I recall singing The Star of the County Down for my grandmother when I was two!

Person to Person: This week, a professional composer from West Cork
I recall singing The Star of the County Down for my grandmother when I was two!

Máire Ní Chathasaigh pictured with Chris Newman

Máire Ní Chathasaigh will perform with Chris Newman on Friday, September 30 at Triskel at 8pm as part of Cork Folk Festival

TELL us about yourself;

I am a professional harper and composer who was born and brought up in a musical West Cork family and is now resident in England. I am fortunate enough to have been able to spend most of my life touring and performing worldwide.

Having grown up playing Irish traditional music on a number of other instruments, I was entirely focused when in my teens in the 1970s on developing techniques for harp performance of traditional Irish music and on the reintegration of the harp in the oral tradition.

I won a number of All-Ireland titles during the 1970s and became a full-time professional touring performer in 1981. In 1985, I recorded the first harp album ever to concentrate on traditional Irish dance music, The New-Strung Harp.

I’ve subsequently made seven duo albums with guitarist Chris Newman, two quartet albums with the Heartstring Quartet (Chris, my sister Nollaig, her late husband, guitarist Arty McGlynn, and myself) and a trio album, Sibling Revelry, with my sisters Nollaig and Mairéad (The Casey Sisters).

I was honoured to be awarded Gradam Ceoil TG4 Ceoltóir na Bliana (Musician of the Year) in 2001.

Though Irish music is closest to my heart, my performances with Chris also feature our own compositions in a number of other genres.

A TV documentary about my sister Nollaig and myself was broadcast on TG4 in November, 2020, as part of its Sé mo Laoch series.

Where were you born?

I was born in a maternity hospital in Cork city. However, we lived in the village of Ballinascarthy until I was seven, after which we moved to the town of Bandon. We had a lovely old Georgian house on North Main Street. It had a big garden that stretched right down to the river and was a child’s paradise.

Where do you live?

I now live in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, a beautiful former spa town with a Roman and mediaeval core.

Family?

I am the eldest of six. The three girls (Nollaig, Mairéad and I) became professional musicians. The three boys (Greg, Brian and Gearóid) were very good musicians and singers too, but didn’t choose careers in music.

Our parents, both school principals, had a great love of Irish music and culture. Our father Seán was from Cooragannive, in the parish of Caheragh, near Skibbereen, and the youngest member of the last native Irish-speaking family in that area. He didn’t speak English until he went to school as his paternal grandmother, Eiléan Ní Iarlaithe, a descendant of West Cork poets Seán Óg Ó hIarlaithe and Seán Ó hIarlaithe, was still alive at that time and wouldn’t allow English to be spoken in their home. She had lived through the famine and blamed English misrule for that calamity.

In addition, my father was descended from another West Cork poet, Mícheál Chormaic Ó Súilleabháin, through his mother, so he inherited a treasury of Irish poetry and seanchas from both his grandmother and his mother.

My mother, Úna O’Sullivan (now 100), is from Allihies, on the Beara Peninsula in West Cork. She was a very fine singer with a great store of songs, as was her mother, Margaret Dwyer from Urhan in the parish of Eyeries, in whose family the tradition of music-making goes back many generations. My sisters and I still sing the songs they passed down to us.

My mother played the mouth organ (harmonica), and a bit of accordion too, though she never played in public. We have a lovely photo of her set-dancing on the pier in Allihies in the late 1940s – a regular occurrence on fine summer Sundays at that time. Our mother used to take turns playing for the sets with her elder brother, accordion-player Bartie O’Sullivan, and his friend Florence Kelly, leaping up every now and again to have a dance herself!

The three of them used to play for sets at many house dances (which they called ‘ball nights’) around Beara. Our grandmother used to host sessions in the family home after Mass on Sundays with the same personnel in attendance, together with my mother’s paternal aunt, Minnie, who played the concertina. Clearly a lot of fun was had in Allihies in those times!

Best friend?

Chris! I’m also close to my sisters and brothers and am fortunate enough to have a bunch of great friends that I’ve known for 45 years or more.

Earliest childhood memory?

Singing The Star of the County Down for my grandmother when I was two!

Person you most admire?

Aibhlín McCrann, Chair of Harp Ireland and of the Irish Chamber Orchestra. I have huge admiration for her lifetime of selfless dedication to the cause of the Irish harp, and her strategic brain.

Favourite TV programme?

I love programmes about archaeology, ancient history, Irish history, literature, and music.

Favourite radio show?

The Rolling Wave on RTÉ 1; From our Own Correspondent on BBC Radio 4.

Last book you read?

How To Make The World Add Up, by economist Tim Harford. I often listen to his BBC Radio 4 programme, More or Less, which examines, and sometimes debunks, the statistics used in political and social debate in an elegant and illuminating way.

Last album/CD/download you bought?

Fiddle-player Bríd Harper’s great solo album, Inis, which I bought when we were both playing at the Belfast Tradfest recently.

Favourite song?

Seo Leo Thoil, sung by my sister Nollaig on Causeway, her album with her late husband Arty McGlynn.

One person you would like to see in concert?

Daniel Barenboim.

Your proudest moment?

The award of Gradam Ceoil TG4 Ceoltóir na Bliana (Musician of the Year) at a concert and awards ceremony at Cork Opera House in 2001 was the proudest moment of my life. There is something very special about receiving an award from your peers. The citation said the award was “for the excellence and pioneering force of Máire’s music, the remarkable growth she has brought to the music of the harp, and for the positive influence she has had on the young generation of harpers”.

What makes you happy?

Playing and listening to music; reading; learning; walking; visiting art galleries and museums; travel; and of course having fun with family and friends.

How would you like to be remembered?

I’d like to be remembered fondly by my family and friends; and more widely, for changing the trajectory of the Irish harp.

What else are you up to at the moment?

Chris and I have a few concerts in England in September, followed by a performance at Triskel Christchurch for the Cork Folk Festival on September 30 that we’re really looking forward to! Then we head to the USA for a few weeks in October, and that trip is followed by a bunch of gigs in the UK in November and a 15-date Christmas tour in December (see www.maireandchris.com).

Máire will perform with Chris Newman on Friday, September 30 at 8pm in Triskel. The double bill concert also features Matt Molloy & Sean Keane. Tickets are €25/€23. More from www.triskelartscentre.

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