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Doctor Liz has many strings to her bow


Traditional fiddle player Liz Doherty has packed an astonishing diversity of musical activity into her still young life. Paul Dromey finds out just how much.

Liz Doherty is a bundle of amazing musical energy! Noted exponent of the Donegal and Cape Breton fiddle styles, member of all female Irish traditional group The Bumble Bees, Lecturer in Traditional Music at the Music Department of University College Cork with a Doctorate in Music under her belt: she recently released her first solo album "Last Orders" and also features on The Bumble Bees second album "Buzzin'" {Bee Have Records CD001}. And that's just the start!

"People have been on to me for years to do a solo album but it's not something I'd really considered," Liz remarks. "But over the last year and a half, I've been doing a lot of workshops, mainly in Scotland and England. The workshops are usually followed by concerts and people would ask me if I had any CDs. Some years ago, I made a demo in Cape Breton with Ryan MacNeil. Simon Thoumire heard the demo on a visit to Cork and asked me if I'd be interested in making an album for his Foot Stompin' label."

"Ryan MacNeil's piano playing on the album is brilliant and I just love Ian Carr's guitar accompaniment. It's different and he approaches tunes in a fresh way. It gives the music a real edge, particularly on the highlands which are just far out." Gino Lupari of Four Men And A Dog, guitarist Tony McManus and fiddle player Claire McLaughlin also feature on the album. Listening to "Last Orders" or to the terrific "Buzzin;", one is struck by the tremendous joie de vivre in Liz Doherty's playing. Her boundless curiosity and enthusiasm for the music has led her far beyond Irish traditional music, to the Cape Breton style she loves so much and on to a broad appreciation of the traditional music of many countries.

But big trees from little acorns grow. A remarkable career began in Buncrana, Co Donegal where Liz grew up. "I'm the eldest of four girls and my mother has always been big into Irish dancing. As soon as we could walk, we were sent to dancing classes. Dinny McLaughlin was the dance teacher in the town. A brilliant fiddle player, he also taught pretty well every traditional music instrument. Everyone who went to Dinny for dancing wound up learning music as well. So, we'd trot off for music lessons on Mondays and dancing lessons on Wednesdays."

"I learned the tin whistle, moved on to the fiddle, tried the piano accordion for a while, tried the harp and the piano - basically did the rounds," Liz laughs. "We were competing and winning in Dance and Group Playing Categories in the Fleadhs but I never really went down the solo road. That meant that I knew only ten tunes or so, but I knew them really well. I knew nothing about the bigger traditional picture. Dinny played with a group called Aileach and we heard them a few times but that was about it."

McLaughlin's classes ceased when Liz was 15 and her interest waned. Her real epiphany occurred during her Leaving Certificate year in 1987. "That summer, I had a choice of holidaying in either Butlins or going to a Fiddle Week in Glencolmcille, organised by Cairdeas na bhFeidleiri. The family went to Butlins while I headed for Glencolmcille. I didn't have a clue about a Donegal playing tradition, I just knew the Fleadhs. When I heard all these incredible fiddlers all playing together and the craic and everything that went with it in Bide's Bar, I decided that, come hell or high water, I was going to be one of them - even if it took 20 or 30 years.

" Among the stalwart young musicians present that fateful week were Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, the late Frankie Kennedy, Ciaran Tourish, Paul O'Shaughnessy, Seamus Gibson and Dermod McLaughlin. Liz had already decided to study music at University College Cork but her eyes were only now opening to the richness and power of traditional music. "The fact that I played piano for my Entrance test shows how little regard I had for myself as a traditional player."

Thanks mainly to the foresight of Micheal O'Suilleabhain, UCC's enlightened policy towards traditional music and musicians had already attracted many players from all over the country to study at the College Music Department. Through the Traditional Ensemble Courses, Liz met other players and joined in informal music sessions. "At first, I hardly knew any tunes at all," she recalls. "But I spent that whole summer in Cork, immediately after Glencolmciille, playing and devouring music. I was learning about 10 tunes a day."

"I was enjoying myself hugely, playing in sessions and learning loads of tunes, particularly from Maria O'Connell. In my second year, concertina player Niall Vallely from Armagh came down to the College and we began playing Northern tunes together." That Doherty/Vallely partnership was the beginning of the group Nomos. By the turn of the nineties, Nomos, with an engine room comprised of Frank Torpey {bodhran} and Gerry McKee {mando 'cello} were already beginning to make a name for themselves around the Cork trad session scene.

Liz graduated first in her class from the Music Department in 1991, the same year that Nomos made their first demo album. "I now had a playing career and a B.Mus and had become a fully-fledged traditional musician but I was unclear as to what I wanted to do. The obvious thing was to become a teacher but I'd had enough of exams for a while. I tend to work very hard at anything I do but eventually get bored and want to move on to something else."

"Obviously I wanted to do something with my degree but I didn't know what that might be. One day, I was talking to Micheal O'Suilleabhain and he asked me if I wanted to do a H Dip or go off and play with the band. I'd been listening to Cape Breton music for some time and I said that what I'd really like to do was go and live there for a year. During my third year in college, I had done a wee Scottish tour with ten other Donegal fiddlers. One night, we were on stage before Alasdair Fraser. Alasdair played a brilliant set of Cape Breton tunes and, ever since, I'd been fascinated by that music."

"Back in Cork, I was telling Micheal O'Suilleabhain about the tour and this amazing music I'd heard. He was opening his post while we talked and handed me a Natalie MacMaster tape someone had sent him. John Morris Rankin was playing piano on it and, again, I 'd never heard anything like that before. Soon, I'd learned a few tunes which Tommy Hayes heard me play at a College Traditional Society session. He sent me some Jerry Holland tapes and my interest just continued to grow from there."

"Anyway, I had this dream of going to Cape Breton, even though I still knew very little about it, or even exactly where it was. Micheal suggested that I do an M.A. on Cape Breton music. It hadn't occurred to me that I could do something like that. Anyway, I registered as an M.A. student and headed off in April 1992." That M.A. project evolved into a four year PhD on Cape Breton music. Liz divided her time between field work in Cape Breton, writing her thesis and playing with Nomos. Things were beginning to take off for Nomos and their debut CD, "I Won't Be Afraid Any More" was released in 1994 on Solid Records.

Micheal O'Suilleabhain left UCC for the University of Limerick in 1994. Mel Mercier took up the position with responsibility for Ethno Musicology and Irish Traditional Music. Liz Doherty was offered a part-time position as Lecturer in Irish Traditional Music on a year-to-year contract. She was now lecturing, studying for her PhD and playing with Nomos. In her own words: "something had to give ."

"The thing I was least happy doing at that stage was playing with Nomos. I didn't feel that I was playing particularly well and was still unsure whether I wanted to be an academic or a musician. I still had the mentality that it had to be one or the other. I loved the whole Cape Breton project and I was enjoying teaching. I left Nomos in March '95 and other than a regular Friday session with Derek Hickey at the Lobby Bar in Cork, I devoted my time to the thesis." Derek Hickey went on to become the regular button accordion player with De Dannan. By the end of the '95/96 academic year, Liz had completed her PhD.

"By May, the thesis was handed in and, as it was exam time in the College, I had 200 scripts on my desk for correction. I had to defend the PhD on a Wednesday, the exam correction deadline was the Thursday and, on the Monday morning before these two huge things, I got a telephone call from Bill Whelan to do "Riverdance", standing in for Eileen Ivers and , starting on the Thursday." She laughs at the memory now but, incredible as it seems, managed to complete her work, learn the music, fly out and do the show for two weeks in Hammersmith. "That was good," she smiles, "because it threw me back into learning tunes again. That summer, I went back to Cape Breton for a while and just started getting out and about and playing again. The following February, I joined The Bumble Bees."

The wonderful Bumble Bees (Mary Shannon (banjo, fiddle, and a variety of other stringed instruments), Laoise Kelly (Irish harp) and Colette O'Leary (button accordion)) had just released their first album and asked Liz to augment the group, something which has developed into a permanent membership. "I'm really lucky," she reflects. I've realised that it doesn't have to be a choice between playing and academia. I work three days in the College and I'm really busy then but it means that I have long weekends to devote to playing and touring."

She plays and tours with The Bumble Bees, her Liz Doherty Band, as featured on "Last Orders" and with an 18 piece Fiddle Ensemble called Fiddlesticks. "I've always loved the sound of traditional fiddle ensembles, right back to that first time in Bide's Bar in Glencolmcille. It has an orchestral power but also a wonderful raw energetic feeling. Being aware that there were so many good fiddle players in the Music Department, I thought it might be a good idea to form such a group. I don't get as much time to play in College sessions as I'd like so I set up a course called Celtic Fiddle Styles & Repertoires which got them all together."

"One concert led to another and now the ensemble includes pianos and Cape Breton dancers. Last May, we recorded an album in the Everyman Palace Theatre Cork. No audience, just ourselves but the theatre atmosphere was perfect. The album will be available on Footstompin Records, probably by February 1st."

Liz is also editing a mammoth work, "The Complete Irish Music Collection of Captain Francis O'Neill," scheduled for publication within the year. It will contain over 2,500 of O'Neill's collected tunes, bringing together for the first time, his four published works in one reference book. She soon discovered that many of the tunes overlap, from one book to another and even within the one publication. Over 3,000 tunes in all had to be checked, duplication discarded, and then indexed according to the Breatnach Index, a system whereby any tune can be located melodically through an easily accessible numbers system.

"In 1991, John Loesberg of Ossian Publications in Cork rang me and asked if I'd be interested in putting a collection of O'Neill's work together," she explains rather wryly. "In my naivete, I had no idea of the enormity of the project and thought it would take a couple of months. But, when I do anything, I like to do it right and it just got bigger and bigger. As I was doing millions of other things, it would get shelved from time to time, usually while others were proofing the work, and then I'd return to it and get through loads of work. Many people have been involved in indexing, cross-referencing, typesetting and proofing and we're now nearing publication date."

After finishing the article and given the amount of musical activity that Liz packed into such a young life, I thought that mentioning her age would be relevant - she is 29. As a further postscript I forgot to mention that she was responsible for bringing over a dozen leading Cape Breton musicians including Jerry Holland, Buddy and Natalie MacMaster, John Morris Rankin, Tracy Dares and Dave MacIsaac to Cork for Eigse na Laoi, the UCC Traditional Music Festival in 1993, out of which an album of wonderful live Cape Breton music was recorded.

I'm sure there will more postscripts to add in future.

Paul Dromey

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