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Cathal McConnell
The Hand of Cathal
Living Tradition Issue 31. By Pete Heywood

Cathal McConnell

" .. To say that he masterminded the whole project would not in any way overstate his work - their latest album, "The West of Ireland" has the hand of Cathal stamped firmly on it."

" .. Cathal is still listening actively to other musicians and when he is not playing in the band you are still likely to find him at the heart of a session."

Cathal McConnell is the longest serving member of The Boys of the Lough, touring under that name in 1967 along with Robin Morton and Tommy Gunn. However, the group with which most people associate the root of today's Boys of the Lough, came together when two duos, Cathal McConnell & Robin Morton (who were at that time touring the British folk clubs), and Aly Bain & Mike Whellans did some concerts together using that name.

This was in the early 1970s and traditional music played by skilled traditional musicians was very much a closed book to most people. Good fiddle players were rare; hardly anybody had even seen a set of uilleann pipes and Robin even had to explain to people what a bodhran was. It is difficult now for people to fully appreciate just how special it was to have any group of virtuoso musicians playing together. The unique combination of traditional musicians in The Boys of the Lough went further, highlighting both the similarities and the differences in the various traditions of Britain and Ireland.

As if these combinations were not sufficient to result in some unique musical sounds, The Boys of the Lough had a deliberate policy of using "guest" musicians or singers both for their albums and concerts. Perhaps this was a reflection of the time and certainly enjoyable, but it also supported their aim of raising people's awareness of traditional music. This aim became a total commitment which gave the band their direction and the result has been one of continuous variation in the "flavour" of their concerts and their recordings.

In the early phase of the group there were a few personnel changes as the band settled in to life as a professional touring band. There were no role models to follow, The Boys were the pathfinders. Around the time of their first recording, Mike Whellans left and was replaced by Dick Gaughan. By the time their second album was made, Dick had left and Dave Richardson had joined. From 1974, Aly Bain from Shetland, Dave Richardson from Northumberland, Cathal from Fermanagh in the West of Ireland and Robin Morton from Portadown formed the musical heart of the band.

Robin Morton left the band in 1979 to concentrate on other aspects of the music and through his artistic directorship of the Edinburgh Folk Festival and own Temple Records label, he has been a leading and sometimes outspoken influence on the Scottish Folk scene in general, doing much to champion its cause.

From this foundation it has been the core of Aly, Dave and Cathal that has been the constant during the last three decades. Aly of course has become as famous as any traditional musician of this generation and despite having the spotlight of the media firmly shining on him, he has still continued to share his stage with guest musicians. Dave, in addition to his musical role, chose to take on the burden of management of the group, not an easy task and one that few people have done successfully over such a long period of time. Cathal appears to have taken more of a back seat but that appearance is deceptive.

In addition to his musical gifts, Cathal has a good grasp of understatement and self-effacement. He would not be a good person to write his own publicity material - he would probably limit it to a couple of sentences saying that he played the flute and whistle and perhaps even mention that he sings a bit! He would be the last person to tell an interviewer how central he was to the latest recording project by The Boys of the Lough. To say that he masterminded the whole project would not in any way overstate his work - their latest album, "The West of Ireland" has the hand of Cathal stamped firmly on it.

Cathal McConnell is first and foremost an Irish traditional musician. Anybody who scratches the surface will come to realise that as a musician, he has a very wide outlook but he is one who shows great taste and great aesthetics which he has not sacrificed to market-driven projects either on or off stage.

Cathal comes from County Fermanagh, an area rich in musicians and can trace flute-playing in his family back through four generations. By the time he was eleven years old he was playing the whistle, encouraged by his father and Peter Flannagan, a local teacher. At fifteen he took up the flute and in 1962, aged 18, became the all-Ireland champion on both instruments.

In addition to his recordings with The Boys, Cathal has appeared on various albums. In 1976 Topic re-released "An Irish Jubilee", an album of Cathal and Robin Morton first issued by Mercier Press in Cork in 1970 and Topic also released "Lough Erne's Shore" a solo album by Cathal of songs and flute and whistle tunes. He has also recorded and toured with Len Graham, mainly in America, Len of course also appearing as a guest on The Boys 1980 album "Regrouped".

His instrumental skills can sometimes mask the fact that Cathal is a fine traditional singer with a large repertoire which includes long ballads and serious songs, as well as some more humorous pieces.

There have been many descriptions of his stage presence, endearing himself to audiences wherever he has appeared, and Cathal has long since learned to use his natural Irish charm and mannerisms to maximum effect! That is not to say that it is just a stage act - it is too deeply ingrained for that, but like any great communicator, he has learned to use the bits that work best. Cathal is quite happy to portray the simplicity of a rural Irishman, but that can make it too easy to underestimate him.

The way Cathal set about masterminding "The West of Ireland" project gives some insight into what makes him tick.

For somebody with such a deep love and knowledge of the music, the content was important. The title track is obviously Irish, but all the others apart from three are Irish, most with a western origin from Fermanagh, Cork and Kerry. Many of the tunes and songs appear on the album because of Cathal's collecting activities, mainly in the 1960s but as far back as the 50s when he collected from all sources both directly and from the radio.

Cathal learned "The West of Ireland" back in the 1960s from two brothers Seamus and Packie McBrien from Derrylin, Co. Fermanagh, then in summer 1976 he made his first recording of it, on the Boys of the Lough album "The Piper's Broken Finger". He heard "The Maid with the Bonny Brown Hair" from a radio programme - "The Ballad Makers' Saturday Night" - broadcast from Dublin in the late 1950s. A Northern song, it is included in Colm O'Lochlain's well known book "Irish Street Ballads" (1939), taken down from a fisherman in Ardglass, Co. Down in 1913. The late 19th century collections of Joyce, Levey and Petrie also contain the song and an early recording by Richard Hayward from Ulster must also have helped the song become more widely known.

"The Rocks of Bawn" is a Cavan song popular among Ulster traditional singers, including the well-known Co. Fermanagh singer Paddy Tunney, from whom Cathal learned it in the 1960s. The song was noted by Joyce and Colm O'Lochlainn and also is included in the great Ulster anthology "The Sam Henry Collection."

The tunes come from various sources. "The Green Linnet Jig" is one Cathal learned from the Green Linnet ceilidh band from Dublin in the 1960s. "John Ward's Jig" came from the late John Ward, fiddle player from Co. Leitrim who had a stock of rare old tunes. "Mama's Pet" came from the late Sean McAloon, piper and fiddle player from Altawalk, near Rosslea, Co. Fermanagh.

One of the album's guest musicians, Mick O'Brien begins with a beautiful air, "My Bonnie Blue Eyed Lassie", which Cathal learned from the singing of the late Seamus Ennis, who himself collected it from Elizabeth Cronin of Co. Cork. Cathal first recorded the song in August 1975 on the Boys of the Lough LP "Lochaber No More". The song is of Scottish origin. Different versions refer to the "waters of Ochil" (Fife) or the "high streams o' Yarrow" (Borders). "The Boys of Twenty Five" came to Cathal from fiddler Mick Hoy, his old friend from Cosbytown, Blaney, Enniskillen on the shores of Lough Erne in County Fermanagh. They have played music together since the early 1960s. Mick learned the tune from fiddler Andy Cassidy in the 1930s.

On one track, "The Strokestown" from the playing of piper Peter Carberry from Kenagh, Co. Longford, Cathal asked guest Mick O'Brien to play a very rare flat set of pipes (down in Bb) made by Alain Froment of Kenmare, Co. Kerry. These demonstrate the beautiful sweet low sound of the pipes as they were prior to the 1880s - a time when they were played for recreation rather than professionally. The subsequent development by the immigrant Taylor brothers in Philadelphia of sets in concert D, which had greater volume and were pitched to play along with the fiddle and the more usual D flute, changed the face of piping forever. These new sets were more suited to the demands of public performance on the concert and music hall stage and quickly outgrew the earlier type of pipes in popularity. Choosing these flat pipes set Cathal another challenge as he played a Bb flute to complete this unique pairing of instruments. A Bb flute is a big flute, difficult to fill and to finger, but an effort that he felt was worthwhile because of the unusual sound.

Of the tracks that are not Irish, Cathal had a hand on all of them. Kathryn Tickell, another of the guests on the album, combines "Small Coals and Little Money", an old Northumbrian tune, with "The Lisheen Reel", a reel from southwest Ireland. Cathal learned that reel from Dennis Murphy back in 1972 which originally came from his father, Bill the Weaver. This combination was Cathal's idea. He had to change the key of the reel to suit the pipes again adding his own touch playing the Bb flute.

Other tracks give Northumberland a little more of a shout than usual - continuing an association with Irish music that goes back to the cultural interactions of Aiden of Lindisfarne in the mid 7th century when as part of the explosive Diaspora of the Irish church he converted Northumberland. Dave Richardson considers his own tunes to be Northumbrian tunes and can now claim that his Calliope House is the best selling Northumbrian jig ever!

Cathal also chose two Canadian tunes, a fiddle march composed by Patricia Chafe from Cape Breton Island and a reel originally from the French community in New Brunswick, Canada, kept alive by the playing of brothers Gerry and Bobby Robichaud and introduced to Cathal by Massachusetts's fiddler Frank Ferrel.

Cathal is still listening actively to other musicians and when he is not playing in the band you are still likely to find him at the heart of a session. Traditional musicians are often accused of not being progressive in their music. Anybody who said that of Cathal would be mistaken. Cathal's choice of material and his track record over the years demonstrate that he is an Irish traditional musician with a very wide outlook.

The guests on the album were Cathal's idea, chosen to execute specific musical ideas that he had. His own association with these musicians usually predates that of the group although everyone except Mick O'Brien had previously guested live with the Boys at special concerts or on tour in the UK, Sweden and the USA. Cathal goes a long way back with Mick's family and music.

Translating ideas and music into a recording is not a simple task. Cathal was the lynchpin of rehearsals, calling them and bringing out the music from the participants. Speaking from the vantagepoint of one of those participants, Dave Richardson commented that "He was the glue that held disparate elements together. A cheerful positive attitude to the project propelled us forward".

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