The Wallstreet Journal & The Irish Echo
In 1990, I asked 25 Irish traditional musicians and music critics in Ireland and America to select the top ten trad albums of the 1980s. The only stipulation was that they could not vote for their own albums. My own vote counted no more than theirs.
By a wide margin, Noel Hill and Tony MacMahon's "I gNoc na Grai" ("In Knocknagree") finished as the top Irish traditional album of the decade. There was very stiff competition from Frankie Gavin and Paul Brock's "Omos do Joe Cooley," Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and Frankie Kennedy's "Ceol Aduaidh," and Matt Molloy and Sean Keane's "Contentment Is Wealth," among other outright classics from the decade.
"I gNoc na Grai" offered a then-unusual combination of attractions: brilliant concertina and button accordion playing by County Clare's Hill and MacMahon, respectively, recorded live in Dan Connell's pub in Knocknagree, County Cork, and played for set dancers hitting the timber floor with gusto as great as the music. The album was a welcome reminder that jigs, reels, and hornpipes are dance music originally intended for dancing, that some of the best trad music is played in a pub, and that live playing in this setting can reach a zenith few studio recordings are able to match. (Note: "Noel Hill and Tony Linnane" was a magnificent studio recording essentially cut live in the studio during late fall 1978, according to Hill in an interview I did with him on my old radio show.)
"I gNoc na Grai" also served as a reminder that MacMahon is one of Ireland's greatest button accordion players. Critics more interested in controversy than art often dwell on his outspokenness (taking swipes at Micheal O Suilleabhain's "A River of Sound" TV series in 1995 and an absent Alec Finn in Frankie Gavin's new De Dannan lineup in 2009) instead of the utter mastery of his playing. I heard MacMahon perform last January at the Irish Arts Center, and he is still a peak accordionist.
How do you come close to "I gNoc na Grai" if you're a young concertina and button accordion duo today? To their credit, Ballindine, Mayo, concertinist Holly Geraghty and Brosna, Kerry, button accordionist Jonathan Roche seem unfazed by the prospect of comparison.
Since 2001, the two have played together simply because they enjoy it, and out of that most natural of musical affinities comes "Ceolmhar," a self-issued recording whose title reflects the spirit of their playing: tuneful. An All-Ireland senior champion on concertina (2002) and harp (2001), Geraghty forges a never-forced, ever-tuneful partnership with Roche, who won All-Ireland titles twice on melodeon and a Munster championship on the two-row accordion. Training breeds skill that breeds confidence, and this talented tandem has all three in abundance. Their music gives the impression of being easy, which is the hardest of all effects to convey, and every one of the 14 tracks on this CD showcases the pleasure each has in playing.
Eight of the tunes were written by Geraghty, who reveals signs of becoming a composer of lasting impact.
Her "Planxty Dermot Grogan" is dedicated to the flute and accordion player from Derrytavrane, Mayo, who died far too soon in 2006 at age 48. It's a lovely melody played hauntingly by Geraghty on harp and backed ably by Roche on accordion and guests Matt Griffin on guitar, Aisling Fitzpatrick on cello, Geraldine O'Callaghan on fiddle, and Dave Duffy on double bass.
Geraghty's reel "Dalgan Lebians," named after small fish in Mayo's Dalgan River, is a snug conclusion to a medley that includes "Bill Harte's" and "McKenna's No. 2," featuring her on concertina, Roche on accordion, Griffin on guitar, and Stephen Markham on piano.
The other tunes she composed are "Saskatoon Jig / Cloondrone Fairy Hill / Session in the Spa Wells" and the reels "Anna Liffey's / Johnny Neville's / Fawlty Towers." The latter medley is the album's finest track, brimming with impeccable tempo and taste, the two boxes sparking off each other without ever losing their grip on the melody.
Geraghty also takes an unaccompanied harp solo on the traditional reels "The Leitrim Bucks / The Wind That Shakes the Barley," and its sprightly energy and deft string fingering are reminiscent of the unsurpassed reel playing by Cork harper Maire Ni Chathasaigh. On a pair of marches, Geraghty's harp playing, with Griffin accompanying on guitar, nimbly segues in pacing, and with Griffin and Markham as backup, she tackles "The Bunch of Rushes / The West Cork Reel" with finesse-tempered fire on concertina.
Jonathan Roche acquits himself equally well on the CD. With just Griffin backing him, he plays the jigs "Contentment Is Wealth / Paddy Fahy's" with appealing elan, and with Griffin on guitar and Scartaglin's Emma O'Leary on fiddle, he shows his polka-playing mettle on "Johnny O'Leary's / The Cascade / T. J. Quinn's." Roche also joins Griffin on guitar and Shane Greene on keyboard for a medley of expertly played reels, "For the Sake of old Decency / Steampacket / The Kilfenora Reel."
The pulsing heart of this album, however, is the duet performances by Geraghty and Roche with support from Griffin and Markham. That quartet appears on six tracks, all outstanding.
On "Ceolmhar" Geraghty and Roche represent an infusion of freshness in the traditional scene of Ireland. The mix of original and traditional tunes works exceedingly well. But what distinguishes this CD from many others is the way the two well-educated musicians (both have master's degrees) avoid a studied approach so that their music can unfold organically and gracefully.
Noel Hill and Tony MacMahon's "I gNoc na Grai" is indisputably the summit of concertina and button accordion dueting, but Holly Geraghty and Jonathan Roche's "Ceolmhar" establishes its own lofty foothold on that mountain of reeds.