Carmel Gunning is one of Ireland’s most accomplished and well-known traditional musicians, a virtuoso tin whistle and flute player, and a renowned singer and composer. She has also spent a life-time teaching traditional music, particularly in the uptempo, lifty, exciting Sligo style formed from that county’s immense tapestry of culture and tradition.
I’ve had the pleasure of listening to Carmel’s playing in many a session and concert hall, and everytime I marvel anew at how she can weave such complex, ornate and beautiful music from something as ordinary as a humble tin whistle. We’ve whiled away the small hours singing some of the great songs too, and Carmel’s rich, powerful voice is enhanced by the masterful control she has both of her singing and the song. Always innovative, but remaining true to tradition, her singing has great depth of meaning and feeling and substance, relaying her deep understanding of the history and the story of the songs.
This year, marking an astonishing 50 years playing and teaching music she issued two important collections: The Sligo Maid, which contains 64 original compositions – and Shamrocks from Geevagh, a collection of 40 songs.
To the tunes first then: Carmel grew up in Geevagh in south-east Sligo, from an area and a family steeped in musical tradition and that instinctive ear is evident in these tunes which are an important addition to the traditional repertoire. The breadth of tradition is well represented here in a collection that also showcases Carmel’s astonishing proficiency. Fresh, exciting jigs, including Footing the Turf and Ciarán’s at Home, remind the listener of the observation made by the great Brendan Mulkere who noted that the best traditional tunes are shaped by the sounds of the composer’s environment.
There are some cracking reels too, including the gorgeous lift of All the Way to Jordanstown and Bring on the Poteen, already two firm favourites in my house. And there are lively hornpipes, polkas, flings and waltzes too, and seven poignant, beautifully crafted slow airs which tell their own story. Amongst those are laments for Fred Finn and for Paddy Tunney, two bright stars in the traditional firmament who, no doubt, are looking down in approval at being remembered by such lovely airs. The Sligo Maid is a gift for all serious musicians and for families who want to broaden their repertoire while keeping to tradition, and for everyone who hankers to learn a gorgeous, exciting new tune.
Shamrocks from Geevagh is a collection of forty songs Carmel has learned since she was child listening to family and neighbours, with a strong emphasis on Connaught songs and those that tell a story of love or loss or place – and of rebellion and courage, with a ballad of Brave Michael Dwyer opening the selection. There are songs which remember Seán MacDiarmada – Lovely Cornmore – and the Glencar Martyrs, and others telling of the victory of the Irish rebels in the Battle of Carricknagat in the 1798 rising. Local characters – Dan O’Hara and Tom O’Dowd – also feature in this significant collection.
The songs are shaped and powered by Carmel’s rich, expressive voice and her command of the ornamentation and variations which make this album such a pleasure to listen to. She notes that she was influenced in a lifetime of singing by Paddy Tunney, Darach Ó Catháiin, Séamus and Úna Mac Mathúna, Geordie Hanna, Séamus Ó Dubhthaigh but, as evident in this fine collection, her singing and her style is very much her own.Each CD comes with an accompanying handbook, with extensive notes which will be helpful for students and teachers, and there’s a visual history of some of the people and events that have shaped the development of Comhaltas and traditonal music in Sligo and surrounding counties in the hundred or more photographs that illustrates the pages.
Both collections are a musical treat and an invaluable teaching guide, and are available by contacting Carmel Gunning at [email protected] or 00353876250454 – signed and all!
They’d make a perfect Christmas present for the discerning fan of traditional music. A Dublin launch of the collections will be held when the Covid restrictions have eased.
WHAT THEY’VE SAID
“I will be adding quite a few of the tunes from “The Sligo Maid” to my repertoire. The variations are very helpful as are the breathing suggestions. The Geevagh Jig is a masterpiece.”
“The Shamrock from Geevagh Collection of 40 songs with CD is one of Carmel Gunning’s labour of love – a veritable treasure trove of songs – the words of each song included and the air (melody) for each song is painstakingly written out too. This is a huge body of work and a great addition to any song enthusiast’s collection.”
Séamus and Úna Mac Mathúna
“We were delighted to see this wonderful new collection being issued by our friend Carmel Gunning, whose music and singing has enriched many lives. It has always been a great pleasure to listen to Carmel’s music and her masterful, commanding singing both as Gaeilge and in English. If there was ever such a thing as sean nós singing in English, Carmel has it, and she remains one of the very best and most interesting traditional singers. Her lovely, rich, powerful voice is enhanced by the masterful control she has of both her singing and the song. Always innovative, but remaining true to tradition, her singing has great depth of meaning and feeling and substance, relaying her deep understanding of the history and the story of the songs. She has taught thousands of people, and brought them to a fuller understanding of the importance and beauty of traditional music and song. Long may she continue to delight and inspire us.”