Tuesday 19 June 2018

In trad company

Ahead of their special gig together, Frames founder Colm Mac Con Iomaire and Dubliners legend John Sheahan tell John Meagher about the roots of their collaboration

Loose and fun: Colm Mac Con Iomaire and John Sheahan are playing together as part of the MusicTown festival. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Loose and fun: Colm Mac Con Iomaire and John Sheahan are playing together as part of the MusicTown festival. Photo: Gerry Mooney
John Meagher

John Meagher

It is busking of the high-end variety. John Sheahan, the last living member of The Dubliners, takes to the balcony at Bewley's, Grafton Street, and serenades the shoppers below with a rendition of one of his own beloved compositions, 'The Marino Waltz'.

It's a novel bit of publicity dreamed up by the people behind the inaugural Dublin arts festival, MusicTown, and a reminder that, at 78, Sheahan is as engaged by music as he always has been.

Half an hour later, the Dubliner and another much-admired fiddle player, Colm Mac Con Iomaire, repair to a hotel off Grafton Street to talk to Review about the show they will perform together at the Abbey Theatre next weekend - and to shoot the breeze about an instrument that has defined their lives' work.

"'The Marino Waltz' was a really big thing for me when it came out," Mac Con Iomaire says. "I was a 13-year-old fiddle player then [1984] and I distinctly remember learning it - and then it became famous when it was used in that Bord Na Mona ad."

Anyone in Ireland with a clear recollection of the 1980s will be familiar with the long-running TV commercial which featured Sheahan and his violin, a roaring briquette fire and an assortment of characters drawn to the flame. "The nice thing about it," Sheahan says, "is there was no voiceover. It was just images, but it conveyed a mood." And his music certainly helped.

The pair first got to know each other when they were asked to be involved in the Starboard Home project, in which several musicians - under the leadership of Bell X1's Paul Noonan -were commissioned by Dublin Port to create new work inspired by Dublin Bay and the Liffey. But both were familiar with each other's work long before that. "I remember doing Kenny Live with the Frames in about 1997," Mac Con Iomaire says, "and the Dubliners were on as well, but I was much too shy to approach John.

"And the Dubliners were like Liberty Hall," he adds. "Part of the landscape of growing up." And yet, the Dubliners were formed in 1962, a few years before the version of Liberty Hall that is such an indelible part of the city skyline was constructed.

"There wasn't as much love for traditional music then as you might imagine," John Sheahan says. "When I was learning jigs and reels in school, I was looked down a bit, even by my own pals. They called it diddley-eye music… the smart thing to do was tune into Radio Luxembourg.

"It could be a struggle, but you'd want to be dedicated in your own attitude and not give a f***. But over the years, with the advent of the Chieftains and Planxty, it became fashionable to be part of this and a lot of young people came along with that drift."

There was a much healthier climate in the late 1980s when Mac Con Iomaire was leaving school and helping to form Kila. "One of the big bands for my generation was Moving Hearts. The Storm album was a big one for me - it was completely instrumental in a kind of contemporary way. They would have been the door I would have gone through into then looking back to Planxty and The Bothy Band."

Both men were saddened by the recent deaths of music benefactor and Claddagh Records supremo, Garech de Brún and Planxty founder, the uileann pipe maestro, Liam Óg O'Flynn.

"He [de Brún] was instrumental in the early days of the Chieftains thanks to Claddagh," Sheahan says.

"You can't underestimate the archive he left behind," Mac Con Iomaire adds. "Fifty years ago, you'd be thrown out of a pub for playing a song, but Garech helped put traditional Irish music on the international map.

"And, as for Liam, I'd see the Planxty as being the Beatles of Irish music and his death is like one of the Beatles passing away. And, of course, The Dubliners were the Stones!"

"I remember working with Liam on a Kate Bush album, The Hounds of Love," Sheahan recalls. "It was 'Jig of Life' and Bill Whelan was producing. Liam was playing whistle on it. He was metronomic in his timing and so virtuosic, too."

Sheahan was in The Dubliners for half a century - until he retired the name following the death of Barney McKenna in 2012. His friends' passing has been hard to take. "The Dubliners were like a family," he says. "When each of them passed away, it was like losing a brother - and Ronnie [Drew] is dead 10 years now. You'd know each other inside out. You could see one of them at breakfast and immediately know what kind of mood they'd be in… Luke would be behind the newspaper and you'd go 'I'll leave him until lunchtime until he thaws a little bit'."

Sheahan's fiddle playing has been in demand for years for artists as diverse as Declan O'Rourke and Rod Stewart, but his work with Bush holds particular resonance. "Kate turned out to be such a lovely girl," he says. "At the time, I was interested in origami and I was making things in the studio and giving them to her. A few months later it was Christmas and I got this lovely Christmas card with genuine Japanese origami paper as a present."

He chuckles at the memory of their very first meeting. "When I first met her, I played some music for her and a tear rolled down her eye and she said 'Your playing is so emotional' and we hugged and Bill Whelan was in the control room looking out and he said, 'What the f*** is going on? Sheahan is after meeting this bird just a couple of minutes ago and they're hugging each other already'."

Mac Con Iomaire is best known for his membership of the Frames and he was a pivotal player in helping to make the band one of the most popular in Ireland in the 1990s and early 2000s. He continued working with Frames frontman Glen Hansard in The Swell Season and in his own solo work, but wasn't involved on his most recent album, Didn't He Ramble.

"You robbed my gig, John!" he says good-naturedly when Sheahan talks about being asked by Hansard to play on that album and to accompany him at a show in New York's famed Carnegie Hall. "But that's the beauty about being a musician - there's nothing rigid about your life."

The Abbey show will see them playing each other's music as well as compositions from the 17th and 18th century blind harpist, Turlough O'Carolan. Mac Con Iomaire's son, Oisín, is also likely to be involved. "It'll be loose and fun and we'll see where it takes us on the night," Sheahan says. "The best shows are the ones that go in an unexpected direction."

John Sheahan and Colm Mac Coin Iomaire play the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on April 21, as part of the MusicTown festival, which started last night and runs in various Dublin venues until April 22. See musictown.ie

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