Soundtrack Of A Photograph, Part 6

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DONEGAL ROOTS

“Tiocfaidh an samhradh agus fasfaidh an fhear
Tiocfaidh an duilliar ghlasar bharr na gcraobh”

“Summer will come and the grass will spring
And the trees will bring forth their foliage green”

As I write this in the last week of January 2014, the New York area, and indeed much of the United States is in a deep Arctic freeze, with snow and bitterly cold temperatures and winds that cut right through even the warmest clothing. That makes people long for some warmer weather, green grass and for the trees and flowers to bloom. Which brings to mind the traditional Irish song quoted above, Tiocfaidh An Samhradh, Summer Will Come, which certainly does the job transporting you to a warmer place in your mind on a bitterly cold day. The origins of the song are from one of my favorite places on earth, and it is a place to which I have strong family ties to. .

County Donegal in Ireland holds a very special place in my heart. My mom was born and raised in Donegal and once encountered; the landscape and the people stay with you. I have been to Ireland several times, but truth be told, other than some day trips outside Dublin, the only place I have really spent time in and become familiar with in Ireland is Donegal, especially the area near Cill Charthaigh, better known as Kilcar, where my mom grew up. Some day I want to explore more of Ireland but having so much family around in Donegal, there never seemed to be much of a point in doing so. Being there never feels like a burden, but rather a treat. It is often described as wild and timeless, the presence of the Atlantic Ocean never far amidst the sparse landscape and rugged hills. Though the usual modern intrusions are there now, it still feels unique and ancient somehow. The photographs I am using here have been taken on different trips there over the years. The wonder of Donegal and Ireland in general is that there are so many places where one can take the same photograph they took 30 years ago and have it look unchanged save for changes in photo technology.

Slieve League, 1983
Slieve League, 1983
Slieve League, 2008
Slieve League, 2008

Another thing that has remained a constant in Donegal over the years is traditional music. Donegal is one of the areas in Ireland that has a strong Gaeltacht presence (meaning an Irish speaking region). That has helped keep Donegal music firmly grounded and to me for well over 25 years now there has been no better Irish traditional group than Altan, whose roots lie in Donegal. Going over the history of Altan for this edition, I began by looking at their origins, which started with an album by a young couple in 1983, the same year that I went to Ireland for the first time. It was called Ceol Aduaidh by Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh on fiddle and vocals, and Frankie Kennedy on flute. Frankie Kennedy came from Belfast, and Mairead came from Gweedore, further up in Donegal than Kilcar, but also in a Gaeltacht area. A follow up album by the two in 1987 was called Altan, and shortly after, that became the name of the group.

Though there seems to be a bottomless well of talent in Irish music, Altan has always stood out for me in several ways. First and foremost is the distinctive pure clean voice of Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh. She is one of the finest interpreters of Gaelic song, in addition to the occasional ballads or modern songs in English she sings. I think she will be viewed as a pivotal singer of the Gaelic language for years and years to come in fact. But, she is also a double threat, as one of the greatest in a long line of great fiddle players from Donegal. Certain areas in Ireland seem to be known for particular things, be they accordions, pipes, or even singing styles. Donegal is known for fiddle players and also a style of playing the fiddle. The bowing technique most Donegal fiddlers use is distinctive once one listens to enough of the music, and there are many masters of the instrument. Source musicians like John Doherty, Con Cassidy and Mickey and Francie Byrne and more provided the inspiration and tunes to a slew of modern Donegal players like the great Tommy Peoples, Seamus Gibson, Liz Doherty, Paula Doohan, as well as Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and another fiddle player in Altan, Ciaran Tourish.

Which is another reason Altan has stood out for me is because they have two fiddle players in the band (at one point they even had 3!). Altan’s typical accompaniment to both song and tunes are guitar, bouzouki, flute or whistle, but with the twin fiddle sound it gives them a larger, fuller sound compared to most other Irish groups. Tune sets are more energetic, and on the ballads they are able to accomplish something almost like a string section.

The third reason I find them special is that they seem to have always had an affinity for mid-tempo songs and tunes, and I think that is a bit of a rarity these days. Instead of every tune set being played at a 100mph string breaking, bow shredding pace, Altan slows them down occasionally allowing the details of the tune to come out. Folk music is often about beautiful melodies, and though there is nothing quite like a foot stomping, fling your partner around the room set of jigs and reels, there is an intricacy to the tunes that gets lost sometimes when played fast.

Lough Eske, Donegal
Lough Eske, Donegal

“Ta me mo shui o d’eirigh’ n ghealach areir
Ag cur teineadh sios gan scith ‘s a fadu go gear
Ta bunadh a ti ‘na lui ‘s ta mise liom fein
Ta na coligh ag glaoch ‘s ta ‘n saol ina gclodladh ach me

“I have not slept since the moon lit the heavens last night
Just setting the fire and stroking the ember to light
The household’s retired and I am left here to sigh
The roosters are crowing all the world is asleep barring I”

When next I came to Ireland, 13 years later in 1996, Altan had released several albums and were considered to be one of the best exponents of Irish music worldwide. This came despite the devastating loss of Frankie Kennedy, who succumbed to cancer in September of 1994. Apparently it was his desire that the band should continue on, and his legacy remains with many of the tunes Frankie played, as well as a traditional music school named in his honor-Scoil Ghemhridh Frankie Kennedy. As for me, as I mentioned in Part 1 of this blog, I was getting into all sorts of music at that point, but especially folk music. I went to see Altan a few times and the relationship was sealed, due in no small part to them being essentially a Donegal band. That connection came easily enough from the liner notes to their albums. Even though I had only been to Ireland a few times, the names scattered throughout the landscape of Donegal were known to me. Town names like Glencolumbcille, Ardara, Meenasilagh, Killybegs, Carrick and Teelin and even Kilcar were all places I knew, and here was a band that knew all those places too. Growing up in New Jersey, name dropping like that does not occur. Sadly there are no songs written about the “Road To Paramus” or the “Hackensack Highland” which proves that in places like Donegal the tradition of music was still going on, and thriving. Of course seeing Kilcar in the notes to an album was very exciting for me especially, and it has always been for one reason. Fiddle players Mickey and Francie Byrne came from Kilcar, and Altan has utilized many tunes from their repertoire over the years. Though I never met him, Francie Byrne was in fact a cousin to me through marriage!

Muckross Head, Kilcar Donegal
Muckross Head, Kilcar Donegal

A few years later I had returned again several times, and though there were the usual side trips again, it was always really a trip based around going to Donegal to explore the varied landscape. The harrowing heights of the sea cliffs at Slieve League, with the wonderfully named One Mans Pass trail across the top of it, not a place for the faint hearted.

The way up Slieve League
The way up Slieve League

A desolate road near Glencolumbcille, down a deep dark valley there is a place called Port, devoid of almost anything but stunning scenery. Dylan Thomas once spent time there in 1935.

Port, Donegal
Port, Donegal

The spiraling downhill slide into the town of Ardara via the Glengesh Pass, and the massive beach called Maghera.

Glengesh Pass, Ardara
Glengesh Pass, Ardara

Living history of another era on that can be discovered at the Folk Village in Glencolumbcille.

Glencolmcille Folk Village
Glencolmcille Folk Village

Bustling activity on the docks in Killybegs as the fishing boats come in.

Killybegs Trawlers
Killybegs Trawlers

Not to mention the constant reminder of the core Donegal industry on display everywhere you go throughout the county. Be it a green field or a precarious cliff, the constant presence of sheep is a reminder that you are in tweed country, some of the finest made in the land.

On the road to Teelin
On the road to Teelin

As I kept going back and seeing these sights along with a visit to a pub or ten and taking photographs with a string of dubious cameras I began feeling the sense of connection to the land that many others have felt. I remember standing on the unique rock formations at Muckross in Kilcar in 2002 or so and finally feeling like “I get it.” Ireland and Donegal were not just vacation destinations to me anymore. They were not just a place to go because I had lots of family there. It was now something deeper down. It was a feeling of connection to this place and a feeling of walking in the footsteps of generations of my family before me. I felt like I belonged there, and it felt right. But when reality sets in and you have to return home and go back to work, it is easy for those feelings to dissipate and to forget about those beautiful moments. For me, that is where photography comes in, but one thing I realize as this blog continues is that not only do I look at my photographs and hear a song in my head; I sometimes really NEED for that song to be there. It helps bring me back to that exact time with clarity, and I can relive the feeling over and over.

In the case of these photographs through the years, I realized there could only ever be one band that would continue to capture those feelings again and again and it had to be Altan. Though the focus here is not on one particular Altan song or set of tunes that is only because there are too many that bring that sense of being there back to me. The one thing I can say is that I began thinking about how that landscape made such a big musical connection for me. Not just the sea cliffs, not just the green fields and stone walls, not just the feel of the sea or the smell of a peat fire wafting in the distance. All of it conjures those thoughts, but in my earlier editions of The Soundtrack Of A Photograph I explored the idea that very specific things reminded me of songs-an old ship, derelict buildings and urban grime, or even solitary trees. So how could an entire landscape or area of the world have the same effect on me?

Waterfall near Maghera, Ardara
Waterfall near Maghera, Ardara

Years ago in college I was invited to a professor’s house one evening for dinner and conversation. His guest that evening was a poet and writer originally from Belfast called Ciaran Carson. We had recently read some of his poetry in a class on Irish literature, and somehow my professor had finagled a way to have him come to our campus followed by a meal afterword. Several years later I was at the Strand bookstore near the South Street Seaport (see Part 1) browsing when I came across a book called Last Night’s Fun by him. I did not hesitate buying it and began reading it immediately I seem to recall. It is a celebration of Irish music not in the academic sense, but in a more free flowing series of diversions and asides that one expects not only of a poet, but especially an Irish poet. It has wonderful narratives and insights into the world of traditional music. In doing research for this blog I looked at that book again the other day. In it I found Carson included a portion of his diary from 1982 that certainly helped answer my question.

Hallowe’en 1982: Teelin, County Donegal

“It is the morning after the night before and snatches of the night before-fiddle tunes, hubbub, the clink of glasses-keep filtering through from the memory-bank. We are driving out to the coast to clear our heads-or rather, up to the coast, towards Slieve League, the highest sea-cliff in Western Europe, following this precipitous erratic mountain road that winds between stone walls, potato drills, stone-littered patchy fields, one man idling over a spade who raises his hand in an understated rhetoric of hail or farewell, and the clouds piled high between mountains, while these fiddle tunes keep coming back insistently, hectic, passionate and melancholic; half-remembered fragments. The bits and pieces of the landscape sidle into place, accommodated by the loops and spirals of the road, its meditated salients and inclines: and now, as at other times, I wonder if the disciplined wildness of Donegal music has anything to do with this terrain. For nature, here, is never wholly pristine or untouched: the land is possessed and repossessed, named, forgotten, lost and rediscovered; it is under constant dispute; even in its dereliction, it implies a human history…In Donegal fiddle music, this unconscious irony is transformed into purposeful energy. It is a music of driving, relentless rhythm that teeters on the edge of falling over itself; it seems to almost overtake itself, yet reins in at the brink. A jagged melodic line is nagging at me as we arrive at a high promontory. The sea appears from nowhere. On the right, the immense absurd precipice of Slieve League falls into a tiny silent line of foam, some rocks. How far away is it? The eye has nothing to scale: a human figure, if you could imagine it against this, would be lost; that seagull hovering over there is either miles away, or just within reach. Turning back to the sea again, you can hear it, if you listen very closely: a vast lonesome whispering that stretches all the way to North America.”

Suddenly upon reading that again the other day it all resonated for me and I had my answer. The uniqueness of Donegal music coupled with the uniqueness of the Donegal landscape as seen through my camera lens with the music of Altan accompanying the photographs made sense now. The music was special because the landscape inspired it, which inspired me to take photographs of it. So rather than specific objects like a tree or a ship, it is the beauty of Donegal itself with the music of Altan that is the Soundtrack Of A Photograph for this edition.

With my mom, Malin Head Donegal, April, 1983
With my mom, Malin Head Donegal, April, 1983

Now I hope you will now go on and listen to this next clip of tunes….As a fictional tv character who shared a last name with me once said-Ah, go on….go on, go on! Buiochas!

Tiocfaidh an Samhradh-Traditional, arranged by Ni Mhaonaigh, Tourish, Byrne, Sproule
Ta Me Mo Shui-Traditional, arranged by Ni Mhaonaigh, Curran, Sproule, Kelly, Tourish, Byrne
Last Night’s Fun-In and Out of Time with Irish Music by Ciaran Carson. Copyright 1996 by North Point Press

All photographs by Robert P Doyle
All images in this blog are available in limited supply for purchase as unframed prints. Sizes may vary. Contact via robpatdoy@hotmail.com for details.

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24 thoughts on “Soundtrack Of A Photograph, Part 6

  1. Katie

    Well written and insightful… After reading this blog entry, I am SO VERY much more excited about my upcoming trip to Ireland, which includes a stay in Donegal!

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  2. cindy

    Thank you so much for your story and pictures. You have spoken well of a place on this earth that is dear to me. I do not really have time to write to you, but will jot some very random thoughts: I spent about 4 months in Derrylahan working in a small independent hostel with Patrick Raughter in 1985. That was too long ago and yet feels like yesterday. I have dreamed and dreamed of going back. I spent a lot of time looking out over Teelin bay and wandering the roads in that area. The walk over to Teelin, through Bunglass up to Slieve League is etched in my mind (I love your picture as it is an accurate representation of the kind of quality we got in photos those days! I am sure that sounds strange). There was the hitch hike over to Glencolumbkille and discovering the course sand on the beach (of which I still have some), the family I met when I biked out to Muckross and my sheer awe of the land/seascape that crashed into each other, the everyday simple soda bread and tea, the parade in October in Carrick ( I can still taste the chips I ate), bike rides to Killybegs (so far away according to the Paddy at that time), spending time with various people who lived in that area and in particular Mrs. Boyle, who could knit an Aran pattern and serve tea at the same time, just about!, my best scone ever in Kilcar and of course, the tweedy wool factory, the sheep the sheep the sheep (and Sean who herded them), and, saving the best for last, seeing Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and Frankie Kennedy in a pub in Carrick! I am in definite agreement with you about Altan. Tho I have always enjoyed the early Clannad days for songs. I made a sweater of Kilcar tweey wool I bought in the factory and also had a shawl woven for me, which I terribly sadly lost years ago. That particulal wool was stolen, I am afraid to admit. In 1985 there was a flood in the factory. It was expected of them to destroy the wool in order to collect insurance money. On my way “home” from Kilcar I walked by a pit (where the wool was going to be buried) and took a few spools of soiled weaving wool and brought it back home with me. I always felt so grand wearing it as I felt wrapped in the earth of Donegal! I do not really have time or energy to wax poetic about my time there. I love to write and express description, but I don’t think I have it in me to try and recreate a sense of my experiences in and depth of connection and appreciation for Donegal. As you know, the music of Donegal speaks volumes of the landscape and people. No words can express it better, though someday I would love to try. It’s times like this that I wish I were a poet. ~ Again, thank you for your post. I appreciate it very much and am sure I will go back and read it all again. I can feel your love for the land and your heritage. How nice it is to enjoy a touch of connection with someone, somewhere, over the dearest place in my heart. cindy

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    1. Cindy, thank YOU for such wonderful comments on my work! If your way of saying you dont have much time to write a detailed reply is this good than I cannot wait to read a more thorough response! Great stuff and I am highly envious of you hanging out with some of Altan! Now that for sure I want to hear! Thank you so much for taking the time to write. It absolutely gives me shivers to hear responses such as yours. All the best and please feel free to share more stories! Robert

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      1. Cindy, one more thing-if you are on Facebook like my page The Soundtrack Of A Photograph (link is on the right hand side of this blog) so we can stay in touch. I post alternate photos and recollections that don’t make it in the finished blogs, so I post more Irish photos from down the years.

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  3. Lovely story and grouping of photos. I have had the pleasure of seeing Altan here in California. They are wonderful. Irish music brings me back to Ireland at least for a short time. I love how it and the landscape now feel like home for you. Happy saint Patrick’s Day. Thank you for the nice seasonal post (re-post). 🙂

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    1. Thanks so much. I saw them again last summer and they were as wonderful as ever. The music and the photos always bring me back. I had debated writing a new post about the positive Irish culture-music, literature, poetry versus all the schmaltzy Irish stuff I don’t like at this time of year. I’m incredibly proud to be Irish but I often take a day off from being Irish on St Patrick’s Day as a result and tell people I’m Norwegian 🙂

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  4. Cindy

    Sorry I dropped off the face of the earth on you. I actually didn’t know you replied to my comment oh so long ago til recently when I per-chance came upon your sight again. So sorry. It’s lovely to look at your photos again. Donegal and all around Teelin continue to be in my highest dreams and thoughts. sigh

    I see someone above saw Altan in California and then you last summer. I live in Winston-Salem, NC and if I had felt up to it (my health has not been good) I would have driven to the mountains of Asheville just LAST WEEK and been able to enjoy them in concert. Can’t believe I didn’t make that happen. My very bad.

    I am also a Dougie Maclean fan (from Scotland). By chance, I saw him at a kind of fiddler’s contest in Glenties when I was there in 1985 (when he was primarily a fiddler) and also by chance someone gave me an old cassette tape of his and Alan Roberts. That recording was in my ear often as I walked the landscape of Derrylahan, Carrick, Teelin, Buglas, Slieve League, Kilcar (you get the picture)…..so he kind of goes with my experience in Donegal, oddly. (a guy from Basque, Spain was staying in the hostel in Derrylahan and had given me the cassette in exchange for a homemade concert recording of Kevin Burke and Micheal O’Domhnaill I had at the time……that Dougie recording is no longer available that I can see….maybe on vinyl). Anyway…..I tell you this off-the-subject-kind-of story all to say that he is coming to Asheville in July or August I hear. So by golly I will make that concert happen as I should be in the area for the Swannanoa Gathering (a 5 week music camp with a focus on different music each week….one being celtic. Dáithí Sproule teaches there). If you play an instrument, I can’t recommend that week highly enough. I also happen to love old-time week. They have a website).

    Ok, as long as I am rambling to a total stranger, the person who founded the Swannanoa Gathering is Doug Orr. He and Fiona Richie wrote a book called Wayfaring Stranger that may or may not interest you. They won the Thomas Wolfe award for that book and it is wonderful if you are interested in the migration of music from Scotland/Ireland and down the states into the Appalachian Mountains.

    Gosh I can be long winded when I just want to leave a comment. Like a big wind blowing through I guess.

    I don’t know why I am now getting your email from this comment, but so glad I did. I will pop over to facebook and find you. If you happen to look on my page, my husband and I spend all of February camping on Hunting Island outside of Beaufort, SC and there are pictures during that month….though I still have others I’d like to post from that trip. I’ve been going there for 24 years and I guess I only really tell you this because it is fresh on my mind and it is another “sacred ground” I cherish. The culture on those islands is Gullah, for what it’s worth. No offense if that interests you not a whit.

    Ok, gonna sign off now. Happy travels to Canada tomorrow! Might borrow your quote for my page. Ta ta

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    1. Hey no worries. It was just such an awesome comment I did not want to just leave it there. I definitely know Dougie MacLean. Don’t have much of his music personally but I’m very familiar with him. I am definitely going to look that book up. It actually might come in handy for a research project I just started. You can read my post The Scandinavian Cowboy to get an idea of what I am thinking about. I’m very interested in that sort of thing. I’ll check your page out. I’m also interested in the Gullah culture. I have come across a few songs over the years from there. Thanks for such an awesome comment!

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  5. Pingback: Irish ‘Noise’ | Soundtrack Of A Photograph

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