My father was involved in work, back before my time. He was an engineer and his work took him to Lifford, Co. Donegal. I always remember his having a place in his heart for the people, culture, and landscape of Donegal. He really had a love for that part of the world. To be honest he loved the whole country – the landscape and the people. That left a huge impact on my own world view.
Wild country no matter where you find it is powerful and it reaches a place in the heart no words can truly describe. Music can. A slow air can capture a people, a place and the collective feelings of both.
Something else he showed me. His work brought him all over Ireland and he left parts of himself wherever he went. He loved to sing the old songs. Through his work in Lifford he made friends and connections with the people of Strabane. I remember stopping in Strabane as a child at night. There was a twilight feeling there that I liked. The memory is dreamlike.
I returned to Strabane two weeks ago and played at the Alley Arts Centre. After checking the room for sound, I contacted Martin Gallen, a local instrument maker from the nearby Holly Hill townland. More specifically he is an Uilleann pipe maker. The Uilleann pipes are magic but they are equally difficult to master. There is a wild beast in there that will accept only the right touch to make a melodious tone. I have decided to try my experience as a musician to take on the wild spirit of this instrument.
Martin welcomed me into his home along with his partner Leona and daughter Mara. I ate with them before my show and we laughed in the light of an early summer’s evening. His workshop is an Aladdin’s cave of wood, brass, wax, bamboo and leather among other materials. The lathe is the central piece of machinery and it is this that rounds and bores the wood to allow the air to become tone. Pipes are made up of bellows, a bag, drone pipes, regulator pipes and a chanter pipe. The chanter is the melody pipe – ‘The Singer…’
The notes are made by covering and uncovering small holes bored into the length of the wood. The drones hold a basic chord while the regulators provide various chordal possibilities. There is a lot of work in the playing of this iconic instrument!!! Martin has committed to teaching me as much as I need to know. He has asked me for the same commitment! He said he knows someone who knew my Father back in the day!
Later, Tracy McRory from Innishowen joined me onstage representing the Donegal connection. Together we explored the power of the slow air and a moment in music and soul that I will never forget. The people of Strabane and the surrounding lands made me welcome and brought out music in me that I never knew was there. It was a night of shared emotion and my father was right there in the heart of it. O Maonlai, my name, means gentle warrior. This is the name my father gave me. It was his name. It is my name now.
After the concert we went back up to Holly Hill and saw the light come up in the east. There was merriment and my father was in the heart of that, too!
As I write my son Cian is sitting his English exam. His final exams after twelve years of school. Another gentle warrior.