Conversations with the Past

Dancers Edwina Guckian, Caitlín Nic Gabhann and Colm and Peadar Ó Laoire, and musicians Aoife Ní Bhriain, Aoife Granville, Conor Connolly and Steve Cooney at the NCH. (Photo: Des Gallagher / Irish Traditional Music Archive)

Conversations with the Past

On 11 September, the Irish Traditional Music Archive hosted a gala concert at the National Concert Hall with a range of musicians and dancers who have featured in its Drawing from the Well series. Brendan Finan reviews.

The Irish Traditional Music Archive has been producing its Drawing from the Well series since 2020. The series has allowed musicians access to the archive in order to inspire new projects, and has produced some fascinating documentaries, which are hosted on their website. On Sunday 11 September, ITMA hosted a wide selection of Drawing from the Well participants at the National Concert Hall at a gala concert celebrating and exploring the series.

The concert played to a full NCH, with musicians generally taking turns to come to the stage and play a few tunes. Often they told stories about their Drawing from the Well projects, tying music and history together. And for a project born at the height of the pandemic, there were more than a few acknowledgements of the experience of returning to live performance. These varied in tone, whether it was harpist Laoise Kelly playing up her intimidation at the size of the space and the audience, or Radie Peat’s almost relieved admission that this was the first time she’d sung on a stage in two or three years.

If the night had a theme, the theme was conversation. Talk and story are almost as important to the tradition as anything else, but there was never a sense that the audience was there (as Schoenberg put it) for purely acoustical reasons. The audience was as exuberant as the performers.

But the conversations were musical too. Alone on stage at the start of the gala, Aoife Ní Bhriain played the beginning of the sarabande from Bach’s D minor violin partita, which after a couple of minutes morphed into the fiddler Tommie Potts’ version of the reel ‘My Love is in America’. Ní Bhriain managed the stylistic changes so smoothly it was like watching a lenticular image change with slight movements; as though at any time each of the pair of tunes was there, one visible, the other hidden.

Daoirí Farrell and Brían Mac Gloinn both invited the audience to sing along, the latter to the Árainn Mhór song ‘Once I Loved’ and the former to ‘Biddy Mulligan’. Farrell’s Drawing from the Well project was on Kathleen Behan, and he also performed her version of ‘The Row in the Town’ –though, notably for the current historical moment, he sharpened the anti-monarchical lyrics, changing ‘red’ to ‘crown’ in ‘The green flag went up and the red rag came down.’

Caitlín Nic Gabhann played a set of tunes on the concertina in honour of the dancer Willie Keane, describing his dancing as always feeling like a conversation with the musician, player and dancer interacting with each other. Later, she danced in a half set with Edwina Guckian and Colm and Peadar Ó Laoire, with music played by musicians from the first half of the concert. Still later, Nic Gabhann got to take part in that conversation in another way, playing the reel ‘Jack Lattin’, with Guckian performing a witty dance in tribute to Lattin himself, who was said to have danced eight miles for a bet. (He won the bet, the story says, but died of exhaustion soon after.)

Between present and past
And of course, given the nature of Drawing from the Well, the conversation was potent between the present and the past. Sometimes this was the deep past, such as Baltimore-born fiddler Jesse Smith playing the tune ‘Beside the Harbour’, which was collected by P.W. Joyce in 1909. Smith had heard the tune from his 90-year-old grandmother decades earlier, and she had heard it from her own grandmother. Other times it was living history: Aoife Granville spoke of visiting the home of one of her project’s subjects, Teresa Gardiner. The work of the poet-hosts of the night, Vincent Woods and Moya Cannon, also drew on history. Cannon’s ‘The Song of the Books’ described the loss of a boat at sea centuries ago, while Woods’ ‘McKenna’s Tunes’ recreated the scene of the great flute player John McKenna playing privately for a pitman he met on a walk home.

The musicianship throughout the night was superb, a real testament to the variety and vitality of the traditional music scene. Radie Peat’s performance of the murder ballad ‘What Put the Blood’ was stunning, her extraordinary voice stopping all breath in the room. Cormac Begley introduced his project on the Jew’s harp, producing one and plucking a few notes before admitting ‘that’s all I can play’. He then pulled out a bass concertina (a beast of an instrument; its lower range sounded almost like a didgeridoo) to play a selection of energetic reels.

This was a three-hour concert where every performance felt like it could be longer. And neither audience nor performers flagged once, with every tune, song, dance and poem treated as a firm favourite. And more than anything, it demonstrated the philosophy behind Drawing from the Well, connecting archived works with current musicians, and pushing forward this vibrant and living tradition.

Drawing from the Well, featuring four artists from the series – Laoise Kelly, Brían Mac Gloinn, Cormac Begley and Edwina Guckian – is on tour around Ireland this week, with a concert in St John’s Theatre, Listowel, this evening (15 Sept.) and then a final performance at the Birr Theatre and Arts Centre tomorrow (16 Sept.) Visit

Published on 15 September 2022

Brendan Finan is a teacher and writer. Visit

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