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CEOL By Earle Hitchner
on July 19, 2006, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper, New York City. Copyright ©
Of the six songs sung by O Domhnaill on the two duet albums, only "Lord Franklin" was in English. The others were in Irish. His renditions of "Eirigh a Shiuir" and "Aird Ui Chumhaing" drew listeners in through the tender, baring passion of his voice. He treated traditional songs in Irish as the enduring testament of history handed down by those who experienced it rather than merely documented it. His acoustic guitar playing was, like himself, unobtrusive yet intense, focused on gimmick-free impact and ever-mindful that it must support, not supplant, Burke's melodic fiddling. Those two recordings represented something fresh in their feeling of vulnerability and venerability from young musicians (Burke was 29 and O Domhnaill was 28 when "Promenade" came out) who had just finished their tenure in arguably the most influential Irish traditional group since 1975, the Bothy Band.
O Domhnaill, however, had established his musical bona fides well before the Bothy Band. In a household where the Irish language held sway for many years, he learned songs from his parents, Aodh (Hiudai) and Brid (nee Comber). He also picked up songs from his aunt Neili, who had nearly 300 at her fingertips. From ages six to sixteen, Micheal learned piano before fully concentrating on the guitar, and later, like his father, he did song collecting and other musical fieldwork.
Skara Brae was the first group involving Micheal to make a national stir. Also featuring his sisters Triona and Maighread and Derry-born Daithi Sproule, Skara Brae entered a music competition at the Kilkenny Festival, where they sang three songs and finished third, each earning about a hundred pounds. Shay Healy, host of a radio program, liked what he heard from Skara Brae and invited them on his show. That, in turn, led to a self-titled recording for Gael-Linn in 1971.
Returning to college and secondary school essentially ended Skara Brae, but in Dublin Micheal began performing with Limerick singer Mick Hanly in a duo called Monroe. In 1974 the two released "Celtic Folkweave" (Polydor), which also featured four future members of the Bothy Band: Donal Lunny, Matt Molloy, Tommy Peoples, and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill.
In the fall of 1974, Micheal O Domhnaill, Triona Ni Dhomhnaill,
Peoples, Molloy, Lunny, Paddy Keenan, and Paddy Glackin were invited by
button accordionist Tony MacMahon to appear on his RTE program. Out of
that came Seachtar (Irish for "seven persons"), comprising the
two O Domhnaills, Lunny, Keenan, Molloy, Glackin, and MacMahon. When talk
turned to going professional full-time, the group renamed themselves the
Bothy Band, acknowledging the musical fieldwork Micheal had done among the
bothies (migrant worker huts) in the western islands of Scotland. But
MacMahon and Glackin soon dropped out to pursue their own projects,
prompting the group to add Tommy Peoples.
An expanded CD of "Skara Brae" was issued in 1998 by Gael-Linn not long after an inspired reunion by the group at the Frankie Kennedy Winter School of Music in Donegal. Micheal O Domhnaill's appearances on his sister Maighread's "No Dowry" in 1991 and his sisters Maighread and Triona's "Between the Two Lights" in 1999 were further reminders of his undiminished trad skills. After returning to live in Ireland, Micheal hooked up with the Bothy Band's first fiddler, Paddy Glackin, a fellow sports enthusiast who shared his desire for limited gigging together. In Feb. 2001 the pair released "Athchuairt," or "Reprise," on Gael-Linn. Guests included former Bothy Band colleagues Triona Ni Dhomhnaill and Paddy Keenan and Nightnoise flutist Brian Dunning. Like Glackin, Micheal was an early host of RTE's famed "The Long Note" radio program, and after his relocation to Ireland, he appeared several times on Irish TV with Nightnoise. In my last interview with Micheal O Domhnaill, who was then still living in Portland, his self-deprecating humor, philosophic attitude toward the life expectancy of any band, utter addiction to playing golf and watching cable-TV sports (he was a rabid Portland Trailblazers' fan), and admiration for singer-songwriter Chris Isaak's top-ten single "Wicked Game" had me laughing and pondering at the same time.
I saw Micheal O Domhnaill and Kevin Burke perform together a number of times in New York City, especially at the Alternative Center for International Arts on East Fourth Street from the late 1970s to the early 1980s. No subway rumbling underneath could distract the audience from the musical rapture those two created on stage. O Domhnaill's sensitivity and Burke's silkiness were an enviable combination. "Kevin Burke and Micheal O Domhnaill in Concert" is a 60-minute videocassette distributed by Shanachie's Ramblin' in 1992 that was drawn from a videotape copyrighted by Ohio University in 1982. The video does a good job of capturing some of the magic made by these two musicians, seen performing at the Augusta Music Festival in Elkins, West Virginia. "Fionnghuala," "Calum Sgaire," "Coinleach Ghlas an Fhomhair," and "The Death of Queen Jane" are just a few more songs in which Micheal O Domhnaill's lead vocal will never fade from memory. In addition, he deserves overdue credit for helping to establish a nuanced, subtly ornamented style of guitar accompaniment that always provided a reliably steady rhythm for tunes.
Micheal O Domhnaill is survived by his brother Conall, sisters Triona and
Maighread, and several other family members. A requiem Mass was said for
him on July 12 at the Church of the Holy Cross in Dundrum, after which he
was buried in St. Colmcille's Cemetery in Kells, Co. Meath.
Earl is the "Ceol"
columnist for the IRISH ECHO newspaper and a contributing writer for the
WALL STREET JOURNAL
© 2007 MICHEAL'S TRUST. All rights reserved