independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Kevin Myers: The rebirth of Irish music is Ciaran Mac Mathuna's legacy

WELL, if Ciaran Mac Mathuna can die, I suppose anyone can. Actually, I had always thought that he was immortal. He certainly appeared to have all the ingredients.

For he was a great big pool of placidity. You could have sunk The Third Battle of Ypres, the Tet Offensive and Saddam Hussein, without trace, in the vast ocean of tranquillity that was Ciaran Mac Mathuna. Stress or anger or conflict or tension or bitterness or unkindness were absent entirely from his make-up.

It was as if he were made out of different materials from the rest of the human race. Moreover, his marriage to Dolly seemed to have been blessed with unjust levels of wisdom and love plus absurdly talented offspring.

He had a remarkable tolerance for human weakness, and he endured the pub-bores who assailed him with a rock-like stoicism.

His virtues were almost the genetic characteristics of a distinctly different species, that of the Mac Mathuna of which there was one living example, a Ciaran.

You cannot praise a hamster for being a hamster, or a horse for being a horse: so what is the point of praising Ciaran Mac Mathuna for being what he just naturally is?

He pioneered a unique broadcasting style, apparently from his bed.

Listening to him on the radio was like being on a camping holiday with a wise and sleepy uncle, who wanted to have a chat before we got out of our various beds in the morning.

That sonorous baritone voice brought us from our student bedsitters or our suburban homes to a common mythic memory.

Thus, in an almost opiate haze, his audience were drawn into a seance to a better and timeless place -- a land of crossroads and songs and ancient memories.

Of course, such a world never existed, yet its images prevailed nonetheless in the hearts and minds of his dozing listeners. It was the pre-Lapsarian paradise of Ireland before the Flood.

This longing for a virtuous pre-Modern Us is one of the defining characteristics of the Irish people: a sense that long ago, there was a better, wiser world, inhabited by Good Irish People and not by the soiled and untrustworthy creatures who constitute the nation today.

The inhabitants of the Mac Mathuna seance spoke Irish and an Old English, while their teachers were masters of mellifluous Latin and Greek.

These dream-like characters were Christian but they were Celts too, in a seamless fusion of creed and culture.

But because this in essence was Tir-na-nOg, there were no rules about time and space and personnel.

If it suited the narrative to have 18th century gentry disporting in their grand castles, with their minstrels and their harpists, so be it.

As a man of almost boundless passivity, Ciaran loathed political violence.

Those two words, "loathed" and "Mac Mathuna" do not naturally go in the one sentence: but there is inconsistency in all things, and only a fool applies the rigid isometrics of Swedish social democracy to the dream-world of an Irish Sunday morning.

So there were no joyous celebrations of murder in that Sabbath idyll, but otherwise there was a great catholicity of inclusion.

Many traditionalists did not accept Carolan or Moore or Hamilton as being authentically Irish-Irish.

This was part of the ban culture which was such a powerful feature in Irish life: ban this sport, or book, or play, or those who contaminate the pure well-springs of Irishness. Ban, ban ban, until only the best remains: yet the censor's distillate is always the bitter liquor of mediocrity.

Ciaran did not preach against bans, but simply was the shepherd on the hillside leading his flock past the barren slopes of exclusion to the broad green meadows of tolerance.

The opening moments of Mo Cheol Thu -- Geraldine O'Grady and Sir Samuel Ferguson's 'Lark in the Clear Air' -- were an open embrace of the drawing-room school of Irish music which was so despised by the traditional purists.

Those chords provided a password to a gentle celebration of Irish musical and poetical culture whether it be of the verses of Allingham, the Fenian tradition of Kickham's 'Slieve na mBan', the somewhat elliptical and elusive charms of sean-nos, or the rampant joy of a traditional session with pipes and whistles and bodhrans and fiddles.

Ciaran Mac Mathuna was not just a radio presenter; he was the pioneer-miner, who -- just in time -- 50 years ago toured the dying Klondyke of Irish culture, rescuing its nuggets.

Because of the vital work done by him, and a handful of others, Irish music will never now be gone from the face of this earth.

If there is a hereafter, it is of course timeless and circular with no past or present or future; and so there to greet him when he arrives in the great Mo Cheol Thu of Eternity, were -- and are and will be -- the as yet unborn generations, who shall henceforth live in a vibrant world of Irish music largely made possible by the wisest and most gentle of gentlemen that I have ever known.

kmyers@independent.ie

Irish Independent

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