'It was the bodhrán player who frightened me most'


I WAS IN bed for a week recovering from the Eleanor Shanley gig at the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Cavan. There were more than 1,500 people in the Liberty Dome, a big white tent, with a stage in the middle and huge black speakers stacked on top of each other. “You’d need a telescope to see from here,” someone said, as we sat in the back row waiting to do a sound check. I was terrified.

After the soundcheck, I had dinner in the Farnham Hotel and went upstairs to rest for the afternoon, with a hint of banjos and laughter coming in through the curtains from Main Street.

By 7pm the crowd was already filling the dome and Eleanor was in a long black dress pacing the corridor outside the dressing room. Three dancing girls were getting into white costumes, slapping on the lipstick and hiding holes in the backs of their stockings by applying black marker to their legs. There were instruments everywhere: guitars, accordions, fiddles and flutes, sandwiches, and Seamus Begley in the corner, like a mountain, humming to himself an air called An Caiseadeach Ban.

There were musicians reading evening papers, making phone calls, wearing cowboy hats and silk shirts, and then someone came in with two crates of beer and a few bottles of wine, and everyone was as tense as a flock of fathers in a maternity suite.

I’m used to theatres with modest audiences where I tell stories, but this was a huge gig, with real men poised for action, like marines below deck ready to go up into the storm, and I hadn’t been on stage in more than a year because of illness, so I was in and out of the toilet like a yo-yo as the show time approached.

A young piper, Kavan Donohoe, kicked off the concert with O’Carolan tunes and Folk the Recession almost rent the dome asunder with Pay Me My Money Down, and Sean Keane’s melancholic songs were unbearably beautiful. And last to take the stage were De Danann, a formidable bunch of iron johns; mythic creatures who have been making music and travelling the universe since Doctor Who was in short trousers.

They mounted the stage without fuss and settled on chairs with the quiet understated ease of whales in some sleepy corner of the ocean.

But it was the bodhrán player who frightened me because it was the bodhrán that made De Danann sound so unique in the old days. And it’s still there, rumbling underneath every melody. Sometimes it beats with the tune, and sometimes as counterpoint to it, and sometimes it wanders in riffs like delicate intimations of another world. The bodhrán is the invisible dancer in the room. The sound of a ghost hidden inside each jig or reel.

In the right hands, the bodhrán stick is the call of the Shaman, and the intrusion of all things metaphysical. Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh is such a master of the stick and goat skin that its rhythms got under the toenails of the audience, and rippled through the frostiest ears in the dome until the entire 1,500 people were on their feet, heaving with music and the scent of a life without guilt.

And when I thought it couldn’t get any better, the dancers came flying through the air, sideways, with white dresses, blonde hair, ruddy cheeks, gleaming teeth and garish red lips. The audience went ballistic. People stood on chairs to get a view.

Until then, the reels and jigs were beautiful, like abstract essays in sound, like the rhythm of a thousand chanting monks, but when the dancers appeared an incarnation was afoot; the music was made flesh; a moment of alchemy as astonishing as Sheela-na-gigs chiselled on to monastery walls.

After that, the place needed calming. The thunder in the dome would frighten a saint. The people yearned for Eleanor Shanley, and so she came to the microphone and sang, Hard Times, Come Again No More. I was exhausted when it was all over. I sat with Sean Keane, whose voice beguiles me more than any other man’s.

“By heavens,” I declared, “that was a great concert.” And he just smiled and said, “It was, surely.” He has a remarkable face; like a sculpture chiselled out of love and hard times.

But we didn’t talk long. Like the other musicians, he was putting his instruments away. The show was over. The moment when each artist is emptied, and must withdraw again.

Each to their own private space.

In the right hands, the bodhrán is the call of the Shaman, and the intrusion of all things metaphysical

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