The red mist of music

 

Farewell, you Barney, with the out- stretched hand.

Years ago for pleasure as you might understand.

Years ago for pleasure as you might all recall,

When Irishmen throughout the land were brothers one and all.

From repertoire of Eddie Butcher, as sung by Jacky Devenny

`I used to get approached every so often by RTE and what they want is a "house-trained, Irish-speakin', flute-playin' Northern Protestant". And when they find an Irish-speakin', house-trained, flute-playin' Northern Prod they're highly intrigued and say, "Isn't it wonderful?" you know, or else "Isn't it great to hear them playing our music?" So regales Gary Hastings, Church of Ireland rector of the parish of Aughaval in west Mayo. For him, traditional music cannot be annexed by political loyalty, it is the music of the island. In a 1998 Bord Failte magazine interview he describes it as an art that mediates material life and spirituality. He may use it to allegorise a theological point - "It's the same tune, but different, mutated by time and man" - or he will invoke biblical ponderousness to illuminate music's polemics - "We could sing, long before anyone taught us the words."

Gary Hastings grew up on the Woodstock Road in east Belfast. From no particular musical background, he learned to play the bagpipes at the age of 11 or 12. "The Boys' Brigade had a pipe band and I was in that for a year. I learned Abide with Me, Stand up for Jesus - and a wheen of damned things like that - but only for a year or so, and then I got sense. Puberty arrived and the pipes went out the window!" A child of the music revival, when he did begin to play flute, it was all down to him: "But it was a help, for when I came to play Irish music you were doing pretty much the same thing - only different. And I knew how to play a whistle, from the pipe chanter, so I learned it brave and fast. Then I got on to the flute, and, I know it's unfashionable to say, but I learned off Chieftains and Bothy Band records."

Attending university at Coleraine led him off the rails into temptation: "I went to university to do a degree in physics, and I learned the tin whistle instead. I discovered the world - wee girls and fags and drink - all at the one time!" Ciaran Curran (of Altan) was there at the time, and singers Brian Mullins and Padraigin Ni Uallachain. Len Graham was around too, singer Jackie Devenny, and accordionist Ciaran Kelly. Eddie Butcher of Magilligan was alive at the time and Joe Holmes was singing still. "There was nearly too much music about the place. But it was a great way to learn. Fermanagh hadn't been discovered yet, so I went down there a few times to Seamus Quinn, Mick Hoy (fiddlers), Eddie Duffy (flute) and Jim McGrath (accordion)." Then he visited Fermanagh flute player Cathal McConnell, of the group Boys of the Lough: "He taught me more in two days than I had learned in the whole of the two years before that - or for 10 years after that again. He showed me things on the flute - what you could do, how you do them, why you wouldn't do them. He was the makings of me, as far as I'm concerned."

Having thus seen the light, he drifted into playing with the Shaskeen Ceili Band for a while, then decided to do the job properly: "I went back to do a degree in Irish studies, and part of the thing was a course in folklore". The next three years continued the storm of sessioning, but in context. Essays required by the course led him into studying the Lambeg drum and fife. This demanded interviewing players and makers, leading him in a full circle back to Antrim flute player John Kennedy, Willie Nicholl and whistle player Willis Patton, "boys that I knew as good traditional players, but I never knew they fifed and drummed as well!" He collected tunes on these rambles, realising that a good chunk of marching music used the same tunes as dance music, played with a different rhythm. "I got 120 tunes, and only five or six of them were `party' tunes. And two of those were Republican!" He collected 6/8 tunes - but in hornpipe time, reels in hornpipe time as well - all dating to the previous century: "Things that might have been like Donegal Highlands before they were rehashed into fifing time. What it showed me is that Protestants in the early 1800s were playing jigs, reels and hornpipes. That might not seem strange to some people, but the Prods has forgot!"

He experienced the 1960s and the beginning of civil rights agitation as a transition. His parents' generation of Protestants had attended Clancys' concerts in the Kings Hall, but didn't follow through into traditional music because of its identification with "Irishness" and its revival over the rest of the island. For those Protestants who played, many dropped out over the period of the hunger strikes in 1983-4. "I was the only Fenian on the Linfield team, as the saying goes. But nobody ever worried about it until that business happened. Suddenly lads felt that there was things that would offend me. "I'd only one leg over the fence. I was still going home, so you could get shot awful handy, you know? You can't run with the hare and hunt with the hounds. Suddenly I discovered I was Prod. Because, up to that, I was just another boy doing Irish music."

Gary was neither attracted to the music because of its "Irishness" nor repulsed from it by the political associations of some of its players. His music was played for the craic, without agenda or purpose beyond social and aesthetic fulfilment. However, he was always aware that not too far back in the past of Protestant Ulster this was once just the "popular" indigenous music. Many incidents emphasised this. "I remember, in a bar in Enniskillen there was a man got up dancing - full, plastered, his legs was plaiting under him!

`And we were playing tunes and he started to dance and you could see that, though he was falling all over the place, he knew exactly what he was doing. He was late forties. He wasn't doing any stage stuff - he was doing real stuff. I was told he was an Orangeman from such and such a place. I says, `What's he doing that stuff for?' That's when I found out that the old dances had been preserved in some of the Orange halls, still went on, all the old stuff that had died out everywhere else."

In his position as rector, he is well aware of antecedents to this dual role of his chronicled by Francis O'Neill in 1913 - Parson Sterling of County Cavan, c. 1737, Rev Alex Nicholls of Leitrim, c 1825, Rev Robert Leech of Belturbet, c 1850. But he sees much more in the music than ideology. To his mind the "gimp" is the important thing, not virtuosity: "It's dance music. The best players are the ones who can get the right rhythm, and vary it slightly. Or hit it slightly `off' in the right way which emphasises it. "There are tunes that have the right rhythm and if you get the right speed on them they just fly for you. They near play themselves." Playing is also a social thing for him - sessions in Matt Molloy's pub once a week, or more often during the summer. "The break in between the tunes is the cement that keeps the tunes together. That's what gives it structure and what makes sense of it, more than the actual music itself. The music is part of a bigger thing. The people that give you the tunes and the connections you have with them are what gives them sense. Other than that, they're just a series of notes."

Gary's playing has a distinctive "burbling" sound, careful and precise. "It's just the way I do it. Generally I would be quite a precise kind of man. I've created variations without smothering my intentions. But there are other boys with music just dripping out of them - like Gabriel McArdle."

Mc Ardle is a signer and concertina player from Enniskillen, one of the musicians who, in Gary's book, has been born to it. "Everybody's a good musician sometimes - even the worst player in the world gets it right some night to play a tune the best. But if somebody is extremely musicial, they don't need to think about it much. They have a greater degree than, say, I would. So, my style is so measured because I have to watch what I'm doing to get it right! Some have to work at it and some can just do it."

He is happy to teach his own children the basics of music, but "I don't want to give them more than a bit". He doesn't think that it is any particular advantage for children to read music. "You didn't learn to write before you learned to speak. You can speak away but still be illiterate." Musicality, he explains, is a pressure which invades the psyche. Allen Feldman's interview with Teelin (Donegal) fiddler Con Cassidy is his image: `Con Cassidy said he learned the fiddle at six or seven. And Feldman said, `It must have given you great advantage?' And Con said: `No! That's not the case. " `No,' he says, `there's lot of fellas, and when they're 17 or 18, this kind of red mist comes down over them. And all there is in the world for them is music. And them's the best musicians! Them ones go `boom!' "That red mist came over me, completely. I had lost all control, everything went out the window except music. And I know other fellas, like Seamus Quinn, and he had the same phenomenon, like everything went out of his head except music. And that is definitely a great thing. You should still give a child the music basics and then leave them alone - they'll do what they want to do themselves - and if the explosion happens at 17, then they'll be fine, they'll have a wee bit of a start."

This has been one area of discussion between himself and fiddler Father Seamus Quinn. "We were chatting one time about it and we have the idea that we were `ordained musicians' rather than `musical priests'. Everybody has an identity, and I'm the boy who plays the flute. `Priest' is something that happened to me subsequently. Ordination is an acceptance of self and identity, not a denial of it."

However, despite the "social" aspect of the music, he is also aware that musicians rarely ever talk to each other meaningfully. He recalls a night with Dessie Wilkinson in Pat's Bar in Belfast many years ago: "There was nobody else there, and we didn't feel like playing. We'd known each other about 10 years, and he turns around to me and says, `Do you know something - I know bugger all about you.' And I says, `I don't know much about you either'. "So we sat and got quite stewed and found out about each other, and we were great mates after that. Up to that we were just boys who played tunes. You know musicians only in the context of tunes, and so that's why you class them as fiddle players and box players and stuff like that - it's a kind of freemasonry."

Stardom he sees as nothing new in traditional music. "We praise them because we want them to be there." He calls it the "Johnny Doherty syndrome", [after the famous Donegal fiddler]. "I remember being at a session at the Ballyshannon festival. The pub was full of boys - and they were scared to go near him (Doherty). People saw him as `one of the heads; he's on a different level, you know'. It's a different class of a thing in our music, you know, but there are boys who are seen as stars." A star would have to be a good player, in his book, "but there's also a bit of a legend too."

Gary Hastings might be one of the few traditional musicians to also be a Church of Ireland clergyman, but just as distinctive is the fact that, for a player of his class, he has never made a record. "I was never asked! Everybody has their way of looking at music and thinking about it, and in sessions you rarely ever get the chance to show what you particularly do, because most people are quite shy. "You're only allowed to play so much on your own, if you're with other musicians. But people indulge themselves on LPs. That's a nice thing to do, and I understand why they don't do it in sessions. An LP allows you to say, `Well, this is the way I see things and do things'. I like that. That's the only let-out our tradition has. You're not going to stick your head out in our tradition because everybody else would take it off ye, you know. That's just the way it works."

Blooming Meadows is published by Town House at £16.99