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THE RUSSELL FAMILY "The Russell Family" Ossian OSSCD8

The main reason for Doolin's monumental repute, in the first instance, was the playing and singing of the Russell brothers, Micho, Pakie and Gussie. A fine cross-section of this was presented to the world in Topic's LP "The Russell Family", released in 1975: Micho, the furthest-travelled, most extrovert and best-known of the three, was subsequently featured on a solo LP on Free Reed, and was a familiar figure at gatherings and in the media until his death in a car crash in 1994 - an untimely demise, it has to be said, even though he was 79 at the time. Pakie died not long after the original release of the LP, and the reticent Gussie is now the only survivor of the trio.

The Russells were the custodians of a unique local tradition, and one whose uniqueness was largely conditioned by the social and geographical peculiarities of the area from which they came. Contrary to widespread belief, Gaelic did not die out in all of Clare in the last century, and the Doolin-Fisherstreet area in the rugged northwest, nearest to, and in touch with, the Aran Islands, retained the national tongue into the lifetime of the three brothers, whose parents were both native speakers. This fact may also help to account for the great emphasis which they placed on perpetuating 'correct' traditional settings of songs and tunes, and traditional styles of performance.

Micho's erudition and exuberance endeared him to all who came into contact with him, and one can still hear the glee with which he attacked every song, all of which, however disparate their origins, emerged as distinctive manifestations of the man. He had a definite penchant for the light and silly songs (whilst regarding their singing as a matter of great importance!), and this is reflected in the choice of songs here, some of which, like St Kevin of Glendalough - learned by Micho's mother from an Ennistymon priest around the turn of the century - came from very close to home. All were sung in a highly distinctive style, with dynamics and fluidity of tempo which recall sean-nĘs singers in Irish, and with a declamatory emphasis that was all his own. Most illuminating of all, perhaps, is the amazing When Musheen went to Bunnan, learned via S,amus Mac Math£na from P†draig O Tuama of C£il Aodha, which illustrates perfectly the link between the singing tradition in Irish and older western styles in English.

Nor was Micho any slouch on flute and whistle, both of which he played in a very archaic-sounding style, often duetting with whistle-player Gussie. Duets, and solos by both brothers, are all featured here, Gussie demonstrating what a virtuoso he could be on the quiet. And then there is Pakie. In a county renowned for its concertina players, Pakie was a major star in the firmament, exemplifying beautifully the relaxed and lilting approach that is so characteristic of the old Clare style, with the needs of the dancer never too far from the mind. One tune particularly worthy of note is his setting of the Scottish reel The De'il among the Tailors: LT readers may be interested and gratified to note that dance tunes from Scotland were much played and appreciated in Clare during the Russells' boyhood.

Re-release of the Topic LP was long overdue; now at last, courtesy of Ossian, we can enjoy on CD this rare and valuable flowering of a living tradition with a character all of its own.

Christy MacHale

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This album was reviewed in Issue 29 of The Living Tradition magazine.