A mandolin for all seasons – An Irishman’s Diary about Chris Thile

It was not without certain misgivings that I attended the National Concert Hall on Tuesday night to hear a performance by Chris Thile, described on posters as the world's "most remarkable mandolinist".

That was the problem, right there. The mandolin is a small instrument, not much bigger than a ukulele.

And its reputation, at least in solo performance, is not extensive either.

The proverbial list of “famous Belgians” (apologies to Belgium) would be a lot longer than most people’s catalogue of mandolin virtuosos.


It's true that Thile also comes equipped with great charisma. So much so that, having been a regular guest over the years on the long-running US radio show A Prairie Home Companion, he was named last autumn as host Garrison Keillor's permanent successor.

But commanding the stage of the National Concert Hall for a night, with no props other than the aforementioned member of the lute family, was something else. Surely he would have backing musicians?

Or, if not Keillor-style comic interludes, a few special guests?

No, it turned out. It was just him and the mandolin, throughout, performing Bach, bluegrass, Bob Dylan, a bit of Planxty, and several of Thile's own compositions, including a humorous but heartfelt apology for Donald Trump.

This all lasted almost two hours, without a break, and the effect was mesmerising.

Apart from one or two people who had to rush out at the end (presumably to the toilets), the standing ovation was unanimous.


If there was a minor disappointment in the programme, it was that Thile did not reprise his performance of

The Auld Triangle

, which achieved a degree of notoriety in these parts a few years ago.

The classic prison ballad featured on the soundtrack of the 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis by the Coen Brothers. And as you may recall, the lead singer was widely accused of murdering it, or at least the Dublin accent in which it was attempted.

But the crime was widely misattributed at the time to Justin Timberlake, whose famous fingerprints had been found at the scene. Timberlake had to take to Twitter to plead innocence because, although he was indeed one of the backing singers, the main vocals were by Thile.

And yes, the accent was a little off. But allegations of song murder were overstating the case. I would have let him off with manslaughter, because it was clearly well meant, and harmonically impeccable.

Also, if only in name, Thile's backing band, The Punch Brothers, sounded like they might have been fellow Mountjoy inmates with Brendan Behan and the unnamed composer from whom Behan inherited the song. In any case, lacking his accessories – I mean, backing singers – Thile did not attempt the ballad in the NCH.


His Planxty offering,

Pat Reilly

, was somehow more forgiving of a Californian accent. And it sat well with the mandolin, of course, having been reintroduced to the Irish song repertoire in modern times by one of Ireland’s best players of the instrument,

Andy Irvine


Of obscure origin, but presumed to be from the 19th century, Pat Reilly is a fine example of another traditional genre, the reluctant soldier ballad. But like many old songs, it has mutated frequently over the centuries, and now exists in several versions, with different titles to match.

The protagonist is sometimes Johnny Gallagher, sometimes Johnny Coughlan.

The geography ranges widely too, from Antrim to Waterford, via Longford. The common thread involves a young man short on career prospects and recruited against his better judgment. There is usually drink involved.

As Pat Reilly, it was included in one of the great 20th-century collections, Sam Henry's Songs of the People, first published in a epic series of columns for a Coleraine newspaper, the Northern Constitution, in the 1920s and 1930s. Henry's day job was as a revenue official, but he carried a fiddle with him everywhere he went and collected songs with his paperwork.

Disappointingly (if also sensibly, for a Northern newspaper), Henry avoided songs that were either political or bawdy. An apparent exception to the latter rule is one about “Spanking Maggie”. But on closer inspection, that turns out to be the name of a horse.

As for politics, regret about British army recruitment was not a disqualified subject, clearly.

In fact, speaking of horses, Pat Reilly is juxtaposed in Henry's book with a song called Black Horse, which looks like yet another variant. But in that case, the reluctant recruit is from Bushmills. And ironically, he seems to be the only one to have made his mistake sober.