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A Quiet Man ~ Micheal O Domhnaill, 1951-2006

CEOL By Earle Hitchner 

                      [Published on July 19, 2006, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper, New York City. Copyright © Earle Hitchner. 
                                                           All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of author.]

Photo copyright Greg Duffy

One of the very few 45-rpm vinyl recordings of Irish traditional music I own from the late 1970s has the song "Lord Franklin" on Side A and "The Reverend Brother's Jig/Sean Ryan's Jig" on Side B. Dublin's Mulligan Records decided to release a 45 of trad as if it would be greeted as a pop single in Ireland. And why not? The two tracks on this 45 came from "Promenade," the first duet album by former Bothy Band colleagues Kevin Burke on fiddle and Micheal O Domhnaill on vocal, guitar, and keyboards. Co-produced by O Domhnaill and Gerry O'Beirne, this 1979 release is one of the finest duets ever recorded in Irish traditional music, and a superb 45 could have been made from any two of the album's eight tracks. Both the 45 and the album form part of an impressive musical legacy left by Micheal O Domhnaill, who was found dead late in the afternoon of July 8 in his Dublin home. The apparent cause of death was a fall. O Domhnaill, who was 54 years old, was raised in Meath, spent many summers and holidays in Donegal, lived for several years in Portland, Ore., and during the 1990s moved back to Ireland, where he took up final residence in Dublin. 

Even now, listening to "Lord Franklin" sung by him with his sister Triona adding harmony and Donal Lunny adding bouzouki, I am swept away again by the strength in fragility found in Micheal's uniquely evocative voice as he recounts Lord John Franklin's tragic expedition to find the Northwest Passage in the 1840s. Without question, this is the version of "Lord Franklin" against which all others will forever be judged.  

To some extent, "Promenade" and its 1982 follow-up, "Portland" (Green Linnet), stood in contrast to the propulsive power and bracing brinkmanship frequently heard on the Bothy Band's albums. O Domhnaill and Burke together pursued a slightly different musical path: soulful finesse. Their sound was unrushed, detailed, spellbindingly beautiful, yet still pulsing with vitality. For tunes, it was the ultimate rhythmic glide, smooth rather than slick, without a hint of coasting. For songs, it was respect and reflection conveyed with absolute conviction. 

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.

In 1975, the Bothy Band issued their self-titled debut on Mulligan, and a legend was born. A group with no weakness, they revolutionized the way Irish traditional music could be performed, with a rock-like, acoustic rhythm driving the dance tunes in a muscular, roiling, unflinching way and with a haunting tenderness ("Is Trua Nach Bhfuil Me in Eirinn") or irresistible cheek ("Do You Love an Apple," "Pretty Peg") in songs sung by Micheal and Triona. The Bothy Band still raises goosebumps in first-time listeners, and though no one got rich performing in the group, their impact from 1975 to today remains unassailable. 

Micheal O Domhnaill had also gained a fine reputation as an album producer. "Noel Hill and Tony Linnane," an outright classic from 1979, was produced by him, as were "Triona" in 1975, "Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill," "Matt Molloy," and Mick Hanly's "A Kiss in the Morning Early" (last two were co-produced) in 1976, and Touchstone's "The New Land" in 1982 and "Jealousy" in 1984.

The partnership of Micheal O Domhnaill and Kevin Burke, who had replaced Peoples in the Bothy Band, ended around the time Nightnoise emerged during the mid-1980s. The name of the group came from the Windham Hill album made by Micheal O Domhnaill and violinist Billy Oskay in 1984. At the time, the New Age genre had not yet discovered Irish music in earnest, and though he took some flak from trad devotees, O Domhnaill pursued this synthesis of Irish trad, light jazz, and other textures with the same commitment he gave to trad alone. Nightnoise, he told me in an interview, enabled him to buy a house in Portland. Besides the string of commercially successful Nightnoise recordings, O Domhnaill produced a highly profitable "Celtic Christmas" series of compilations for Windham Hill. 

During the early Nightnoise period, O Domhnaill never relinquished his hold on or fascination with trad. He released "Relativity" in 1985 with Triona and the two Cunningham brothers, Johnny and Phil. It was trumpeted as a mini-merge by the Bothy Band and Silly Wizard, the Scottish group anchored for many years by the Cunninghams. On that initial album, featuring Johnny and Micheal's intoxicating "Pernod Waltz," hype matched hope, even though the second album, 1987's "Gathering Pace," tilted toward an excess of synth effects.

Photo Courtesy of Greg Duffy

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 Hitchner 2006

Earl is the "Ceol" columnist for the IRISH ECHO newspaper and a contributing writer for the WALL STREET JOURNAL

Photo Courtesy of Greg Duffy


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