When the piper met the poet

Louis de Paor’s award- winning collection finds a vibrant new form in combination with Ronan Browne’s music

Louis de Paor’s award- winning collection finds a vibrant new form in combination with Ronan Browne’s music

EVOLUTIONARY THEORY thrives in the latest work from poet Louis de Paor and musician Ronan Browne. Revisiting his award-winning collection, Agus Rud Eile De/And Another Thing, de Paor hankered after an opportunity to stretch and bend the word in new ways: seeking out the company of music and letting his work find its feet on new ground.

Breathing new life into words smelted more than 10 years ago, de Paor found his ideal dance partner in Browne, whose pipes, whistles and eclectic sound samples (many of which were composed around the same time that the poems were written, in the late 1990s) responded to, rather than echoed, de Paor’s poetry.

Agus Rud Eile De/And Another Thingis a weighty affair, its preoccupations of loss and separation lure the reader and listener into a world hewn of rich and ragged relationships. It fingers not just the minor celebrations of everyday life (learning to ride a bicycle, planting a tree), but its quotidian hurts too. De Paor hungrily sought to recast these poems in a way that might celebrate the elusive shafts of light that he was convinced lurked deep within.


“My feeling was: let the words carry their own particular burden,” de Paor recounts, “but let us, with the music, find a lighter way because while all of the poems confront a certain darkness, they always try to move back towards the light, like that Leonard Cohen line ‘There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in’. I think the music was trying to bring the voice towards that light.”

De Paor’s latest publication is a book with his poems in their original Irish, cheek by jowl with their English translation, accompanied by a CD recording of 11 of the original poems in a new musical setting, with a selection of paintings from artist Kathleen Furey further underscoring the work.

This multimedia project renders de Paor’s work more accessible to a non-Irish speaker, although he is adamant that this wasn’t his primary goal.

“It wasn’t about using music as a kind of a sweetener or a distraction,” de Paor insists, “or something to muffle the poem or persuade the listener that it was ‘nice’ or ‘pretty’. It was about the music extending its resonance, moving in the same direction, emotionally and otherwise.”

The pair first came together just six months ago at the instigation of singer Mary McPartlan, who runs the expansive Arts in Action programme in NUIG. Last week, they completed a whistle-stop promotional tour, and found themselves in the echoing environs of Trinity College’s Exam Hall, where Browne last played support as a 14-year-old solo piper to Planxty.

Seeing and hearing them perform live, all three dimensions came in to sharp relief, and it’s abundantly clear that Browne, the piper and musical conjurer, isn’t in service to the poetry, but is responding viscerally to it. De Paor divulges that there were challenges in their collaboration too, one of which was finding a common language.

“I’ve been around lots of musicians but I don’t speak the way they speak to one another,” he says, “so we had to find a new way of talking. There were times when I had no idea what instrument Ronan had just played but somehow we found a way to do it.”

Poetry and piping have had a distinguished recent history, in particular in the hands of Seamus Heaney. De Paor and Browne were careful not to submit to any temptation to grandstand.

Browne smiles, recalling the push and pull of their heady partnership in full flight. "We used The Flower Of Magherallyand where once it stood out proud, with one of us following the other, we realised it was much better with both of us at the same time."

The pair laugh at what could have been Browne’s “only chance to shine” with his big solo. Somehow it was never about ego, but always about what worked for both the words and music.

Browne, from his days with the Afro Celts to his close musical kinship with Peadar O’Loughlin and his recordings with Cran, has revelled in a chameleon-like ability to morph to his environment.

“All through my musical life, I’ve been a handicapped chameleon,” he smiles, “because I don’t have [formal] musical training. I’m quite happy to change my colour, but the colour might be yellow but with a bluey tinge. I like being on the edge, so that when I do move towards somebody, I’m out of my comfort zone. I much prefer that. I get bored if things are too predictable or too easy.”

Agus Rud Eile De/And Another Thingis published by Cló Iar-Chonnachta, €14

Siobhán Long

Siobhán Long

Siobhán Long, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about traditional music and the wider arts