‘Trad music is more alive now than ever’, says Gradam Ceoil award-winner

Two Cork men, one aged 25, the other 78, have won awards at the Gradam Ceoil - the ‘Oscars of traditional music’ - and COLETTE SHERIDAN hears how the future of the genre is in safe hands
‘Trad music is more alive now than ever’, says Gradam Ceoil award-winner

HONOURED: Musician Connie O’Connell

TWO Cork musicians are the proud recipients of this year’s 25th Gradam Ceoil awards, known as ‘the Oscars of traditional music’.

They are Diarmuid Ó Meachair, 25, who won the Young Musician award, and Connie O’Connell, 78, who received the Composer award. Both men are from the Gaeltacht region of Múscraí.

For Diarmuid, from Cúil Aodh, winning the prestigious award “is unbelievable” and he added: “It shocked me at first. It’s something you never think will happen.

“There are so many great musicians in the country. It’s quite the lottery really. I wouldn’t be the most well known. I don’t really put myself out there.

“The award will probably give me a platform to share my music with people and get invited to festivals. That will be brilliant because music is a hobby for me.

“It will give me the opportunity to do it even more. Music puts you in touch with some fantastic people.”

A primary school teacher at Gaelscoil Uí Riordáin in Ballincollig, Diarmuid’s instrument is the button accordion. He started playing it at home when he was about six.

Over the years, he had a number of teachers and attended workshops at festivals and listened to CDs “and anything I could find online”.

He also plays the melodeon and is a sean-nós singer. (At the age of 19, he won the senior All Ireland melodeon title at the Fleadh Ceoil in Ennis in 2016.)

Diarmuid comes from a musical family. His great grandfather, Neilus Murray, a farmer, was an accordion player and also sang. His grandfather Tadhg Ó Riordáin played the accordion for ceilis in Cúil Aodh.

“I love the sound of sound of the button accordion and the rhythmic aspect of it,” said Diarmuid, “I think there’s a lot of possibilities for the instrument that haven’t really been explored.”

Musician Diarmuid Ó Mechair
Musician Diarmuid Ó Mechair

In the last few years, Diarmuid started listening to recordings from America from the 1920s and 1930s.

“In particular, I’ve been listening to a man called Peter Conlon from Galway who recorded prolifically in America. His music was fantastic and during his time, his technical ability couldn’t be surpassed. “

Diarmuid also takes inspiration from the Quebec folk music tradition. When he was younger, he sang a lot of sean-nós.

What does it take to be good at this style of singing?

“You need sensitivity and awareness. And you have to have a certain amount of respect for where the songs come from, the stories you’re telling and the melody.

“Sean-nós is a very delicate tradition, a really ancient tradition.”

Diarmuid directed a group of eight children to perform four sean-nós songs as part of Cór Fhéile Chorcaí a few years ago. He has taught at the Willie Clancy Summer School.

Describing himself as “quietly ambitious,” Diarmuid says it’s not so much about winning awards. “The greatest ambition I have is to meet as many great musicians as I can. I think that’s more fulfilling than anything else.”

For Connie O’Connell, a fiddle player and composer from Cill na Martra, winning the award “is a really big achievement. It’s the Rolls Royce of traditional music awards.”

Connie taught himself to play the fiddle. His family wasn’t all that musical, although his mother played the melodeon at local house dances and there were fiddle players on his father’s side of the family.

When he was a young boy, there were no recordings available. “We had a radio all right but we didn’t even have electricity. The radio, very cumbersome, was driven by batteries. I used to listen to Irish music programmes on the radio. I liked the sound of the fiddle. An aunt of mine bought me a fiddle when I was 12.”

Connie didn’t start composing traditional jigs and reels until the 1980s. In 2000, he released his first solo album, Ceol Cill na Martra. It featured a collection of tunes composed by Connie including The Torn Jacket, which has become a well-known piece in traditional Irish music. It was inspired by a man who’d had too much to drink at an Oireachtais musical event in Cork.

“He was a very nice man who went on a spree with the cheque he received at Oireachtais for composing songs. I met him on the night and again the next day but he didn’t remember talking to me.”

Connie told the man that he had torn his jacket. “The man was really upset. Eventually, I told him it didn’t happen at all. He said I should go away and write a song about it!”

In 2014, Connie released a double CD of his compositions recorded with his daughter Áine, as well as a book of the tunes. Connie continues to work as a tutor at UCC’s music department.

“They’re happy out with me,” he says, “they can’t get anyone to replace me. I deal with Bachelor of music students and students doing masters in traditional music.”

Teaching, he says, keeps him young at heart.

“It’s nice to be meeting younger people. There’s always big talent there. The standard is very high.”

As to the state of traditional music in Ireland, Connie says: “It’s more alive than ever. When I was growing up, I couldn’t get anyone to teach me how to play the fiddle. There were no music classes where I grew up.

“Nowadays, there are music classes in every school and all over the country. And Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann is doing good work in promoting music.”

Connie’s book of tunes, Bóithrín na Smaointe, is out of print but is available online, for free.

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