By Earle Hitchner
LEITRIM’S HIDDEN TREASURE, by the McNamara Family, #LHTCD1 on Drumlin Records, c/o Brian McNamara, Carrickavoher, Aughavas, Leitrim, Ireland, 011-353-78-36023, email@example.com.
It should be illegal for any family to have so much musical talent as the McNamaras. Michael, the father, and his five children, Brian, Ray, Enda, Deirdre, and Ciaran, all are past All-Ireland champions, and the album they made together, "Leitrim’s Hidden Treasure," is a magnificent tribute to the rich musical tradition of South Leitrim.
In the last decade or so, too few recordings have seriously spotlighted this music, the most notable being 1990’s "The Missing Reel," featuring South Leitrim flutist John Lee. The McNamaras rectify that oversight with tremendous craft and care, digging into old, newly rediscovered manuscript collections to mine some of the choicest melodies to be heard anywhere in Ireland today. And many appear on record for the first time here.
Ably backed by guest guitarist Mick Giblin, the supple, flawlessly paced concertina playing of Deirdre McNamara stands out on the "Miss Dunbarr/Green Fields of America/The Reels of Tully/The Musical Priest" medley, where she’s joined by brother Enda on fiddle. The latter is showcased on two tracks, "The Bold Soldier Boy/Logger’s/Miss Gunning’s Rant" and "Morgan’s" hornpipe, accompanied by guest pianist Frank Kelly.
Not to be outdone by their siblings, Brian and Ray McNamara perform a breathtaking uilleann pipes duet without accompaniment on "The Unfortunate Rake/The Humours of Ballingarry" jigs. The only track on which their brother Ciaran appears is "O’Connell’s Reel/The Mountain Lark/The Cloone Reel/Bernie McKiernan’s Dream," and there he does a superb job of matching his father on a wooden-flute duet that soon gives way to a full family affair.
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The tightness of the playing by all six McNamaras proves that the common bond of family can offer something altogether uncommon and special musically. Another example of this unique blood tie is the musical families of Charlie and Ben Lennon, both of whom come from Leitrim and cut a fiddle duet 17 years ago of "Larry the Beer Drinker" Jig, which they learned from Michael McNamara (who learned it, in turn, from the late great Aughavas flutist John Blessing) and which the McNamaras redo here.
More than 70 minutes long, the 17 tracks of "Leitrim’s Hidden Treasure" are Instrumental music played at just the right speed with just the right touches of ornamentation, never wavering in control, always eminently listenable and, on the uptempo tunes, danceable. Like the Sligo-Leitrim quartet Siona, whose recent "Launching the Boat" album is another masterly "vanity" release, Leitrim’s McNamara family demonstrate the vitality of Irish traditional music away from more overtly commercial concerns.
To extend the metaphor of its title, Leitrim’s Hidden Treasure" represents a virtual trove of precious musical gems to be valued for their beauty and rarity. And if this recording receives the wider acclaim it surely deserves, don’t expect that "treasure" to remain "hidden" much longer.