THE LEITRIM EQUATION
RADA Sunday October 25th 2015
By Michael J McDonagh for the Irish World
You didn't have to have come from County Leitrim or even Ireland to be enchanted by the Leitrim Equation concert at RADA on Sunday night. There were no flashing lights, gobos, dry ice or other synthetic production effects we experience at other shows. They were just not needed here, as this was musicality in its purist form, creating an emotional evocation of County Leitrim.
Simply seated on chairs in a horseshoe shape on the floor in front of the audience were four outstanding musicians with the serene singer Eleanor Shanley in the middle, performing a joyous selection of jigs and reels intercut with haunting ballads beautifully sung by Eleanor. Intimate and close it was like they were in your front room or perhaps the back room session in a traditional country pub as Eleanor warmly introduced the songs with gentle humour and deep respect. Interspersed with the music, some of it over 200 years old, there were poems and stories narrated with a gentle dignified delivery by Leitrim poet Vincent Woods. At various points throughout the evening the talented Sean Nos dancer Edwina Guckian, after spreading a symbolic sprinkling of dust on the hard floor as a moving gesture of respect for famine victims after the emotional poem ‘Famine Pit’, effortlessly lifted our spirits with her breath-taking traditional footwork.
The musicians started off with Si Beag Si Mor which brought me out in goose bumps as it was an old Planxty number from their first album and it took me right back to their amazing first London concert at the new London theatre in 1975, that I had proudly promoted. But this should not have been a surprise as the respected Donal Lunny (Bouzouki, Bodhran, Guitar) a founder member of the original Planxty had been seconded into tonight’s line up as an honorary Leitrim man. The other fine musicians were Padraig McGovern (Uilleann Pipes and Whistles), Dave Sheridan (Flute, Accordion, Whistles & Keyboards), John McCartin (Guitar).
Si Beag Si Mor was of course reputedly the first composition by blind harper Turlogh O’Carolan when he was a guest in 1693 of his patron George Reynolds near Keshcarrigan and was an example of how thoroughly this programme had been researched for over 18 months by Eleanor Shanley and her colleagues. From these early pieces through songs of emigration, love and loss the show reveals the long tradition of Leitrim music from the times when it was handed down by word of mouth to the days when the invention of the Edison Cylinder Phonograph was invented and music could be recorded and played back. A highlight of the concert was an archive recording of The Faerie Child sung by Nan Fitzpatrick who emigrated to America and was recorded there in the 1920’s. Her image appeared on the screen and as her voice faded Eleanor Shanley with her pure natural voice picked up the song with the other musicians. Earlier Eleanor had shown what an exceptionally beautiful voice she has with the popular and nostalgic Shores of Lough Bran.
After an excellent intelligent thought provoking selection of songs, poems and tunes from the Leitrim tradition it was fitting that the last song was written by Phil the brother of Nan Fitzpatrick, himself a New York policeman who was shot in bank raid in 1947 but wrote the anthem for the home county he missed, Lovely Leitrim.
At the end of the concert the Irish Ambassador Dan Mulhall agreed with me that this had been such a wonderful evening of Irish music and song that perhaps it had the potential to be put on again at bigger venue such as the Barbican or the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Fair play to all involved for a very special evening.