West Kerry has long had a strong association with great dance music. The polkas and slides of Sliabh Luachra infiltrate the fabric of its being.
But the region has produced more than its share of fine voices and singers over the years, too, from the Begley family en masse (Séamus, Breanndán, Máire, Josephine, Eileen et al) to Eilís Ní Chinnéide, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and scores of others.
Oddly, though, some of the region’s singers have willingly played second fiddle to the music, mostly because the drive to play for dancers has taken precedence over the intimacies of the solo song.
Séamus Begley has long been known for his boisterous box playing and his bawdy wit. As a young singer, skirting around the periphery of sean nós singing competitions, he was initially dismayed to be told “tá do guth ró bhinn” (your voice is too sweet). In his heart, he knew he wasn’t a sean nós singer. What he has is a weightless voice, capable of mining the depths of a song in much the same manner that he does a tune with his accordion playing.
Dancers have long distracted this man from his songbook. As a result, it has taken him 66 years to finally set his accordion aside (albeit temporarily). The Bold Kerryman is a snapshot of Begley the singer in all his intimate glory. On tales of love and mercy, he has finally let that devil-may-care mask down long enough to let the songs find their feet.
"I was going to call it My Heroes," Begley says, buoyant on the back of a performance the previous night at Bantry's Masters of Tradition festival. "Nioclás Tóibín was my hero. Luke Kelly was my hero. My mother and father were my singing heroes. I have so many of them."
First singing tour
This latest gig (hot on the heels of his recent reunion with Steve Cooney, and his success with Oisín Mac Diarmada and Téada, with whom he has been playing at home and away for the past few years) sees Begley basking in the luxury of his songbook and teeing up his first singing tour.
“I’ve never done a singing gig,” he says, with a mixture of surprise and frustration, “and I’ve always wanted to sing songs all night, because there are 100,000 songs that I want to sing. My mother and father were mad about Bing Crosby and Marty Robbins and Jim Reeves.
"If only we had recordings of the sessions we had in the kitchen when I was young. They were fantastic singers: everything from An Droighneán Donn to White Christmas. They weren't a bit purist. If they loved a song, they sang away. And if it hits me there [he thumps his chest], that's my judge."
Busier than ever
Timing is everything, and Begley’s got it right, he reckons. His voice is in better shape than ever. “I’m doing a tour. It’s going to coincide with the free travel. I won’t have to drive anywhere,” he says with a glint in his eye.
“I’ve never in my life been as busy. At 66. My musical world took off at pension age. And when Oisín [Mac Diarmada] asked me to join Téada, I never thought that at 62 years of age I’d be joining a boyband. It’s been fantastic.”
John Reynolds, Sinéad O’Connor’s drummer, and a producer who has worked with Talking Heads, Brian Eno and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, lured Begley to his Kilburn studio, where they spent an intense week recording songs of Begley’s choosing.
“I had heard Séamus’s voice years ago in his shebeen [Begley’s music parlour in Cuas],” Reynolds says of his first encounter. “He was singing very intimately with Pauline Scanlon. He is a huge strong man but his voice has the most tender tone. I got hooked and have loved hearing him sing ever since. We talked about songs and what they meant to him. He has great knowledge of the history and journey of the songs. That’s why he sings them so brilliantly; he means every word.”
Reynolds was alive to the nuances that needed to be protected in the studio. “We discussed recording, and I knew it was important to keep the feeling of freedom in recording. We started with just the voice – no music, no click, no fuss, just a drone for tuning – and it’s quintessential Begley. He enjoyed the process and that really comes through when listening to the album. That was my job. Then Tim Edey came in and played amazing guitar and piano, and that sealed it. This is a beautiful album of the songs Begley loves, sung as if he were singing into your ear.”
The Dempsey duet
A standout is his duet with Damien Dempsey on The Banks of the Sweet Primroses. "Damo's the most soulful man I've ever come across," Begley says. "I remember him leaving my house at 7 o'clock one morning, after a night of singing, and he walked up the road and looked back at the Three Sisters [a trio of windswept mountains cradling Ballydavid and Ballyferriter] and he said, 'How could you not sing and play with that inspiration around you?' "
There's a surprising Scottish influence at play in The Bold Kerryman, and a mix of song choices that will catch the listener by surprise.
Will You Go to Flanders is a ravaging tale from the poppy-strewn battlefields of the first World War that Begley got from John Faulkner. "The rich people [of Flanders] would take their friends to the top of the mountains to watch the battle," Begley says. "They'd be drinking wine and brandy: this was entertainment for them. 'You'll hear the ladies cry, as they watch the soldiers die my Molly O.' I think the writer was being sarcastic, but it brings tears to my eyes when I sing that last verse."
Begley has already corralled his next slew of songs for another solo recording. There will be a few surprises there too.
"One song I want to record so badly is from Verdi's La Traviata. I heard it when I was young and I'm trying to find the English words now. I know nothing about his music, but I love it all the same. As a friend of mine used to say long ago, 'Bach and Beethoven are ruining the music'."
For a musician long known in traditional music circles, and indeed farther afield, for his wit and repartee, The Bold Kerryman is a surprising, soul-baring album.
“I’ve exposed myself to the world,” Begley agrees wholeheartedly. “But these are songs that I like singing. They might be a bit emotional, but I love them. And anyway, I’m 66 now. I have nothing to lose.”
- The Bold Kerryman is out now on Independent Records, irl.org.uk