An unrepeatable epic session to record Cathal’s cache of travelling melodies

Cathal McConnell. Picture: Kerstin Gruenling

Cathal McConnell. Picture: Kerstin Gruenling

By Jim Gilchrist  The Scotsman copyright Jim Gilchrist
Published on Wednesday 16 November 2011 00:00

Most artists making an album will maybe record a dozen songs, but Cathal McConnell set down 123 tracks, from The Amadán to The Wind that Shakes the Barley

I’VE had cause in the past to describe Cathal McConnell, the renowned flautist and singer with the Boys of the Lough, as a walking repository of traditional music and song. He has never been slow to pass repertoire on to other, often younger, musicians, but this week a considerable portion of his vast song store becomes readily accessible with the publication of I Have Travelled This Country, a book and six-hour audio DVD featuring no fewer than 123 of his songs.

The book and DVD, published by Lughnasa Music of Dundalk, Ireland, has its Scottish launch tomorrow night at the Irish Consulate in Edinburgh. Receptions at the consulate are beginning to be something of a habit for the 67-year-old McConnell, Fermanagh-born but long a resident in Edinburgh. Last year saw him honoured there after his contribution to traditional music had been recognised by a prestigious Gradam Ceóil award from TG4, the Irish Gaelic television channel, and also by the Willie Clancy Summer School in west Clare.

“It’s not all of my repertoire, but quite a lot of it,” McConnell tells me, having just returned from the Netherlands, where he was performing with the fine Irish fiddler Gerry O’Connor, an old friend in music who steered the project to record and publish the singer’s repertoire.

It had its origins three years ago when flautist and fiddler were driving from Dublin to a gig in County Galway, with the Breton guitarist Gilles le Bigot. Le Bigot asked McConnell if he could record one or two of his songs during the journey to prime him for the concert. McConnell duly serenaded him with 29.

“I didn’t think it was any big deal,” he recalls, “but Gerry thought it was amazing, and a lot of the songs he hadn’t heard before.”

As O’Connor himself says, “I realised immediately that here was a significant body of songs which were at risk of being lost. With this in mind, I applied to the Arts Council of Ireland for funding to record and transcribe this repertoire.”

McConnell started making trips to Belfast, where O’Connor’s son, Dónal, gradually recorded 123 of his songs at his Seachrán Studios. It was a process that McConnell found wearing.

“It was very hard,” he says, “archive singing rather than performance singing. I wouldn’t want to do it again.”

Starting, alphabetically, with The Amadán (“The Idiot”) and ending with The Wind that Shakes the Barley, the songs combine Irish classics such as Carrickfergus and Bold Robert Emmet and numbers particularly associated with McConnell, like The Flower of Magherally, with a wealth of lesser known material, including several written by his father, Sandy McConnell (who recorded for the BBC in the 1950s).

In a way, the publishing process has simply been a formalising of what McConnell has been doing all his days. Fellow traditional musicians are quick to acknowledge his generosity of spirit in passing on material. In his foreword to the book, the Northern Ireland singer Len Graham points out that McConnell “always acknowledges his sources and has enthusiastically celebrated and shared his love for his native tradition with countless younger singers and musicians from all over the world. We owe him a great debt.”

McConnell’s fellow Boy of the Lough, Dave Richardson, similarly pays tribute: “He sings to you rather than at you. He wants you to focus on the message of the song rather than on him as a performer. He’s passing on the music, not using it to impress.”

Having published his songs, would McConnell consider embarking on a similar exercise to publish his compendious store of tunes? “Oh my God no,” he responds, with some feeling. “As the man who got all his teeth out said, ‘Never again.’”

• I Have Travelled This Country, compiled by Gerry O’Connor and edited by Sile Boylan, is published by Lughnasa Music. 

Subpages (1): Comments from Bill Ochs