Sunday, November 15, 2009

Lasairfhíona, my one true love.

Okay, so I've made it abundantly clear in some of my posts that I'm a single gentleman. More than just single, I have to be honest and admit that the longest relationship I've ever been in is about 3 months. Wow, I'm clearly a successful boyfriend. Single file, ladies, single file, no pushing in the queue...

Despite that confession, I've been fairly obsessed since I was 11 and I fell in love when I was 18 and have been in a committed relationship since I was 18. Her name is Lasairfhíona, the flame of the wine. To tell her story, I have to tell the story of a man called Séamus O'Kane.

When I was nearly 12, I went to the Frankie Kennedy winter school in the Ionad Cois Locha and met Seamus O'Kane, who introduced me to one of my obsessions - the bodhrán.

A bit about Seamus: He's a tough sonamabitch (having lived through illness for years and triumphed) who revolutionised how the bodhrán was made and played in Irish traditional music. His drums are played by the most successful players in the world, and they are generally considered to be the best of the best of drums. Imagine the reputation that Stradivarius has for stringed instruments. In the smaller, more intimate and expanding world of Irish trad, a Seamus O'Kane bodhrán has that reputation. His website is here, and you can see a documentary that was made about him for Irish television. He is a humble, incredibly talented man, and his reputation is such that it is a surprise for people who meet him to learn that he is so down-to-earth. The videos on his site hardly do justive to the hypnotic, compelling nature of his playing. The word which I would use to describe him as a musician is mealltach. Being a Gaelgeoir, I've always know this word to roughly mean 'enticing', something that draws you in. The trendy kids now use this word as synonymous with 'sexy' so I'll have to abandon that. Anyway, he's the best, and as a 12 year old, to see him playing, eyes closed, as if head and hand where not connected, I was blown away.

(Actually, if you watch the youtube video on his site, the programme has him travelling to Inis Oírr for the bodhrán festival. I am very briefly in those scenes in the pub and at the summit, but it was YEARS ago, maybe 5 or 6, so I'm rather young)

I had received a bodhrán for Christmas (I usually just call it a drum) a beginner's drum that I christened Áine. When I had my first lesson with Séamus (in a 19th century cottage in the mountains at the Ionad Cois Locha) he took the drum, which was overly taut because of the the roaring fire and trudged outside. Grabbing a handful of snow, he rubbed the inside of the skin with it, and then taped the outside of the rim to reduce too much dissonance. He taught me how to play and after a week, I had it. Over the next few years, I began to play more and more, and by the time I was 17, I had bought a new drum (Clár) , had attended a few more of his Winter classes, and was playing in national competitions. Séamus and I had met many times since then at sessions, and he would always make a big deal out of seating me right in the circle, beside world-renowned players, so that I could get my confidence up and learn how to play live. His reputation is such that he can seat a skinny little git like me (when I was even underage in the pub) and the other players would oblige him by letting me play. It still happens to this day, when I get the odd chance to play, that some of those same players will let me join in, thanks to his help when I was younger.

Anyway, that summer, when I was 17, he went to the bodhrán festival (where the documentary was made) and we spent a lot of time together. Other people played his drum, and it was amazing to see how many excellent players where using his drums. I had been bugging him for years to make me a drum, or to let me buy one off him, but he always deftly avoided the question and changed the subject. There was a singer at one of the all-night sessions once, a woman called Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola (who also went to TCD) was there. The festival, in Inis Oírr (an island so small there are no police) consists of classes, then real learning in one of three pubs. Lasairfhíona is a seán-nós singer (the 'old style') and an incredibly beautiful vocalist, she sang this song, at 4am, the lot of us drunk and exhausted, a strange magic of timelessness surrounding us:

I was 17, and I instantly fell in love with her voice.

A few months later, when it was coming up to my 18th birthday, my father told me we were going for a drive. We drove about half and hour out of Derry, into the hills, and came to a house. Séamous came out to greet us, and brought us into the workshop in the videos. He had three drums laying on a benchtop, and told me to play them. It felt like an interview with Mr Ollivander, and as I sampled the three exquisite drums, I was practically shaking. They were all excellent, but the middle drum felt right. I'm not religious or very spiritual, but it felt comfortable and welcoming to the touch, and I fell in love. When my Dad asked him how much it would cost, Séamus just shook his head, unconcerned.

You see, he hadn't thought I was ready. That's why he made me wait, and he was right. It was a gift to me, and it was priceless. When it came to naming her, I didn't really have a choice, I wanted a drum that could sing, and having found one, she became Lasairfhíona.

Since then, Lassie and I have been through the wars together. She's come with me from Ireland to Spain, France (when I was still a chinless wonder, the outfit is a bit weird, not my idea), the Czech Republic and the US. We've played with orchestras and in shacks, for presidents and for the homeless, and she's always been perfect. Sadly, at Uni, I didn't play as much as I should and sometimes I neglected her somewhat.

Now, I have started to play more, and this summer I had one of my first professional gigs. This is me and Lassie back stage rehearsing for the play that I helped do the music for. Since then I've made plans to form a band and do some touring during the summer. Last night, I played my first session in months and felt exhilirated. It was excellent fun. Walking home, the pounding rain soaking me to the skin in seconds, I laughed my head off like a lunatic, remembering how many times we'd walked home together in the wee hours, and how I was the one who was ageing and changing. I haven't felt so alive in what seems like years, and even though I had a hangover today and I went to sleep with wet hair, I can't help but smile at the thought of the thousands of times that I've tottered home, Lassie safely by my side in the darkness.

She's still as beautiful and perfect as the first day I got her, I'm incredibly lucky.

People aside, what are your true loves?


  1. I love how passionate you are about this . . . you're amazing and so talented!!! I am so happy to call you my fellow blogger (and friend).

    x Nik x

  2. Nik beat me to it -- your passion is incredible, and it really shines through. This is awesome :)