, but other beacons were blinking at him. After a few solo albums for Green Linnet, Hayes struck up a working relationship with the guitarist Dennis Cahill that has kept both men in good stead over the years.

There have also been a rake of other collaborations and projects. These days Hayes has a berth in the ambitious musical ship called The Gloaming, for example, and plays in the mesmerising Triúr alongside Peadar Ó Riada and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh. Over tea and biscuits Hayes throws in a few more names of recent collaborators. Mattu Noone is an Australian who plays Indian music; Hayes has been working with him on a slew of “east Clare ragas”. The composer and guitarist Dave Flynn is also a creative sparring partner. “He writes things which might seem like what I’d play, but when I try to play them I find they’re not.”

Then there’s the Masters of Tradition festival, in Bantry. Every year since 2003 Hayes, as artistic director, has invited musicians to west Co Cork to perform. The festival has its own sway now.

“I get to put on what I consider to be really good traditional music, and I get to listen, which I don’t always get to do. I like that part of it. I like being able to create a nice performance situation for some music which I know doesn’t always get heard. It doesn’t always get understood, either. In the right circumstances, and presented the right way, this is very understandable for most audiences. It’s a very subtle thing to do it just the right way.”

Musical language
It was inevitable that Hayes would return home after sowing his musical oats. No matter what he played, his breeding came out in the mix. “I did wake up to that fact that I had a musical language and a dialect and I could pretty much say whatever I needed to say in that form. The key to it from an artistic level is to know and accept who you are: this has been my experience, this is my intellectual capacity, this is my sum of knowledge, this is my artistic ability.

“It’s important to know all these things, just as it’s important to know where you come from. To know your locality, your family, your past, your place. Be honest with yourself, and don’t try to hide from those things or pretend you’re something else. With time, the fact that you tried to hide those things seems quite silly.”

He notes changes for the good around his home place. “When I first left, it was all poor farmers and carpenters and the like. The self-confidence of people and the diversity in terms of skills and careers and interests have exploded since. Now you have graphic designers and computer programmers and healers and practitioners of eastern medicine. It’s a different place.”

Much has changed too about the way people regard the native music, Hayes believes. “When I left Ireland, Irish music was not a hip thing. It wasn’t popularly accepted in the culture. People with interests in blues or jazz wouldn’t touch Irish music with a 40-foot pole. You wouldn’t go near the stuff. There was a rejection of it because of its association with poverty and lack of education and backwardness.

“I’m not saying it’s the hippest thing in the world now, but the music has moved into the popular consciousness and the level of respect and appreciation has grown dramatically over the years. Around here in east Clare you have an amazing number of kids playing, and the quality of the musicianship is astounding.”

Cut a swathe
Hayes believes trad can now sit easily alongside other genres because of how we listen to music. “I find these commonalities when you can cut a swathe across all genres and they all match up. I have friends over from the States, and I spent three or four hours going through my iTunes library with them, going, ‘Here, have you heard this? Or this?’ We were jumping from Arvo Pärt to Bach to Brad Mehldau to Sigur Rós.”

A biscuit is suspended in mid-air as he joins the dots. “I went from The Hilliard Ensemble with Jan Garbarek, which is an amazing album, to Sigur Rós, and people could see the connection all of a sudden. The world of feeling wasn’t that different. It’s very interesting to hear a modern indie band from Iceland making music and a sound which is not far away from this ancient music.”

This brings him to The Gloaming, the musical juggernaut starring Iarla Ó Lionáird and Thomas Bartlett alongside Ó Raghallaigh, Cahill and Hayes, whose debut album should appear next January.

“One of the interesting things about The Gloaming is you find this dialogue across the genres naturally going on. We’re a bit big and noisy, but it’s a band where nobody has to instruct anything or suggest anything. Everybody’s creative input works. Each of us can be ourselves and do our thing, and it comes together. It’s a great freedom.”

What unites all of these projects and bands is Hayes’s desire to reach a certain moment. Every time he steps onstage he is looking for it, that moment when it will all come as right as rain. “Every night when Dennis and myself go onstage – and we’ve been going on stage a long time – we have this attitude. We’re always thinking that one day we’re going to have the answer to everything and we’re going to be able to play these great gigs all the time, thinking that tonight we might really crack it.”

Hayes has experienced these moments. “When the music is really going well you feel like you’re just participating in it. You feel like it’s just happening to you, with you and out of you. You feel like you’ve made yourself transparent enough for the music to flow. It’s not about what’s just happening with your hands. It takes in your whole physical being, your emotional being, your spiritual being. You gradually break down the barriers of resistance to that. You eventually become physically and emotionally more free. This is what we’re trying to do: have a complete flow of music and feeling over the course of a night.

“I want that experience from the minute I walk on the stage to the minute I walk off it. That’s a pretty tall demand, but I actually don’t know why that can’t be the case, so I’m always confused about why I can’t have that all the time. But every night I go for it like I never did before. As soon as I put the fiddle in my hand I can’t stop going that way.”

Martin Hayes plays the Masters of Tradition Festival at Bantry House, Co Cork, tomorrow with Dennis Cahill

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