“Well that was fucking awful,” was a harsh verdict I heard applied to this concert. Harsh but fair? I will let you be the judge. The concert took place as part of Tradfest, an annual festival of trad-like music that takes place in a various venues in Dublin. This saucy foursome were playing in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the olde cathedral in Dublin that is not Christchurch. It is actually a terrible venue for large-scale gigs and I fear this may have contributed to a certain dissatisfaction with the performance. The venue has the fundamental church problem of having a flat rather than a banked floor, meaning that you do not have to be very far back to start finding the stage hard to see. The problem is exacerbated by St. Patrick’s being long and thin, so nearly everyone is back behind the cheeky line. From a purely subjective point of view, it did not help that that the venue boasts unreserved seating and that although we arrived down just as doors were due to open we still ended up sitting right at the back in the “probably shouldn’t have bothered” section.
What of the performance? It began with the two Ní Dhomhnaill sisters, who come from Donegal. They do vocal stuff together while one of them plays on the piano. The piano and the perhaps over-deliberate singing style made this a bit too reminiscent of a recital rather than something from the world of traditional music, though if you know what you are getting yourself in for that it is not necessarily a bad thing. I was struck though by the strange sexual politics of some of the songs (something not uncommon in the lyrics of traditional music). One warned women against the dangers of slighting young men who express admiration, lest the man refuse the woman’s advances should she subsequently fall in love with him. Another described a worrying encounter between a beautiful child on her way to school and a mysterious stranger who seemed to be intent on luring her away to a terrible end. Although the song has a happy ending (the stranger is revealed as the Devil himself, who then spontanaeously combusts), the endlessly repeated line about the beauty of the child disturbed me somewhat.
Dónal Lunny joined the Ní Dhomhnaills for a song and then as the sisters left Andy Irvine took the stage. As you know, Irvine and Lunny have been musical collaborators since their time together in Planxty. Their setlist was like a redux version of what you get at an Andy Irvine concert, focussing in particular on Planxty tunes but also delving into tunes from his solo career, including such favourites as ‘A Close Shave’ (the one about the miner who is swindled out of his gold and his clothes by a mysterious golden-haired lady of easy virtue) and his song about hanging out with other musicians in O’Donoghues in the early 1960s (the one featuring the shocking revelation that so-called true Dub Ronnie Drew is actually from Dún Laoighaire). I enjoyed the musical interplay between the two of them and their roffley chit chat, though I was thinking continuously how much more I would be enjoying it if I was not sitting a long way away from them at the back of a church. Irene pointed out that all the political songs seemed to have been excised from the set, with ‘Never Tire of the Road’ (Irvine’s celebration of Woody Guthrie, which features Guthrie’s own chorus of “All of you fascists bound to lose”) being a particularly odd omission, given our troubled times and the fact that Irvine played it in the same venue a few years ago at a gig by the reformed Sweeney’s Men.
Being at the back meant that we were able to get out quickly and make our way back home with despatch (which might just mean that we missed an unexpected encore of ‘Never Tire of the Road’, where we were greeted by a wet cat who regretted her decision to spend the evening out having adventures.