Monday, October 02, 2017


Belle Vue, Haute Croix, St.John, Jersey 1961

I recently got into a discussion about learning to play an instrument. Some of those in the discussion did play an instrument and some didn't.

Those who didn't mostly regretted that they hadn't taken up some instrument in their youth.

One of these mentioned that they only sang in a church choir, which led another, instrument-playing, participant to comment that the voice is an instrument and the only one spanning both lyrics and melody at the same time. Of course, it is also mobile and, unlike your harp, you can always bring it to any party.

I thought I'd introduce this post with a Bill Clintonesque shot of me playing the sax in Jersey in 1961.

Actually, I don't play the sax at all but there was one in the house and I couldn't resist the temptation of a photo op. I've included it here as I figured it might just encourage people to read the rest of the post.

Workman's Club Ballybrack, accompanist Mrs O'Regan

I often wondered what instrument would I choose to learn if I was starting all over again.

In fact I started with the fiddle but in a violin sort of way. I think I got to grade 2 or maybe even 3 in the then Municipal School of Music in Chatham Row.

The fiddle is a particularly difficult instrument to start with as you have to make your own notes rather than just choose them so you need a really good ear to stay in tune. It also doesn't prime you to understand or reproduce harmony. For this you really need a keyboard instrument.

It has the advantage, though, of being mobile. But then where were you going to bring it?

What I was learning didn't really count as entertainment and this was an age, before the Clancies and the Dubliners, when being able to sing the words of Delaney's Donkey would have been a bigger draw as a party piece.

Nevertheless I did succeed in inflicting myself on the odd audience, such as at a concert in the Ballybrack Workman's Club (above). Then there was a regular Stephens's Day stint for the orphans in Manor Street where my mother had gone to school.

Banna Ceoil, or Ceolfhoireann, an Choláiste

My salvation came a little later with the school orchestra, in Coláiste Mhuire. This was directed by a great English and music teacher, Brian Devanney.

We also had a string quartet and subsequently a string and piano quintet which played Mozart and Beethoven on stage.

It was in one of these smaller formations that we once played the Presidential Salute for Dev and Sinéad in the Gate at Féile Drámaíochta na Scol. I played second fiddle. Story of my life.

Teanga na nGael, Óró, RTÉ

Serious fiddle fame only arrived when I joined Na hUaisle and produced the fiddle at an RTÉ recording of Óró, a series where we were the resident group.

On that occasion it was to accompany a rendition of Teanga na nGael, a brilliant song lampooning the awful use of the Irish language as she appeared in the media and many other places across the nation. All the Óró songs were in Irish and newly composed.

Yes, it is a wig

Where I really came into my own as a social entity was with the guitar. I bought a cheap one in Hector Grey's, learned a few chords and made sure always to bring it along to the party. I think that's actually why I got invited to some of the parties.

You will gather from the picture above that this was the age of Bob Dylan.

Óró - Na hUaisle

Again, this instrument proved useful on Óró, albeit in black and white.

Christmas Show, RTÉ - Na hUaisle

But the group did last long enough to eventually appear in colour on one of those Christmas broadcast things.

RTÉ gig - Na hUaisle

I even got to play the recorder on air at one stage. I don't play the recorder, more like the tin whistle and then only for slow airs. However there was enough similarity with the recorder for me to successfully chance my arm for an Aodh Ó Dómhnaill song to a Leonard Cohen air about a girl in a flat in Dublin.

Just in passing and talking of instruments, we actually managed to get Aodh to play the tea chest in one of the Óró outings, despite his initial scepticism on the matter.

Christmas Show, RTÉ - Na hUaisle

Finally the drums. When I was in school we had a great drummer at the annual pageants. His name was Brian Tuite and he actually played with a real live rock group. When he left school I talked my way into the job and have rarely enjoyed anything as much in all my life.

It meant I was well prepared for this little side drum and cymbal stint with Na hUaisle in a satirical number (weren't they all?) suggesting Henry Kissinger for President of Ireland when there appeared to be a lack of suitable domestic candidates.

So with all this vast musical career behind, and very much behind, me what would I have wished to have started with? I think the piano.

You learn a lot with a keyboard instrument and with today's electronic keyboards I might have been a whiz.

But in those days I couldn't have brought my piano to the party and I would have missed all the fun I had along the way.

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