Clare set: Frank McNally on two new books with a common thread

Irishman's Diary: Musicians bumped into each other on my desk via respective books

Con Ó Drisceoil is among Ireland’s leading practitioners of the comic ballad, an ancient art form. Photograph: from the cover of his book, Hunting the Hair, courtesy of TG4/Gradam Ceoil

Con Ó Drisceoil is among Ireland’s leading practitioners of the comic ballad, an ancient art form. Photograph: from the cover of his book, Hunting the Hair, courtesy of TG4/Gradam Ceoil

 

I can’t say for certain that Davoc Rynne and Con Ó Drisceoil have ever met in person, but the chances are very high. They’re both musicians, have been known to frequent Miltown Malbay, and must have attended thousands of trad sessions in Irish pubs over the years.  For all I know, they could be fierce enemies.

But either way, they bumped into each other on my desk earlier this week, via their respective, recently published books, which landed within hours of each other. Both are humorous reflections on Irish life. And whatever about the writers, the books have been getting on well.

Rynne’s collection of sketches, mostly prose, is called Strike a Light, starting as it does with childhood memories of a misadventure involving Tilley lamps, illuminators of Ireland in the years before electrification. The author was born in Prosperous, Co Kildare, in 1939, a son of not one but two well-known writers: Stephen Rynne and Alice Curtayne.

I realise that in forcing Messrs Rynne and Ó Drisceoil to share a column like this, I was taking liberties, if not risk

He has since spent half a century travelling Ireland as an antiques dealer while picking up a lot of priceless stories along the way. But his parallel vocation was as a tin whistle player, and like other whistle players before him, he eventually migrated to west Clare.

If you’ve visited the Cliffs of Moher in recent years, you may even have seen him performing. He’s one of the officially licensed buskers, and his love of Clare was consummated with a belated studio album, The Humours of Ennistymon, in 2012, although as he explains in another of his pieces, the birth was assisted by some old friends from Prosperous, the famous Moores.

Hunting the Hair, Ó Drisceoil’s collection, is by contrast mostly verse. That’s because the author is among Ireland’s leading practitioners of the comic ballad, an ancient art form.  He prefaces his latest collection (CD included), however, with short essays on how each came about. Hence for example the title song, which considers the options facing men of a certain age when their hair begins to go.

Combover

These range from the shave-it-all-off school to the much maligned combover. And Ó Drisceoil mentions from his impressive researches a 2011 novel, Il Riporto (The Combover) by the Argentinian-Italian writer Adrian Bravi, which makes a strong case for the defence.  But novels are the Argentinian-Italian approach. The Irish way of dealing with hair loss is to write a dozen humorous verses about it, singable in bars, as the composer has done here.

Born in Skibbereen, and a sufficiently broadminded Corkman to have made the songs of Kerry a speciality, Ó Drisceoil is no stranger to west Clare.  His previous epics include one on a semi-mythical lifeform, The Miltown Cockroach. And on a more spiritual level, his new collection features a posthumous tribute to yet another music lover who ended up in Clare, song collector Tom Munnelly.

Atheist

Munnelly was a committed atheist, so as far as he was concerned, he ended up there in every respect, even negotiating a “godless” funeral service in Miltown Malbay before he went.  But in The Judgement of Munnelly, Ó Drisceoil considers what might happen if he wakes somewhere to find himself face-to-face with St Peter.

The shock would be great, he guesses, although before agreeing to enter paradise, Munnelly would surely seek certain assurances about the music.  Song collectors suffer a lot for their vocation, listening to large amounts of dross for every worthwhile find. Hence St Peter having to guarantee him that exposure to choirs of angels will be strictly limited.

Speaking of uneasy company, I realise that in forcing Messrs Rynne and Ó Drisceoil to share a column like this, I was taking liberties, if not risks.  Still, I suspect a lifetime of music sessions has inured them to such indignities.

In fact, that great Irish institution is the subject of one of Rynne’s essays, The Trad Session, which mimics the swirl of the music itself as strangers of varying proficiency combine and recombine over several hours, with constantly shifting chemistry.

As for Ó Drisceoil, his book has been out since last year. But he sent it to me in connection with a forthcoming concert.  On that occasion, at least, he knows exactly who else will be on the bill: piper Ronan Browne and fiddle-player Kevin Glackin, both joining him on July 27th in Naul, Co Dublin.  The venue is the Séamus Ennis Arts Centre, and the event is part of a series celebrating the centenary of the eponymous musician, who would have been 100 in May.

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