I’ve always felt that the sound of a fiddle is the closest thing to the human voice. It fills me with a kind of longing. A single jig can resonate with something akin to human joy. And a slow air is like the heart’s lament beneath the pain of human suffering. The fiddle speaks emotions that cannot be put in words.
Especially if I’m in a pub, and the lights are low and the fire is burning and I have a glass of whiskey to hand. Not lashings of whiskey, just small portions of a good single malt.
I’m happy to say that my intake of whiskey has greatly reduced over the years, and I can savour a single malt, drop by drop on the tongue, for as long as it would take a young lad to swallow a brace of pints.
But it’s the fiddle music that makes the whiskey sweeter. Like an ancient liturgy, alcohol triggers the mind into a slightly altered state. The fiddle invokes in the listener a quiet ecstasy; it turns young hearts to love and makes old folks smile and fall silent. Every tune is a remembrance of love.
I couldn’t imagine fiddle music played in anger. Nor could I imagine an angry fiddle player. Even at the higher end of the scale someone like Gorecki, who can evoke the hell of concentration camps and the grief of death in his symphonies, always uses strings to lament the absence of love. A violin can transcribe love on the walls of hell.
I was in Amharclann Gaoth Dobhair [Gweedore Theatre] one evening just after Christmas to celebrate the life of Jimmy Campbell, a master fiddle player from Glenties who died a year ago this month. The place was awash with musicians; boys and old men, young women and famous singers with accents from every part of Ireland and beyond.
It was an ocean of strings. A quiver of bows. A congress of fiddles.
Musicians appeared on stage one after another, sharing memories of Jimmy and what tunes he played in pubs, and houses, at wakes and weddings, and in the open air during lockdown.
In the bar at half-time I heard a man reciting the old yarn about Yehudi Menuhin. Apparently Yehudi was a friend of the painter Derek Hill and was on a visit to Glebe House near Churchill one evening when the painter suggested they go to the pub, where musicians were in full session.
So between one whiskey and another the great violinist was encouraged to offer a tune. And it is recorded that he was adept at reels and jigs, so when the master of ceremonies was closing the session and thanking all the musicians who came from far and wide, he particularly offered his gratitude to “Hudie McMenemin” for his contribution. The violinist had become one of the tribe.
When you draw the bow across the strings you become one with every woman, child and man who ever fingered that most elegant of all instruments; the tribe who live unfettered by mundane reality, because they have music.
There was a great fiddle player in Glangevlin who would play ‘til dawn without ceasing, and one night many years ago when he was still nimble on his feet and I was a young lad, and the room was drained of songs and stories, I rose to leave.
I sat into my old Cortina in the yard, but the musician followed me to the car, hopped up on the bonnet and began playing a waltz so lovely that I could do no more than return to the kitchen for more fun.
Stories around the fiddle are many and varied.
A musician once told me that his grandfather was such a poor fiddle player that it grated on his grandmother’s ears and in a terrible dispute one night in a cottage in east Galway where they lived, the fiddle ended up in the fire.
But the loveliest story I heard that night in Gaoth Dobhair was of a young couple long ago from Glenties who for their honeymoon took a train to Fintown 10 miles away, and then walked home. No other details were offered.
I could only imagine them walking through the summer night with stars dancing on the waters of Lough Finn below them, as they traced their way home by the mountain path. And perhaps they rested a while on the heather; their young hearts beating in harmony, like fiddles moving through a single jig.