LOCATING musician and central influence of the ongoing renaissance in traditional Irish music

LOCATING musician and central influence of the ongoing renaissance in traditional Irish music. Donal Lunny in one of Dublin's smaller hotels, is far more difficult than might be anticipated. As I walk around in circles searching for him, the "it's not my problem" receptionist is less than helpful. As this mini farce unfolds under the watching gaze of an English businessman, the incident is more embarrassing than it should be. The performer of whom singer Christy Moore announced there is no bigger thing in Irish music arrives sharp features, neat, organised, with mobile phone at the ready.

Briefcase in hand Lunny looks like a man about to take control. But he fails to reverse the receptionist's unusual attitude" towards the public. Booking in to this hotel must be a real challenge, a test of diplomacy and nerves.

This is a strange place, he says in a whispered aside. Conceding defeat he retreats with pointed politeness. His businessman's demeanour disappearing he relaxes and reverts to being a musician. The interview takes place in a corner. Tea arrives and the teapot slides across the table in its own generous spillage. There is only one saucer. No one complains.

When Teilifis, na Gaeilge opens on October 31st, the first of a 13 part series of Sult, a music programme presented by Lunny, will be broadcast. I'm the typicl wooden faced talking head, presenting this traditional music show, he says. Presenting appears to have become an occupational hazard for performers. Lunny agrees: "It is dangerous but a lot of performers do end up fronting shows you find yourself learning how to do it on the way. "He also performs on the show as well as introducing guests, such as Elvis Costello, Van Morrison and Mark Knopfler, in a convincingly casual way.


Delighted to be involved in an Irish language show although an English language version has also been prepared he says, "we recorded links and interviews in English during the shoot. There's no audience yet there was real atmosphere, with the cameramen joining in, applauding the performances. I think the whole idea of Teilifis na Gaeilge is brilliant. It sounds cliched I know, but Raidio na Gaeltachta gave the Irish language a voice, Teilifis na Gaeilge will give it a face. Having the station reflects the proliferation of Irish in recent years, particularly among young people, among children. There is a whole new generation of Irish language speakers now.

His conversation is impressionistic. Lunny is not, a particularly intense man. There is nothing of the nervy artist about him he conceals the fact that he is actually very driven. Nor does he see himself as a tormented soul, engaged in some mythic quest. There is no pretence. That music has been his life is a statement of fact. He plays bouzouki, bodhran, keyboards, mandolin and guitar and is a working session musician, not a prima donna. There are no eccentric digressions, no diversions. He tends to approach a subject from its vaguest, most general aspects, before gradually moving towards the specific where he is precise without being dogmatic. While his views on music are clearly defined, questions about himself are treated as a series of little surprises He stops, thinks, thinks aloud and then replies.

Aware of the difficulties of speaking about something as abstract as music, he stresses his belief in maintaining the natural character of traditional music. "It's an absolute thing, much as a spoken language is, with its own dialects, accents and nuances. I would say that Irish music to me is a form of expression just as a language is and I have never found it wanting in range of expression." Of the hazards involved when attempting to modernise music, whether Irish or otherwise, he says. "Contemporary forms superimposed on Irish music more often than not, don't work because the music loses, its identity. My attitude is that the music itself supplies all the information. If the inspiration comes from the original music, it's more likely to succeed." According to Nuala O Connor, documentary film maker and traditional Irish music critic, Lunny in common with Sean O Riada, is part of that daring yet sensitive modernising of traditional music. "Donal Lunny is a Person for the fine detail she, says and adds, he is also a great facilitator of music and, a wonderful producer both of instrumentalists and singers. She offers the Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill album No Dowry (1992) as a particularly good example of Lunny the producer working with voice.

HE was raised in a bilingual household. "We picked up Irish before English. I'm not a native speaker but my mother spoke Irish to us as babies. She had only learned English, when he was 13 and she still thinks in Irish. So it was natural for her, to speak it with us. She is from Ranafast in the Donegal Gaeltacht. My father was from Enniskillen but had learnt to speak Irish through visiting the Donegal Gaeltacht." His father worked for the ESB Lunny was born, in Tullamore in 1947 and spent his first five years there. All I can remember of it is that it seemed a huge place, because I was so tiny at the time." From Tullamore the family moved to Kildare where Frank Lunny began working for Bord na Mona. "I went to the local national school and then on to Newbridge College where I did very badly. I was a failed rugby player." Life improved when he moved to the Patrician Secondary, also in Newbridge, for his Inter Cert. He won a scholarship to the National College of Art and Design, studying graphic design. "My securing of the scholarship was certainly helped by my Irish." His interest in music had a slow start. "When we moved to Newbridge, I began taking piano lessons with a German woman. She had no patience, so I began avoiding the classes at first by pretending to be ill and then by telling my parents I didn't want to do it any more. It was quite an achievement at that age to be able to convince my parents that I didn't want to do something." Between the ages of about five and 15 there is a definite gap in Lunny's musical career. But I listened to the radio constantly. It was always on. My father played classical music Programmes. My brothers and sisters discovered Radio Luxembourg. And so rock and roll came into the house." He loved it. And I heard some jazz along the way. It fascinated me because of its comparative elusiveness its unusual sounds and chords. Maire, Sheila and Evelyn, my sisters, had continued their piano lessons and I sometimes learnt the music they were playing by ear. He still doesn't read music.

"I'm self taught and if I need to read music I have to get help. Of his younger self he says "I was, very dishevelled. I spent a lot of time walking through the country side, through the fields and woodlands. Well really, I was trespassing on farmers property. I used, to spook cattle and rob orchards, catch fish. That's how I spent my youth. I still enjoy it. The countryside I mean, not trespassing." Despite its slow start his career in music has dominated his life. "I've never had to do a day's work outside of music" aside from a brief spell, as a silversmith. He began playing in local gigs at Prosperous, about 10 miles from his home. On graduating from NCAD, he formed Emmet Spiceland. Its gentle, folk harmony sound made it the first group to bring Irish music into the Irish pop charts.

By 1971 Christy Moore who was two years ahead of him at school in Newbridge had returned from London and formed Planxty out of the nine musicians who played on his second solo album Prosperous. "If one were to choose one word to describe the essential quality of Planxty it was lyricism," Lunny says.

Planxty proved a major influence on The Chieftains and later The Waterboys. In 1975 The Bothy Band emerged, which soon, became synonymous with dynamic performances and a line up merging fiddle, flute, and pipes with a powerful acoustic rhythm section. According to Nuala O'Connor, The Bothy Bands was the traditional ensemble prototype, a meteorite that quickly crashed to Earth in 25 years they have never been superseded." MEANWHILE, inhabiting another solar system was Moving Hearts, a non-acoustic combination of traditional and rock instrumentation in which Lunny electrified the bouzouki. Moving Hearts very quickly took on a life of its own, veering sharply towards rock music "whereas," Lunny stresses, "I would have preferred if it had adapted more closely to Irish music. Some of the musicians were more used to playing con, temporary rock and other forms. But as I've said before, I have no regrets about having been in Moving Hearts and I believe we made serious inroads in the right direction towards Irish music.

Having been in so many different bands and ed with musicians from many different musical backgrounds, is there a danger that collaboration diminishes rather than expands a musician?" Yes, there is a real danger. It can cause a losing of focus.

On the other hand, it can be part of a great learning experience which is how I view my musical travels.

In 1970, singer and, in Lunny's words indefatigable world traveller gave Lunny his first Andy Irvine bouzouki. The Greek bouzoki is only about 200 years old I think it may have been born of the Italian mandolin. I then had one made for me." The instrument he commissioned from Peter Abnett a guitar maker in Kent is a modified version of the original instrument. In Greece it would he hardly recognisable as a bouzouki. I found the round back hard to grab I don't think it has the same attack. Mine is flat backed and strung differently and it's a bit smaller. It seems to have become known as the Irish bouzouki." He feels it is the instrument that allows him most freedom. "It took over from the guitar because it felt more compatible in accompanying Irish music." As a performer, Lunny possesses an energetic, attacking style. He also formed Orcheilteach, Ireland's first folk orchestra in 1988. As for Lunny the innovator, Nuala O'Connor says "He has changed the way an entire generation of Irish people heard traditional music. By modifying the Greek bouzouki it became more sensitive to the harmonic and rhythmic possibilities of Irish traditional music. On that instrument he developed a new and unique style of playing which was a combination of rhythm and counter harmonies. It laid down, the basis for a form of accompaniment which is now standard practice and unmistakably Lunny." In 1969, he married Judy Slott, a Californian. They had a son. But the marriage ended after seven years. Judy works in the film business and Oisin is a musician. His instruments are piano and guitar. He has also been programming the music with a group called the Marxman. He's 27 now and we've already worked together on albums. He had a long relationship with actress and award winning playwright, Gina Moxley and they lived together for several years.

Cora, Donal Lunny's daughter with Julia Buthe, has already distinguished herself as a gifted classical violinist. Cora is 14 and has been trained for the past year by the Russian violinist Rimma Sushanskaya. Having won three senior awards at this year's Feis Maitiu, Cora is representing Ireland later this month at the gala performance of the British Federation of Festivals at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. Cora playing began when Julia met Sophie Hartigan who introduced them to the Suzuki method. Julia doesn't have a musical background but she has become very interested in it. This has been very helpful for Cora. For the gala performance, Cora will perform Sarasate's virtuoso piece, Zigeunerweisen.

I'm delighted that my children are musical I love them both dearly," he says.

IN 1994 Lunny and Sharon Shannon composed and produced the music for Runaway, a BBC, two part drama which Lunny describes as a romantic comedy thriller about smuggling arms from the States to the Middle East via Shannon". Sharon Shannon also featured on The Common Ground album while Lunny is currently doing some production on her forthcoming album. Over the past year they have begun a relationship. "It is long distance Sharon lives in Galway.

Touring Japan this summer with Liam O Maonlai, Marie Brennan and Sharon Shannon, who all featured on The Common Ground album, as well as "some of my other favourite artists", was an interesting experience particularly because of his fascination with percussion. "Apart from an interview trip undertaken earlier this year, I had never been to Japan." They played in Tokyo and Osaka. "But the main purpose of the visit was to play at the Earth Celebration Festival, an annual event organised by the Kodo Drum Ensemble on their native island of Sado. We performed as the Earth Celebration Band and then played with the Kodo drummers themselves. There wasn't much time for rehearsal." Rhythmic connections could be made, he says, between the Kodo style and Irish music "Kodo playing is a unique combination of a discipline which is reminiscent of a martial art, brilliantly co-ordinated with a greater sense of dynamics.

Aside from music, he is a talented cartoonist and reads fiction. "If I like a writer I tend to read all their books. I admire the American naturalist and novelist, Peter Matthiessen he's amazing, very diverse" and Lunny seems to have read most of his books. "I also like Iain Banks his sci-fi, as well. There's a lot of good science fiction about but when it's bad, it's really terrible, self indulgent. Let me see, I've read too many Anne Rice books. I love Joyce. He stops and laughs at the surprised tone with which he, has just spoken. "Another writer I'm very interested in is J.G. Ballard, for his imagination he's a real original first came across him through his science fiction short stories.

Longevity appears to be a characteristic of traditional Irish music performers. At first he seems shocked at this. "There is a legion, of talented young Irish traditional musicians playing. Though, yes, there are many performers in their 40s and 50s." This could be as a result of the less frenetic lifestyle, also assisted by its being played as music for its own sake. "It is not as subjected to trends, the way rock and pop are.

Donal Lunny will be 50 in March where does he see his music heading? I'm close to realising a form of Irish music I'm actually happy with. I have ideas about percussion and bass that I haven't yet managed to realise. I have some interesting experiments coming up." During the past 10 years he has become increasingly involved in producing as well as playing and composing music for theatre, TV dramas and documentaries. "It is a sporadic kind of busy, my busy. Sometimes, I think I'm not as busy as people tend to think I am. I guess you could say I work in spasms, waves does that sound odds"

Eileen Battersby

Eileen Battersby

The late Eileen Battersby was the former literary correspondent of The Irish Times