That’s a heady showcase for any young pair of Dublin musicians to crack. But Liam O’Connor and Sean McKeon were up to the mark, as I later noted in “Ceol”: “Two of the finest young instrumentalists in Irish traditional music today are fiddler Liam O’Connor and uilleann piper Sean McKeon, a duo who dazzled on the jigs ‘The Maid on the Green/The Humours of Glin/Paddy Killoran’s’ and on the reel ‘Rakish Paddy.’ The dexterity of McKeon’s chanter and regulator work borders on sorcery, and O’Connor’s bowing climbed to a vertigo-inducing, high, ethereal pitch at one point. If their playing this night was any indication, their planned duet album should be exceptional.”
And it is. Their CD, “Dublin Made Me,” has just been released by Na Piobairi Uilleann (the Uilleann Pipers), and the piping and fiddling on it are breathtaking.
The album draws inspiration from the vaunted piping of Patsy Touhey, Seamus Ennis, Leo Rowsome, Willie Clancy, and John Potts; from the brilliance of the 1965 All-Ireland senior champion Castle Ceili Band, whose members included Liam’s flute-playing father Mick O’Connor, button accordionist James Keane, pianist Bridie Lafferty, and fiddlers Joe Ryan, John Kelly, John Dwyer, and Sean Keane; and from the spectacular postwar fiddling scene in New York City that featured Paddy Killoran, Martin Wynne, Andy McGann, Paddy Reynolds, Larry Redican, Vincent Harrison, Louis Quinn, Hughie Gillespie, Jackie Roche, John McGrath, Paddy Sweeney, and James “Lad” O’Beirne, among others.
Beneath the track note for the reels “The Knotted Cord/The Stony Steps” in the CD insert is a vintage photo of Wynne, Harrison, and O’Beirne playing in a row in what looks like an apartment in New York City. I can only assume that the photo was provided by Harrison, originally from Dromahair, Leitrim, who lived in New York for many years and now resides in Clontarf, where he has befriended young Liam O’Connor. In his track note O’Connor’s praises both Harrison and O’Beirne, calling the latter’s fiddling “absolutely of the highest standard.”
In last week’s “Ceol” I discussed a discernible resurgence of pride and roots reclamation in what might be described as an Irish-American traditional sound or style, especially that of New York, crystallized in the upcoming debut recording by the Pride of New York band, comprising Brian Conway, Billy McComiskey, Joanie Madden, and Brendan Dolan. (Keyboardist Felix Dolan, Brendan’s father, accompanied many of the N.Y.-based fiddlers I cited.) It is reassuring to see O’Connor, McKeon, and other virtuosic young players in Ireland continue to recognize the tremendous musical gift that Irish America has sent back to Ireland.
A former student of fiddler Seamus Glackin, Liam O’Connor won TG4’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year honors in 2002. Sean McKeon, who recorded the Irish Echo’s third-best traditional album of 2005, “The Dusty Miller,” with his father Gay and brother Conor, won TG4’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year honors in 2005.
In their playing is an often stunning symmetry that flirts with overreaching only to remind us of how utterly in control they are. The duo stands solidly on a precipice where individual risk and mutual support vie for attention, yet not once do these two musicians let ego dictate execution or technique overwhelm balance.
Imbued with this approach are the reels “The Leitrim Thrush/John Dwyer’s,” “Paddy Killoran’s/The Merry Harriers,” and “The Knotted Cord/The Stony Steps,” and the jigs “The Pipe on the Hob/An Buachaillin Bui,” “The Drunken Gauger/Trim the Velvet/The Sweet Briar,” and “The Maid on the Green/The Humours of Glin/Paddy Killoran’s.” Each teems with invention hinged to tradition.
The piping solo by McKeon on the reels “The Ladies’ Bonnet/The Pinch of Snuff” is simply sensational. He plays each note roundly, never eliding, and his imaginative fingering of the chanter and wristing of the regulators combine to produce music of rare eloquence.
The fiddle solo by O’Connor on “The Duke of Leinster” reel is no less compelling. Dexterity and detail match drive as he inserts embellishing nips and brief flourishes to keep us thoroughly engrossed. But above all, genuine emotion radiates from his bowing, something he also achieves in his heartbreaking rendition of “Taimse i m’Chodladh is na Duistear me,” a slow air he previously played at the gravesite of Inagh fiddler Joe Ryan last year.
Ciaran Mordaunt adds tasteful percussion to two of the 15 tracks on “Dublin Made Me,” in which Liam O’Connor and Sean McKeon are helping to remake and reassert the musical traditions of Dublin. This is an outstanding debut by the most exciting fiddle-and-pipes duo to emerge from Ireland this century.
The album (NPU CD 017) is available from Na Piobairi Uilleann, 15 Henrietta St., Dublin 1, Ireland, 011-353-1-8730093.