Monday, June 18, 2007

Tulla Ceilli Band - A Celebration of Sixty Years

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2007

It was refreshing to meet Mark Donnellan on a summer’s evening in Gort to mull over the Tulla Céilí Band and their sixty years. Mark of course doesn’t remember all those years only being on earth for about half of them, but his life, like that of Martin Hayes’ had been entwined with the band. Since he was able to play to the standard required and when there was a space available on the stage, Mark was called on to play with the band. His father Francie Donnellan sat front row with P.J. Hayes, Martin’s father, for many years. Uncannily, they both passed away within a year of one another at the turn of this latest century, Francie in June 2000 and P.J. in May 2001. Mark and Martin now carry their fathers’ mantle and play the fiddles in the band, although more often than not its just Mark, as Martin has his own very successful musical career. However, he relishes the return to the band and as Mark tells me “Martin comes every so often and when he comes everyone plays better, everyone is in great form and the band always plays better.”

Mark is the youngest of the Donnellans, the last of nine, and he is the one running the family farm in Kilmurray in east Clare. He learnt his music informally from his father at home. “He didn’t really teach. You’d be picking it up away from him – it was a handy way of doing it. I’d say if I had to go to a teacher I probably wouldn’t play at all.”

He remembers his first outing with the band, “I was about 12 or 13 when I went with them first, I was going to secondary school at the time.” For those first few years it all depended on whether or not the stage was big enough to take the extra musician.

He became a fully fledged member of the band when he was fifteen or sixteen and was given his own microphone. “I’d say Haulie got a few new microphones and I got one, I was going to all the céilís then.” Haulie is Michael McKee, one of two accordion players with the band, and also their sound man. Haulie from Feakle joined the band in 1977. Sean Donnelly is the second accordion player and he comes from Abbey near Portumna in Co. Galway. J.J. Conway on flute is a Kilfenora man and his presence means the old rivalry of the 50s and 60 between the Kilfenora and Tulla Céilí bands is never forgotten. They competed against one another year on year at the Fleadh Ceoils. Mick Flanagan on drums is the man responsible for the unique rhythm of the Tulla.

Jim Corry, a Tulla native, is the piano player with the band and Jennifer Lenihan and Martin Glynn play flutes. Jennifer joined the band some ten or twelve years ago when the late J.C. Talty left. “J.C. was gas" says Mark. “You had to be in tune, in between every set he’d say ‘Sound you’re A!’. He was some man for tunes, he knew every tune. Anytime we were ever making a CD, we’d ring J.C. and he’d have all the names of the tunes.”

Ten years ago when the band celebrated their 50th anniversary, P.J. Hayes told me that 50 musicians has passed through the ranks of the band and in all they had performed in the region of three and a half thousand gigs. Of those gigs P.J. reckoned he had only missed about three or four. P.J. was the glue holding the band together. He took on the role of leader from Seán Reid sometime in the mid 1950’s and his commitment was certainly a lot of the reason the band continued and retained its unique sound. The band was formed in 1946 by Theresa Tubridy to enter a competition in Limerick, Féile Luimní. On fiddles were P.J. Hayes, Paddy Canny, Aggie Whyte and Bert McNulty, Jim and Paddy Donoghue played flutes, Joe Cooley was on accordion and Theresa herself on piano. They won that first competition and continued as a band after that. Many other illustrious players come and went, Paddy O’Brien on accordion, Willie Clancy, Martin Mulhare, Dr. Bill Loughnane, Peter O’Loughlin and Bobby Casey to name a few. Through all the years the Tulla weathered many ups and downs, from the popularity of the 1950s to the 1970s when dancehalls started to close through to the 1990s when the set dancing revival was in full swing. At no time did the band stop or break up or did they ever consider compromising to suit the times.

In the notes to their 50th anniversary album, Martin Hayes describes how the band was run as ‘the first example of participative democracy’ he had ever encountered. Decisions are made collectively, never going against the wishes of any individual musician. Since P.J. passed away, no one has taken the lead. Mark Donnellan recalls someone saying to Sean Donnelly “Isn’t the Tulla Band kind of funny now, it’s kind of like a co-op!” This co-operative approach is possibly one of the greatest factors contributing to the band’s longevity. Everything is done in a very relaxed manner; they share the responsibility and enjoy the gigs together. The comfortable camaraderie between the band members comes through in the easy flow of their music.

This latest recording their 60th Anniversary Celebration, was recorded in Bohan’s in Feakle. (Their 50th`album was recorded in Pepper’s in Feakle).

“We do one about every ten years” smiles Mark, basically because that’s the way it has always been done. Last June, we were cutting silage at home and we all went up to Bohan’s and we cut the album in two days. Myself and Sean and J.J. met in Peppers one night and we stuck a few tunes together. Any tunes we put together we didn’t put on the album. Basically when it came to the day we just played away – we took whatever sounded good. Funnily enough none of these selections are on any of our previous recordings.” Reels, jigs and hornpipes are the fare on the new CD with a lovely flute duet featuring Jennifer and Martin Glynn, and a fiddle duet featuring Mark with Martin Hayes.

Playing in a céilí band can be quite arduous. “Its pure marathon business really” says Mark. “If you didn’t do a céilí every month, your fingers would cramp up and your shoulders and elbows would start to give in. But if you’re doing a céilí or two a month you’d be fine.”

The musical repertoire has not changed substantially during the lifetime of the band. Mark relates that sometime Sean will introduce a new tune and within a sort space of time everyone has picked it up. They don’t practise as such, they are so used to playing together as a unit that there’s no need. Lately Mick Flanagan has been taking it a little easier and while the band have had excellent drummers sit in, no-one can match Mick’s rhythmic style. “Mick is a constant” says Mark. “When we have a different drummer, we are a different band.”

It’s one of the challenges facing a band such as the Tulla, maintaining the integrity of sound whilst at the same time taking new members on board. It’s also a fairly serious commitment for any musician, to be available for whatever céilís come in, and these days most musicians have their own commitments to gigs and sessions.

The band has travelled abroad to Great Britain and North America on numerous occasions where they have been well received and feted. They played in Carnegie Hall and were presented on one occasion with the key to the city of Chicago.

They play most of their céilís now locally in Galway or Clare. McCarthy’s in Kilbeacanty has remained one of their consistent venues. “The crowd have never dwindled” says Mark, “and we play a rake of céilís there every year”.

Looking to the future, it will be more of the same, Mark sums it up very well when he says; “It was there before us and hopefully it’ll be there after us.”

‘The Tulla Céilí Band 60th Anniversary Celebration’ is available on Claddagh records

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Tim Dennehy's Old Boots and Flying Sandals

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2007

Old Boots and Flying Sandals marks yet another creative chapter in the life of traditional singer and songwriter Tim Dennehy. This is his sixth album of songs and is the first collection entirely of his own material. Tim has been writing songs and setting poems to music for many years and with each album we are treated to some new material from his own pen. ‘Old Boots and Flying Sandals’ brings together these songs and favourite poems in a well chosen compilation. Many of the songs will be familiar, some have been re recorded with new arrangements, and some are entirely new.

“I was asked on many occasions to put the original stuff together” says Tim. “That’s what spurred me. It’s kind of a marker. This album will be a way to give my own songs a stage and a forum because I’ve never really pushed that aspect. I’ve been very privileged when some people have recorded them, but I have been slow to send them off to people and shy about it too. I’d like the songs to be developed and discovered in their own way.”

‘Farewell to Pripyat’ is one of Tim’s best known compositions. Written in April 1987, on the first anniversary of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, it was recorded by Christy Moore and as a result was performed all over the world including in countries close to where the disaster happened. “I’m very pleased” says Tim, “because it is one of songs I’ve written outside my own experience. I have never been to Chernobyl but I was very touched by the whole thing. Christy got a tremendous reaction to the song so I was very glad it travelled to countries affected by it.”

From setting poems to music to writing complete songs of his own, Tim’s song writing has developed over the years. “I suppose it goes back to Sigerson Clifford’s ‘Ballad of the Tinker’s Daughter’” he says. “I saw it for the first time and I decided to put an air to it, that at least was one step toward writing my own songs, putting an air to his and to a couple of other poems. The poetry has been very central to my song writing and it’s very strong on this album as well.”

Growing up in South Kerry, Tim was most influenced by his parents who were song lovers and singers. His mother sang as she went about the house every day. She came from Cill Rialaig, and her father Padraig Kelly was one of the oldest voices recorded in the Iveragh peninsula. Tim was born in Ballinskelligs and later, the family moved to Caherciveen. His childhood memories are encapsulated in his songs .The title track of this album ‘Old Boots and Flying Sandals’ is a soundscape of memory. “I still remember vividly getting up in the morning and hearing all these farm sounds,” says Tim. “I remember my father and the mushrooms being cooked in the morning in June. You’d wake up and get this aroma of mushrooms and he’d be going out to work.” Tim was inspired to write this song and got the title from a line in a Patrick Kavanagh poem called ‘The Long Garden’. “It’s a young person trying to capture how he saw life as a young boy in South Kerry in the 1950s. I think without the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh the song might never have happened” says Tim.

Many of Tim’s songs are very personal, “I particularly associate some of the songs with when there were changes in my life because change can affect you in an odd sort of way, and we were moving from Dublin to Clare, having thought about it for a number of years. Our children were growing up and the earlier songs you will find on the first two albums were associated around that time in the early 80s. ‘Keep in Touch’ was one of the earliest.” Tim describes the song as one of hope and friendship, inspired by a poem of the same name written by Brendan Kennelly. It remains one of Tim’s most popular songs.

‘Sceilig Mhicil’ was written in those early days as well following one of many trips back to the Skeilig Rock. Tim had left Kerry to go to training college in Dublin and later to work there. He was very active musically and was one of the founders of the Góilín Singers club. The club brought him back to singing and this led to him returning to Kerry more often. In the summers he would visit Skeilig Rock several times. “It was my sort of return journey to Kerry” he says.

The Góilín opened up a whole world of singing and listening and although it wasn’t a strong part of the club, there was an element of song writing there. “Liam Weldon would have been the big songwriter for us that time. He was a great wordsmith, and he was a great traditional singer as well. Barry Gleeson was beginning his song writing. He was very good with words as well.”

“In my memory today there were much more traditional songs, so the song writing came from a personal impulse. Tim still doesn’t regard himself as a songwriter in the sense of getting up on any regular basis and sitting down and writing a song – “That’s not how I work. They come through a reaction or an impulse to a certain thing that may or may not be already there. Very often they’re very personal. I regard myself much more as a traditional singer in the Irish and English language. The song writing is a very important facet of my life and I’m very privileged in a way to be able to write and to have written and to be able to share these with people.”

Tim doesn’t write according to any rules or particular method. Snatches of words, a snippet of melody will start the process. He might find himself driving and singing and at journey’s end write down a verse or two. He gives time to his song making and feels that because he doesn’t tour extensively he has the time and energy to put into this creativity.

“I find I have some empathy with the theme of the song and often they’re very personal, so I suppose central to this album is the family then. There’s the song to my mother, a thank you song and a reminisce. ‘The Parted Years’ – once you get the idea for a song like that, it’s not that difficult, because the living of those years is still there like yesterday to me.

’The Memorial’ is a lot sadder. Pat my brother was only seventeen when he died. Once you get over the sadness, there’s the days of being together, the sharing even though it was a brief few years.”

The environment and nature are also themes close to Tim’s heart. Like ‘Sceilig Mhichil’, ‘The Cry of the Mountain’ is a song born of passion, peace and prayerfulness. It was written after a day on Mullaghmore Mountain in the Burren, Co. Clare. “I regard these places as genuine holy places” says Tim, “a place that is quite sacred. When I sit in these places and let them breathe through me and breathe over me, when I go away from them that aspect is still there.”

The opening track on ‘Old Boots and Flying Sandals’ is ‘Leaba Síoda’ a poem of Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’s set to music. The idea for the poem came about when Nuala was hitching from Galway to Dingle and on the road in Clare saw a sign for Labasheedy and underneath the name in Irish which could have two meanings, the Grave of Síoda or the Bed of Silk – which was it? By the time Nuala got to Kerry the poem was shaped in her mind. Tim got together with Garry O’Briain to compose the music for the poem. Garry also recorded and mixed the album as well as being producer with Tim. Playing guitars, mandocello and keyboards on the album, he is joined by some exceptional musicians, Nollaig Ní Chathasaigh and Jesse Smith on fiddle and viola, Liz Johnson on cello, Josephine Marsh on accordions and Áine Derrane on harmony vocals.

It’s impossible to give a run down on all the songs on the album – numbering sixteen in all, it is a journey through the beautiful settings of the poetry of Percy B. Shelley (‘To Jane’) , Patrick McDonagh (‘Be Still as you are Beautiful’) and James Fenton ‘I Know what I’m missing’ to the poignant ‘Scarúint’, a homage to the late Junior Crehan, long time friend and neighbour of Tim’s since his move to Co. Clare in the 1980s.

Tim’s love of performance takes him festivals where he sometimes also hosts workshops in singing and song writing.

In the coming months Tim will be performing at the Willie Clancy Summer School, the Catskills Irish Arts Festival, the Augusta Irish Arts week, Caherciveen Celtic Music Festival, Feakle Traditional Festival and Éigse Mrs. Crotty. ‘Old Boots and Flying Sandals’ is available through Claddagh Records and Tim’s website is at

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