“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.
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.
“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!
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.
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.
The spiraling downhill slide into the town of Ardara via the Glengesh Pass, and the massive beach called Maghera.
Living history of another era on that can be discovered at the Folk Village in Glencolumbcille.
Bustling activity on the docks in Killybegs as the fishing boats come in.
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.
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?
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org for details.