Wednesday 19 June 2019

Obituary: Alec Finn

Yorkshireman who was a founder of De Danann and one of Ireland's best known musicians, writes Liam Collins

MUSIC MAN: Bouzouki-playing Alec Finn. Photo: Stephen Power
MUSIC MAN: Bouzouki-playing Alec Finn. Photo: Stephen Power

Alec Finn, who was buried in Galway last Monday, was a founder member of the group De Danann and was one of the most distinctive traditional musicians of his era.

Born Alexander J. Phinn, he grew up in Rotherham, England, before changing his name "back to the original", when he moved to Ireland in the early 1970s. His grandfather, James Finn, was an Irish Catholic but changed his name on marrying into the Scottish McDonald family, his wife wanting to distance him (and her) from the indigent Irish swarming into Britain at the time.

Alec was one of four children born to steelworker Jimmy Phinn and his Irish wife Pat (Mullarkey). According to his younger brother, Professor Gervase Phinn, a prolific author and well known English educationalist, he and his three siblings had an idyllic childhood "blessedly free from poverty, neglect, cruelty and exploitation" in Yorkshire.

As a youngster, he developed an interest in birds and music, and after attending art college in Rotherham, he caught the boat to Dublin carrying his peregrine falcon on his arm. He stayed with a cousin in James Street until he got a job as a commercial artist and his own flat, which he shared for a time with Phil Lynott.

In a TG4 documentary Se Mo Laoch, Finn recalled arriving in Spiddal, Co Galway, to stay with his friend Johnny Morris, a son of Lord Killanin, who also had an interest in hawking. He liked the place so much he rented the gate lodge of the Killanin estate and began playing blues guitar in Hughes pub in the village.

He asked a friend who was travelling to Greece to bring back a bouzouki and began sitting in on sessions, leading to the formation in 1974 of De Danann with Frankie Gavin on fiddle, Charlie Piggott on banjo and Johnny 'Ringo' McDonagh on bodhran. "I just sort of picked it up," he told TG4, "If he hadn't brought it back I wouldn't ever have played it."

Over the years, an eclectic procession of musicians and singers, including Dolores Keane, Andy Irvine, Mary Black, Maura O'Connell, Jackie Daly, Eleanor Shanley and Tommy Fleming, passed through the ranks of De Danann's permutations.

Anyone who saw the band in their heyday - whether in the parish hall in Keadue, Co Roscommon, a concert hall in Japan or on the German folk circuit - couldn't but be struck by their energy, musical ability and the sheer exuberance of their music. They became hugely popular at home and abroad, while at the same time holding on to their Galway roots.

Their debut album, De Danann, produced by Donal Lunny, was released in 1975. It appears the tapes of the second album were lost and their follow up The Mist Covered Mountain was released in 1980. That year, inspired by Alec Finn, they released a version of The Beatles's Hey Jude which became a surprise hit. The Star Spangled Molly was released in 1981 and contained Maura O'Connell's high-octane version of an old Irish American vaudeville standard My Irish Molly-O. These iconic tracks and their version of Handel's The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba brought a unique sound to traditional music and brought them to an international audience.

"If I can, I'll put in as many harmonies to whatever the lead musician is playing and try to give it a bit of colour, but not dictate the rhythm," Alec Finn said in one interview. With long hair and a dour countenance, he brought a unique presence to the band, including designing their distinctive album covers.

He met Leonie King at a session in The Cruiskeen Lawn and they got married in 1977. He spent much of their early married life on tour, and Leonie recalled amazing parties in Hollywood with Jack Nicholson and Anjelica Huston.

Despite success at home and abroad, De Danaan broke up somewhat acrimoniously in 2003.

"The band came to halt when Alec Finn, a colleague of mine in the band for 30-odd years or more, decided to close down the band and put an article in the newspaper saying that we would never perform again," Frankie Gavin said somewhat ruefully.

"Not only that, but he went and registered the band to himself without telling me. I've worked and managed the band for 30 odd years and suddenly I was out of work. It's OK for him, he lives in a big posh castle on the banks of Galway Bay."

The 'posh castle' in question was Oranmore Castle, a striking 15th Century tower house on the edge of Galway Bay. Originally owned by Lord Clanricarde, it was an abandoned unroofed ruin in the late 1940s when Marjorie Ide, a wealthy American heiress and wife of Sir Shane Leslie of Castle Leslie in Co Monaghan, bought it. She began the restoration before passing the castle and a farm to her daughter, the writer Anita Leslie, on her marriage in 1949 to Commander Bill King. She in turn gave it to her daughter, the print artist Leonie King, Alec Finn's wife.

"There is a misconception that you live in splendour," Leonie Finn told Cara magazine in 2014 about the so-called 'posh castle'. "There is the task of keeping the water out, the sea and the rain, in winter... it's uninhabitable really, we stay in our own little wing."

Tension surrounding the use of the name De Danann continued for a number of years and at one time in 2009 there was an acrimonious spat between various musicians and factions on live radio. But a reconciliation was eventually affected between the two best known members of De Danann. "It's hard enough to make a living in the world of traditional Irish music without people taking swings at each other, so I'm glad it's in the past and I'm glad we're friends again," said Gavin, before they played together at the Galway Folk Festival.

In the Anair-made documentary for TG4, Alec Finn also revealed that he had cancer. "I'll just have to sit it out and see what happens," he said. Looking back over his life, he said: "I can't complain, music saved me from having to work as a commercial artist or at any job."

Just weeks before he died, Alec Finn and Frankie Gavin launched their second duet album, Traditional Irish Music on Fiddle and Bouzouki Volume II, more then 40 years after the release of their first album and the foundation of De Danann.

Alec Finn died in Galway on November 16 aged 76. He is survived by Leonie and his children, Heather and Cian.

Sunday Independent

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