Thursday, March 16, 2006

Down From Bell Harbour with Chris Droney

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2006

It’s hard to believe that Chris Droney is 81 years old when you hear the energetic and youthful music on his latest recording ‘Down from Bell Harbour’. You do the sums again just to be sure looking at the sleeve notes where we are told he’s been playing for 73 years and started when he was eight years old. But then Chris is one of those true greats of traditional Irish music and passes it off as if it were nothing. “I suppose it’s the practice or whatever” he says. “It keeps me going anyway.”

Chris’ personality is just like his music- buoyant, jolly, matter of fact. Everything about him is plain as day for all to see, nothing hidden, nothing secret. Whatever Chris has he lets it out for all the world to share. As a result his home has been an open house all his life to visitors of all sorts.

Ciarán MacMathúna recorded in Droney’s Bell Harbour House in the 1950s and returned on several occasions for recordings and to make the television programme ‘My Own Place.” Television crews from Sweden, Germany and Japan have also made programmes in Chris’s home. He and his wife Margaret have entertained groups of visitors from all over the world with a unique modesty and unstinting generously that is at the heart of their very nature.

Chris was one in a family of five boys and while two of his brothers took their concertinas to America when they emigrated years ago, none of them continued in the same earnest way that Chris did. His father Jim, a fluent Irish speaker, played concertina as did his grandfather Michael too. The instrument passed down through several generations to Chris. “I remember when we were small” he recalls, “this is going back to when there was no electricity, no nothing but an ordinary paraffin oil lamp, my father would sit down here and start playing in the night time. He’d sit playing, there was no TV, no radio, I remember he used to close his eyes and be playing away. When he’d be finished I used to pick it up and try to play, sure I hadn’t a note.”

“You’ll probably laugh at this” he continues, “but when I was seven or eight, we had this wardrobe upstairs and there was a mirror the full height of it and I used to go up and put a chair in front of the mirror and sit down. I’d have the concertina on my knee and I hadn’t a note in my head. I used to sit in front of it dragging it in and out and I used to say to myself ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to play a few tunes?’”

Chris indeed learnt his few tunes, his father would show him a few notes at night when he had finished playing and after that he only intervened to correct him when he would play easier notes than those in the tune. ‘Whatever length it will take you to do it right’ he used to tell him; ‘you’ll have to do it.’

His first public performance came around the age of fourteen. “There was a dancehall in Kinvara, Johnson’s Hall and three or four local lads used to play in it for a half a crown a night. John Linnane was one of these and he said to me, ‘If you ever had nine or ten tunes we’d bring you with us and you’d get a half a crown same as us. I remember I was there every night trying to learn tunes, John had me wound up. As soon as I had the ten or twelve tunes I was off and I never looked back after that.”

Much of Chris’s music career has been with céilí bands although he has won nine solo All Ireland titles. “We started a little band here one time. We called it the Bell Harbour Céilí Band. There were six of us and we went everywhere. We had a minibus bringing us and talk about fun and craic in places. It was great,” he says. That band broke up when some of them emigrated to England and then Chris went to play with the Kilfenora Céilí Band. “I played with the old Aughrim Slopes a few times too” he continues, “and I played with the Ballinakill, Aggie Whyte, Eddie Maloney and all that crowd. And then I was in Dublin a few times and I went with the Kincora Céilí Band. Then the Kilfenora broke up and Kitty Linnane, she was the one that organised the Kilfenora, she started up a group and I was twelve years with her. Tommy Peoples, Paddy Mullins, different players played with us. Then I went with the Four Courts, that started about eighteen years ago.” With The Four Courts, Chris has travelled all over and the morning I spoke with him he had played a marathon three and a half hours with them the night before at a céilí, getting home after three in the morning. It didn’t stop him from rising early to tend to the cows and lambs before sitting down to talk to me for a good hour.

Chris’s music is the music of the dance and he loves to dance himself. On nights that he is playing with the band, he leaves the stage for at least one set and maybe to do a bit of sean nós dancing as well.

Chris has made a number of recordings starting with ‘The Flowing Tide’ recorded in New York in 1962. His last recording ‘The Fertile Rock’ was released in 1995 and now his latest and undoubtedly his finest recording ‘Down from Bell Harbour’. Produced with great care by Nóirín Ní Ghrádaigh, the album exudes a joy and energy that captures the essence of Chris’s music to perfection. Jacinta McEvoy on piano and guitar compliments Chris’s playing with an empathy that belies their short experience playing together. “We had no bother doing it” says Chris. “It was awfully easy play with Jacinta. There’s no doubt about it she’s brilliant and she was the loveliest person to have making that CD because there was no such thing as fuss or going back criticising. I was delighted when the CD was made and I heard it played.” Cló Iar Chonnachta put the project together and took a lot of care in preparation and production.

Many of the tunes on the album hadn’t been recorded before. “Some of the reels might have been recorded” says Chris, “but they were with different selections. The waltz ‘Bell Harbour Hills’ was a tune of Chris’ father Jim’s and Chris had totally forgotten it until one night playing at an eightieth birthday party locally it came back to him. “I’d safely say I hadn’t played it in fifty years” says Chris. “I have played it in several places since and I have asked fifty people or more – nobody ever heard it. Strange thing about it, my father had words to it. When he passed away the words passed away as well.”

No stranger to composition, ‘Peaceful Corcomroe’ is a slow air Chris composed himself just a few years ago. He has played it many times particularly in churches at funeral masses since then. The ruin of Corcomroe Abbey is only a short mile and a half from Chris’s house and was the inspiration for the title. Chris played at Corcomroe for the Easter Dawn masses for ten years when they were held there and his last album took its title from the abbey. “Where Corcomroe Abbey is built is called the Valley of the Fertile Rock” says Chris, “and the reason its called that is that the abbey was built in 1197 and the stones that built the abbey were all collected locally. They made fields where they collected the stones and so it’s called the valley of the fertile rock.”

Chris’s life has been one of hard work. “I used to be out threshing corn from eight o’clock in the morning to eight o’clock at night. I often came back at nine o’clock, cleaned myself up, shaved and headed off to play music for a couple of hours” he says. “I never drank, I smoked in the early stages but I quit them too. I keep myself. If you’re healthy, you don’t mind.

Chris has seven children and both Ann and Francis are All Ireland concertina champions too. In turn, Chris’s grandchildren are continuing the tradition playing traditional music as well with some of them diversifying from the concertina to other instruments. Pride of place in Chris’s home is the display case housing his All Ireland medals and next to them the silver spoon bearing the palace emblem, a chrysanthemum sent by the Emperor of Japan following his visit to Ireland as Crown Prince in the 1980s when Chris performed for him. “The Japanese people, when they come here, no way will they touch the spoon because the palace emblem is sacred in Japan” says Chris.

We finish talking with many invitations to visit anytime I’m passing. You could talk forever with Chris Droney and you could listen to his music just as long. We have a lot to learn from musicians like Chris, humility, modesty, the accuracy of his interpretation and his unparalleled dedication to the dance music of Ireland. “I could listen to it forever if I was never playing” he says summing up his love for the music and summing up the joy it creates in his own life as well as for those of us lucky enough to hear him play.

Click here to buy Chris Droney's album 'Down From Bell Harbour' from the .tradnet store on Amazon.

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