Thursday, 10 July 2008

Hidden Treasure in the Antrim Hills

Here is a flowing conversation with Glens Music's Seán Quinn, an icon in the traditional music world in Ireland. I've actually had the pleasure of sitting on a stage with Seán at the very trad venue of Mary McBride's. Seán owns Glens Music of course and records and produces some of the top trad records to come out of the North. He has a knack for finding those rare treasures that are the heart and spirit of the music of the Ulster. Not only does he record regional musicians in the Antrim area he is also a top performer, a magician on the piano accordion. His own band called the Trasna Ceilidh Band which plays the authenic Irish and Scottish ceilidh music.

Seán Quinn talks to Barry R McCain

I came into the Glens of Antrim through marrying a local girl, and after taking most of our holidays there we eventually acquired a small house with a large garage which we initially converted into a play room for the kids. Having played traditional accordion for many years I quickly fell in with the local Comhaltas (traditional musicians’ fraternity) and with the great accordion player James McElheran and his sean-nós singing wife Caitlín, who live close by our vacation house. Through these contacts I met a number of other musicians and singers from the Nine Glens (which lie in the North-East corner of Ireland between Larne and Ballycastle). I was impressed at the quality of the music and craic which they had, but it was confined within a very small group of mostly older people. In particular they were big into set-dancing (the set-dancing revival had not yet become widespread in the North) and traditional unaccompanied singing. Although there were several Comhaltas branches in the Glens, they were not terribly active in the late 1980s, apart from running irregular sessions and the occasional local Fleadh, and there were no young musicians or singers.

I persuaded some of my new friends to join with me in forming a radical local arts organisation: “The Glens Traditions Group”. We sought public funding to help bring traditional music, and particularly set-dancing and traditional singing to a wider audience locally, and also to promote the traditional culture of the Glens to the world at large. We got support initially from the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council and then the Arts Council and launched our first rake of activities to coincide with the new “Heart of the Glens” festival in Cushendall in the summer of 1991. We ran one-day traditional singing, set-dancing and instrument workshops and a great set-dance céilí, which led to winter set-dance and instrument classes running from then until the present and a monthly traditional singing night. This in turn led to a re-birth of the Cushendall Comhaltas to cater for an influx of new young members.

I had always been interested in tape recording and around this time I released my first music cassette of piano accordion music, recorded direct to tape at the home studio of a friend. That music cassette was the first to come out on the “Glens Music” label. Then I used a borrowed portable DAT machine to record the first traditional singing day at the Cushendall Festival in 1991 which headlined singers like John Kennedy, Sean Corcoran and Brian Mullen, and brought out “The Glens Sing” on audio cassette in collaboration with the Glens Traditions Group. James McElheran had made, for the NI Arts Council, some reel-to-reel recordings of the great local traditional singer, Archie McKeegan, and the Arts Council arranged for them to be mastered on to DAT by Harry Bradshaw in Dublin. I helped the Traditions Group to bring out Archie’s Songs on cassette when he was about 80 years old, and a few years later they asked me to be sole distributor and I transferred the album to CD.

below, The Trasna Ceilidh Band

By this time we were phasing out cassette production and had released a number of Glens Music titles re-mastered on to CD, including 2 albums of music for set-dancing by the McElroy ceili band from Co. Down, two albums of music for céilí dancing, two more albums of my own accordion music, and a CD of unaccompanied songs by another Cushendall man, Charlie McDonnell. This was all done very much as a kind of cottage industry by myself and family members. Through my work as an education media specialist in Belfast, I had acquired the sound recording and computer design skills necessary to do almost all aspects of the CD production , hiring some studio time in Belfast when required, and going out only for printing and CD duplication services. Most of the early productions were based on location recordings.

Two things were left to do in order to realise the original concept for the Glens Music enterprise: to have a studio in the Glens and to release some recordings of the other traditional musicians of the Glens. The kids had grown up so I cabled and soundproofed the garage of the Cushendun House, my workshop at the back of the garage becoming the control room. Then we worked with the outstanding Ballycastle fiddler Dominic McNabb to bring out his debut album “Traditional Fiddle Music form the Glens of Antrim” in 2003. This was followed in 2004 by “The Slopes of Knocklayde” featuring two local session stalwarts: PJ Hill (banjo) and Leo Brown (accordion), and including a number of Leo’s own compositions. That was the first album to be completely produced in the new Glens studio and was followed quickly by a CD of the Trasna Ceilidh Band in which I play lead accordion, offering a selection of Irish and Scottish music which is very typical of the Glens (you can see the Mull of Kintyre from the beach at Cushendun). That was also the first project to be completely digital from start to finish.

The final breakthrough came in 2005 with the first contract job – a mammoth project for the debut album of young Ballymena, fiddler Johnny Murphy. Johnny had all his friends, including a number of other fiddlers, the All-Ireland champion bodhran player Sheila Rooney, Cavan accordion virtuoso Padraig Lynch, three different keyboard accompanists and a singer on board…so we broke a lot of new ground for Glens Music and it took over four months to bring to fruition. Johnny’s CD “Tuned In” is not on the Glens Music label, but we were able to make it available world-wide for Johnny through our web shop which we had set up at and where we sell our own CDs as well as other recordings, books and videos related to the Glens of Antrim.

A very pleasant experience was the visit to our humble studio in 2006 of the Bush River Band (now The McCains) of Mississippi when we recorded some tracks of them playing alongside local musicians including members of the O’Kane clan. One of these tracks (Over the Mountain) ended up on Donovan McCain’s debut album Traveller’s Way.

Since then we have recorded another Johnny Murphy album specially for competition dancers and the first of what we hope is to be a series: Master Fiddlers of County Antrim, featuring Denis Sweeney of Randalstown and Davy Rice from Belfast. We also have a major multi-media project now on sale: a teach-yourself Irish fiddle course by the same Denis Sweeney, comprising books and CDs.

This continues to be a very satisfying and, I believe, worthwhile activity - providing a reasonable recording facility and showcase for the outstanding traditional musicians and singers of this beautiful part of Northern Ireland and bringing them, Irish Music and the region to the attention of people world-wide.

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