By rights, this album probably shouldn’t exist at all. Before it was even an idea, there was a major stumbling block in its way: the artist himself. Tony MacMahon is one of traditional music’s most influential living exponents, with a performance career that goes back to the 1950s. Yet, 60 years later, he has recorded only a handful of albums, mostly from live performances (in one case, without him even knowing he was being recorded), and there are more than 30 years between his first and second solo albums.
One factor in that dearth of output is the time MacMahon dedicates to other musicians, to promoting their careers, thinking about them, helping them: he spent nearly three decades making music programmes for RTÉ. In my experience of dealing with him, his instinct is always to put others first, to the extent that it feels like some form of a penance he is doing.
Another factor is his rather dark psychology, as evidenced, for instance, by his open interest in assisted suicide. MacMahon has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and more recently dystonia. He is open about his struggles with bipolar disorder, and the resulting mood changes can make it difficult for him these days to maintain enthusiasm for and decisiveness about projects with which he is involved.
A final, probably related, underlying factor is his lifelong lack of confidence in his music-making. He confesses in his yet-to-be published memoirs: “I grew ashamed of my accordion. I used to plead with others to carry it for me; I couldn’t be seen near it, in case people would ask me to play.”
Further on, he suggests that all the accordions in Ireland should be committed to the deepest bog, bar one which should be kept “in order to remind people of the pestilence that was, and to dissuade, by practical demonstration, anyone tempted to commit future musical sin.”
It was Peadar Ó Riada who first suggested to him that he should record an album of slow airs. Ó Riada says that "it was only to . . . keep him thinking positively of the future" when he first had trouble with his hands, as a result of his illness. Ó Riada felt that if Mac Mahon "could direct his thoughts and energy into music . . . he would be the better for it."
It would be his magnum opus, Ó Riada suggested, and such a grandiose idea frightened MacMahon. Being pathologically insecure about his art, he felt that such things as opuses were “for greater beings than me”.
And so it looked dead and buried. Then, in 2008, the fiddle player Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh suggested the same idea. “I first met Tony in 1996,” he says, “and in the years that followed, he became a great mentor and friend to me. A regular feature of our meetings was listening to and discussing recordings, be they old tapes of musicians from this country, or music across a considerable geographic and cultural spread. Now and again this might include Tony’s own music.”
Some of that music came from his 2001 album, MacMahon from Clare. Ó Raghallaigh felt that while there was wonderful music on that record, "Tony still had a major artistic statement in him, one last great album, a serious statement from a serious artist.
“And yet Tony had great trouble thinking of himself as a serious artist, riddled as he is with self-doubt about the worth of his music. It is truly mind-boggling that someone like him would have so little confidence in himself, but many of the great artists seem to suffer a similar fate.”
After Ó Raghallaigh’s “gentle but persistent persuasion”, MacMahon agreed to work on the album, and over three days in early November 2009, he made his way from his home off Meath Street in the Liberties to St Audoen’s Church, Cornmarket in Dublin, to record his repertoire of Irish laments.
“It seemed to me the right place for him to confront himself as an artist: a cold, hard, lonely environment, one with no distractions, and a whole dark world of depth of feeling,” says Ó Raghallaigh.
It was a risk. MacMahon’s hands were just starting to affect his playing at that stage, and on the recording you can hear him occasionally complaining of pain. But he responded to the challenge and, without any artificial light, and just a single candle to focus his attentions on, he played on, digging in the shadows.
“Caoimhín inhabited my head,” MacMahon recalls. “I seemed to know what he was thinking about the music and vice versa. With any other producer, I wouldn’t have been able to play as well, or put up with the pain in my hand . . . I owe whatever is good in the playing to Caoimhín’s insight and his presence in my mind during each note played.”
Along with a digital record of the entire session, Ó Raghallaigh came out with a spiral-bound A4 notebook of notes on each take – all 47 of them, over 19 different pieces of music.
I was helping MacMahon with his memoir, and when he told me about this recording, although I realised the importance of it right away, I wasn't sure I could help. There was another album he was more interested in, anyhow: a recording of a concert he gave with Steve Cooney in Spiddal in 2005 (he wanted Cooney to earn some money from it).
I had started working with musician-producer Jack Talty on his record label, Raelach Records, and we released the Spiddal album, Scaoil Amach an Pocaide, in 2014. It sold well and became the basis for working on the slow airs album.
It's a story for another day how close the project came to foundering so many times. But on November 20th, at a tribute concert in his honour in Dublin City Hall, Tony MacMahon's magnum opus, Farewell to Music, was officially launched. MacMahon got up on stage on the night and, reluctant though he was, in true folk style, he played for us – a teary-eyed yet enraptured audience – a beautifully delicate rendition of the dramatic O'Carolan piece that gives the album its title and gave the moment a poignancy we hardly knew how to take in.
As Caoimhín has put it to me since: “Big stuff.”
Paul O'Connor is label manager at Raelach Records. Tony MacMahon's Farewell to Music is available on raelachrecords.com and in record shops