Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh
The Nervous Man
MOR Music - MOR CD 001; 48 minutes; 2001
Concertina recordings are a relative rarity in Irish music. Indeed, The Companion to Irish Traditional Music’s ‘Select Discography’ lists a mere fifteen albums, compared to more than seventy-five for the accordion. Yet, such paucity is entirely counterbalanced by the sheer quality of these recordings. Think of Mary Mac Namara, Chris Droney, Mrs. Crotty, Kitty Hayes, John Kelly, Jacqueline and Tommy McCarthy, Gerdie Commane, Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, Bernard O’Sullivan and Tommy McMahon, and, of course, Noel Hill, and the calibre of these recordings is immediately apparent. Naturally, some might say, that’s the Clare tradition in a nutshell (although the list is but a mere fragment of the county’s musicianship) and, indeed, it is hard to find many concertina albums recorded by musicians from elsewhere. There was William J. Mullaly from Westmeath, thought to be the first concertina player to record, and a significant number of players from Northern Ireland, including Robin Morton of Boys of the Lough (though he played an English concertina) and several well-known younger exponents (such as Niall Vallely, Jason O’Rourke and Terry Bingham).
However, now comes something that’s not just a little special, but shines like a diamond in a dust heap. Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh’s debut solo recording, The Nervous Man, is not just one of the best concertina albums ever recorded, but an unquestionable candidate for traditional music’s hall of fame. Indeed, here’s what someone who has probably listened to more of Ireland’s music than most, Finbar Boyle of Claddagh Records, had to say about it:
“Occasionally there are benchmark recordings that will be listened to forever - remember the first Bothy Band album or the one by Noel Hill and Tony Linnane? This is one such, a thing of beauty that is perfect in every way.”
If this appears hyperbolic (and I can assure you it is not), think back to either of those albums. The opening notes of Humours of Ballyconnell, the first track on the Hill and Linnane album, always brings a delighted smile to my face, and who can forget the impact of the Kesh Jig on The Bothy Band’s first album even if the tune has been played to death ever since?
So, who is this Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh and what does he want from us? Firstly, the Ó Raghallaigh clan, from Rathmolyon, Co. Meath is one of Ireland’s most well-known musical families. His mother, Máire Ní Gallchóir, comes from a Donegal family and was a long-serving member of Seán Ó Tuama’s choir Claisceadal an Raidió, while his father, Páraic, comes from Cill Chiaráin (Kilkieran) in the sean-nós stronghold of the Connemara Gaeltacht and plays the accordion. Mícheál and his four siblings play together as Muintír Uí Raghallaigh and he is also a member of the All-Ireland champion Táin Céilí Band. However, Mícheál is probably familiar to most as a member of Providence and features on both of the band’s albums. As for what he wants, well, the answer is simply for us to share his delights.
A fine musician thrives on good company and Mícheál has chosen three of the best to accompany him on The Nervous Man’s musical itinerary. Since the demise of Déanta in 1997 Eoghan O’Brien has been increasing an already well-carved reputation as one of Ireland’s best guitar accompanists. Coincidentally, a harper himself, Eoghan is joined by another such musician, the redoubtable Michael Rooney whose expertise on a set of reels introduced by Stoney Steps is ample demonstration of his sheer dexterity. The final musician is from an elder generation, the bodhrán player, Frank McGann, who did not take up the drum until after he had retired from work. However, all three only appear together on the album’s twelfth and final track, a barnstorming set of reels kicked off by Duke of Leinster. In contrast, Mícheál’s two solo outings are both airs, Lone Shanakyle, which he learned from a recording of Tom Lenihan, and An Buachaill Caol Dubh, which is in the Petrie collection, though Mícheál learned the tune from his mother’s singing.
Elsewhere, I have described Mícheál’s playing as “warm and frisky”, but this fails to offer full justice to the sheer breadth and sensitivity of his playing. Ó Raghallaigh does not simply understand his music comprehensively, but adds emotionality through some of the most subtle ornamentation heard in a very long time. When the music requires ebullience his concertina positively animates the tune and, in contrast, when a more measured approach is required, as on, say, the jig Hawthorn Hedge, Mícheál just seems to let the tune speak for itself.
His notes too are a delight to read and coloured by wit and modesty. Of Hawthorn Hedge, a Seán Ryan tune learned from a book, he writes “They say you can’t learn music from a book... maybe they’re right”! While he signs off with “I hope you enjoy this CD, because no refunds are available!” adding that his name “is pronounced ‘O’Reilly’, ‘O’Riley’, or even ‘O’Wryly’, no matter what anybody else tells you!” (which reminded me of the waiter Manuel’s insistence in Fawlty Towers that a builder called O’Reilly was an “Orelly man”. The notes also provide detailed sources for all the tunes and an account of Mícheál’s musical development. The title tune, by the way, was composed by Paddy “Nenagh” O’Brien while the cover sculpture was made by Ken Lee as a wedding present for Mícheál and his wife Patricia.
For more information about Micheál Ó Raghallaigh and Providence visit www.providence-trad.com/morconcertina.