Saturday, August 27, 2005

Within a mile of Kilty...

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2005

In north Co. Leitrim there is a small village of some 150 people. Like many of the small townlands and places in Ireland, it has derived fame from its famous musical sons and daughters. But Kiltyclogher boasts something more than one or two distinguished musicians. It happens to have produced in the small area around it over the last eighty years a group of fiddlers whose music and reputation deserves a wider audience than heretofore afforded it. ‘Within a Mile of Kilty’ is the title of a recently released new album that documents and links the music of six distinguished fiddle player from this small region. Three of the Lennon family, Ben, his brother Charlie and son Maurice feature on the album as well as Séamus Quinn, Brian Rooney and the late John Gordon, who perhaps is the one least known outside of the area. John who passed away in 2002, never recorded commercially in his lifetime and this prompted David Lennon, Ben’s son to try and preserve John’s legacy by gathering together from various sources any recordings of his that were available. The result was ‘The Humours of Glendart’ an album that was released two years ago. Buoyed by the successful completion of that project, David decided to continue what he started by widening the idea to encompass the other local musicians, using Kiltyclogher itself as a locus for an album which became ‘Within a Mile of Kilty’. “My mind started working on the nucleus of fiddle players that had come from the area” he says. “Both John Gordon and my father Ben, were born in the twenties, and from the twenties through to the sixties six fiddle players had been born who were of a very high standard and unique in that they all played very different styles. The concept was to bring together those six musicians onto one CD so that the music actually sounded like it was connected and it does, because at the root of it, they are all from the same place, so the well that they drew from is very much the same well.”

Kiltyclogher is very northerly, situated right on the border with Fermanagh and the style of music there was influenced by the areas around it. “It would have a Fermanagh style” explains Charlie Lennon, “which is kind of measured sweet music with good timing and then a Leitrim influence that would be coming from the old people there.”

“It takes very little” continues David, “to shift from a style, an approach that was more northern to one that was more southern and the magnetic power of Sligo is very strong in fiddle music. John Gordon grew up, as my father did, listening to 78s of Michael Coleman, James Morrison, Paddy Killoran and Paddy Sweeney, to all that music coming out of America and it was a big influence on all their music up through the forties and fifties.” Yet it was the local music that was more important in those days, as Charlie Lennon remembers. “My father would talk about local fiddlers, local musicians and he wouldn’t ever listen seriously to Coleman. He preferred the plainer music that he was used to, the music he played himself. We had a gramophone and a few records. They were scarce enough. Each house would have a different record so you’d go around from one to the other and listen but it was also important to recognise the local people.”

Growing up in Kiltyclogher, Charlie and his eldest brother Ben were very close and naturally Ben was his greatest influence. Music was a social activity, going around to other houses, arriving unannounced and receiving great welcome. “There were a lot of people who played the fiddle” recalls Charlie, “or who were interested in the fiddle or music in general. The fiddle was the dominant instrument. It was all individual players and the fiddle would be handed around from one to the other, each one would have a contribution to make, like storytelling. We passed it along. People didn’t necessarily bring a fiddle. Some people would bring a bow under their coat hanging on an inside button.”

“There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing to South West Fermanagh” explains Ben Lennon, “and that part of north Leitrim and Fermanagh had a great tradition as well for songs. My father played fiddle and my mother played piano. She could read music and had a great ear. I have some great memories of John Gordon who used to come into our house. My mother would play the piano for John and that might go on for two hours. There were very few sessions in music as I recall. The fiddle used be handed around the kitchen, like the pipe. The man of the house would light the pipe, take a few puffs, give it a wipe and hand it on to the next fellow. It was the same with the fiddle.”

“This album brings back a lot of memories” continues Ben. “On the front cover there’s a lovely shot of Kiltyclogher in the early 1900s. You can see the horses and carts on the wide street. That’s where we grew up, myself and Charlie. John Gordon was born in Fermanagh just across the border within a mile or mile and a half of Kiltyclogher. Séamus Quinn’s father and grandfather came from within the same sort of distance. Brian Rooney was from a townland about two miles south.”

John Quinn, Séamus Quinn’s grandfather was a regular visitor to the Lennon household and had a strong influence on Ben, Charlie and John Gordon’s music. He was regarded by many as being the most outstanding fiddle player of his time, a tribute indeed extended to John Gordon in later years. Séamus Quinn grew up in Derrygonnelly, no length from Kiltyclogher either and has always retained a strong tie to the region, and indeed to the Lennons, playing regularly with Ben.

Brian Rooney, respectfully nicknamed ‘The Godfather’ and with an album of that title, has spent most of his life since leaving Leitrim in London where his strong playing has earned him a reputation second to none. Fr. Séamus Quinn has described his ability very well. ‘Just once or twice in a generation” he wrote in the sleeve notes to Brian’s second album, “someone arrives who can communicate with us in a more profound way than the rest. Brian Rooney is one of these”.

The two selections of music from Brian with Charlie Lennon on piano were recorded recently. “He’s very inventive” says Charlie, “and plays some beautiful music. I had left Kilty before he started playing but he comes home in August usually and we’d meet him then. I remember meeting him in London as well. He has influenced a lot of the London players like John Carty.”

Maurice Lennon, Ben’s son has carved a singular reputation for himself in contemporary traditional music both as a performer and composer. A founder member of Stockton’s Wing, Maurice plays viola on his two solo tracks on this album. His recent work includes the musical tribute ‘Brian Boru, the High King of Tara’.

“What drove me to do this is the quality of the music” says David Lennon by way of explaining his passion for this project. He doesn’t play but has a keen ear and while he collects recorded music the essence for him is the music played, not the format it comes on. “Every area has a musician that people talk about in revered tones” he continues. “John Gordon is one of those players. I wanted to make sure he wouldn’t become one of these mythical figures, that people would actually hear what he was playing and I thought it was nice to put it in the context of the other musicians. It gives some context to my father’s playing, to Charlie’s, to Maurice’s, Séamus’s and Brian's, because you know they influenced each other to some degree.”

The secrets of Kilty are no longer hidden. As Ben Lennon joked ‘It’s out in the open now’, and this album is a fitting historical document of its rich storehouse of music and the spirit and virtuosity of its famous musical sons.

Click here to purchase "Within a Mile of Kilty" from the .tradnet store at Amazon.

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