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Capturing the flavour of Ireland

Musicians are Celtic studies program artists-in-residence

Musicians Martin Hayes (left) and Dennis Cahill (Photo courtesy of Martin Hayes)

“Irish novelist Flann O’Brien said, ‘When a rock is thrown there is no foreknowledge of where it lands,’” said Professor David Wilson, a history professor and program co-ordinator for the Celtic studies program at St. Michael’s College.

“When you give a talk, whether you’re a writer or a musician, or an artist, you never know what you’re triggering,” he added. “You never know how you might be changing someone’s life.”

This year’s Celtic studies artists-in-residence, world renowned musicians Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, agreed, noting they often meet people who have been inspired by their music.

Hayes mentioned being interviewed by an Oxford PhD student, who realized at the age of six she wanted to study music composition after seeing him play.

“If you stick around long enough, you’ll hear the results,” said Hayes. “After so many years I [meet] people who were inspired to take up music or go on to other things they want to do.”

Hayes, a critically acclaimed fiddle player from East Clare, Ireland, and Cahill, a master guitarist from Chicago whose parents are from County Kerry, Ireland, have come to U of T to share their love and knowledge of Irish traditional music with students, faculty and the public in a series of talks, a live performance and public workshops.

The way Hayes sees it, he is translating his experience, presenting a living history and sharing the reality of what it means to be a musician specializing in Irish traditional music. Although Irish music is steeped in history, Hayes also believes it stands on its own as a musical form.

“[I am] dealing with this as a historical heritage on one hand, and on the other, a purely musical thing,” he said. “This music and culture grows out of what [the students] will be studying historically; at the same time, it is finding a way to exist right here.”

Irish traditional music emerged before concert halls and recorded music, when anyone interested in playing learned by picking up an instrument and playing with more experienced musicians in their families and in their towns. Hayes started playing the fiddle at the age of seven, learning from his father P. Joe Hayes and other notable players such as Junior Crehan and Martin Rochford.

Unlike classical music, Irish music isn’t burdened by the authority of history, nor is it something that responds well to complexity, the men explained. If you’re playing to show mastery of the form or to demonstrate great technical skill with your instrument, then you’re not expressing the freedom inherent in the music.

Cahill said it comes down to what kind of musician you want to be, a performer or a communicator.

“It comes down to a decision you have to make, is this display or communication?”

Both men come down squarely on the side of communication. Paraphrasing Gerald of Wales, a medieval Welsh churchman and writer, Hayes added, “The artistry should remain behind and the musical idea and communication should be forefront.”

In other words, trying harder to show your virtuosity is to lose perspective of the tradition: the accessibility and simplicity inherent in the music.  

“It’s not that the music needs to change, you just need to see it,” said Hayes. “The requirement isn’t that you change it into something unrecognizable; the requirement is that you find it each time [you come to it]. Then you can play it.”

Hayes and Cahill are at U of T due to support from the Ireland Fund of Canada which supports the Celtic Studies Artist-in-Residence program with its annual fundraising event, The Day at the Races.

The duo will be performing Oct 15 at Alumni Hall, St. Michael’s College. For concert and workshop information, see the Celtic Studies website.