An instinct for beauty

 

THE ARTS: The world of traditional music lost a singular voice when Mícheál Ó Domhnaill died in 2006. Now a fitting memorial to his remarkable talent comes in the shape of an album compiled by his sisters

‘WHEN I SING, I still hear you in my head and miss you in my heart,” writes Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill of her brother, the late Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, in the sleeve notes of a new album, Keep ’er Lit: The Songs and Music of Mícheál Ó Domhnaill. It’s a memorial to a musician whose sudden death in 2006 left the traditional music community bereft.

Ó Domhnaill was a Renaissance man who seldom sought the limelight but always managed to ignite whatever ensemble he was with: from the genteel revolution that was Skara Brae to the incendiary Bothy Band and onwards to Scots-Irish quartet Relativity and the jazz- and chamber music-infused Nightnoise. In between, there were heady days with Mick Hanley in Monroe and, in the years prior to his untimely death, Ó Domhnaill was enjoying a particularly fruitful and satisfying musical partnership with fiddler and former Bothy Band-mate Paddy Glackin.

Alongside Dónal Lunny, he was the engine that powered the Bothy Band, and the musical Magellan who charted unknown waters in Nightnoise. His aunt, Neilí Ní Dhomhnaill, was a crucial source and a personal heroine to him, whose vast and incandescent song store fuelled his imagination endlessly. But while he basked in the songs of the past, Mícheál Ó Domhnaill always sought out that infinitesimal detail that was the nub of a song’s character, its beating heart. And tellingly, he also sought out music of every other hue and shade on his travels from Portland to Rann na Feirste. As Kevin Burke, fiddler with the Bothy Band, recounts in the Keep ’er Litsleeve notes, they listened to “earthy roots reggae in the 100 Club in Oxford Street, in London, raucous blues in Alabama, uptown jazz in New York city, gypsy swing in Switzerland, and, of course, particularly the beloved traditional music of Brittany, Scotland and Ireland”.

Ó DOMHNAILL BELONGED to the sibling trio that sang like there wasn’t a hair’s breadth separating their voices. With his sisters, Tríona and Maighread, he coaxed and cajoled songs from their Donegal inheritance into broad daylight. Along with lifelong friend and guitarist Dáithí Sproule, he lit a fire beneath An Cailín Ruaand got beneath the skin of Suantraí Hiúdaíwith the ease of a musician with an instinct for beauty.

Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill was her brother’s keeper – just as he was hers – through their countless musical travels. Although she’s delighted with the outcome of the labour of love that is Keep ’er Lit, Tríona emphasises that the 15 songs featured on the album are the tip of the iceberg. Ó Domhnaill’s repertoire was so vast that it would take the musical equivalent of an articulated truck to contain it. But grand gestures were never his style anyway. He would have appreciated this less-is-more approach to his music, one suspects. It’s a chronologically faithful snapshot of Ó Domhnaill’s musical personality, which he moulded almost imperceptibly to accommodate the company he was keeping at each stopping point.

Mícheál Ó Domhnaill’s personality is indelibly stamped on the Bothy Band’s reading of Fionnghuala, a Scots Gaelic borrowing that reeks of a delight in syllable play and in the interaction between words and rhythm. With a degree in Celtic studies, he took nothing but pleasure from foraging trips to places such as the Isle of Skye, where he became reacquainted with Fionnghuala, having first heard it on record when he was a teenager, sung by the McDonnell sisters from the Isle of Lewis.

“He said there was a little old dear who used to come into the bar in Skye, in her 90s, taking snuff and a wee dram,” Tríona smiles. And she would start up when she was in form, and she had that song. But he would have heard a beautiful rendition of it too, from a recording of the music from the western isles. That’s what prompted us to have a go at it.”

Meticulous in his attention to detail, Tríona recalls how he would insist on “topping and tailing” a piece of music: it had to be right at the beginning, the middle and the end. “He had an amazing harmonic sense and a rhythmic sense,” she says. “He was as solid as a rock in accompaniment. He could be very exacting as a producer but we loved that about him too.”

Their father, Aodh Ó Domhnaill, was a formidable music collector and singer himself. Those borderless sibling harmonies that were Tríona’s, Mícheál’s and Maighread’s trademark, were effortless, but nurtured by Aodh’s early advice to “listen across one another”, so that their antennae were always on high alert for the subtlest of harmonic shifts. “We could just look at each other in the midst of a song, and that look would communicate so much,” Tríona recounts. “When you’ve close family ties, it’s instinctive. But you know, we panic when we can’t see each other on stage. It’s just what we do naturally.”

Lord Franklin, the saga of the doomed expedition to find the Northwest Passage, from the Atlantic to the Canadian Pacific coast, undertaken by the eponymous Franklin in 1845, will forever be linked to Ó Domhnaill’s singing. Its searing poignancy, told from the perspective of Franklin’s widow, finds strange solace in Ó Domhnaill’s sympathetic guitar arrangements and his gentle, unforced delivery. Keep ’er Litcarries a long-lost version of the song, rescued from an old Bothy Band out-take that had lurked in a drawer until now.

“He read everything he could about Lord Franklin,” Maighread says. “He had a quirky brain in that way.” Tríona joins in, their words coalescing just as they do when singing. “Heroes,” she says. “He loved heroes – in history and in life. He read everything, too, about Shackleton, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Scots, and the Gaeil. These were his loves. And he made Lord Franklinhis own, as he did with every song he ever sang. He just identified with her story so strongly, and he would always give such interesting and original introductions to the song, while he was tuning up.”

Tríona recounts the heady days of the Bothy Band with a mixture of affection and still wide-eyed amazement to have found herself in such stellar company. Timing was everything, and while they were making fireworks with the music, they never bothered too much to reflect on what else was happening. The music-making was all that counted.

“We didn’t talk about it at the time,” she says, “but I think there was an unspoken feeling there amongst ourselves, regardless of whether we got recognition or no, or paid or not, or had to drive hundreds of miles from one gig to the next: for those few moments when we were in full spate, everyone got such a charge. This was magic. We didn’t want for anything except to get into that zone again. That was all the payback we wanted. I felt honoured to be in the company of these people.

“I would have stood in the snow to hear Matt [Molloy] and Tommy [Peoples] play together. We thought there was no tomorrow. We lived in the now.”

MAIGHREAD, THE BABY sister, stayed at home: ever the fan in love with the music. “The tunes by the Bothy Band were all driven by the rhythm, which was Mícheál, Dónal and Tríona,” she says. “Individually you had all these geniuses, and that rhythm section was the heart of it.”

A compelling conversationalist, Ó Domhnaill relished the obscure titbit, what he called “another useless bit of information”, that would embellish the listener’s understanding of the music. He relished, too, the space between the notes, Tríona recalls.

“He knew that that space is just as important as the notes themselves,” she says. “It’s like your breath. We breathe and sometimes we stop breathing through excitement or emotion, but he was always spot on with the right feeling.”

Keep ’er Litis a fitting tribute to a musician who was still bristling with musical ideas at the time of his premature passing. Tríona and Maighread are confident that this reminder of their brother’s musical genius is one that won’t lurk in the dark corners, as a more conventional memorial card might.

“The usual with memorial cards is that they go into that all-sorts drawer that you have in the house, which has everything from pliers to safety pins to Blu-Tack, and it disappears in there,” Tríona notes wryly. “Luckily, we were able to do this as an omós [honour] to Mícheál, to remember him and to remember his singing. To be in his presence.”

Keep ’er Lit: The Songs and Music of Mícheál Ó Domhnaillis out now on Gael Linn