Tony MacMahon from Clare has died, and we are the poorer for his passing.
Two decades ago he recounted to me his feeling on first hearing a dark and passionate elegy from West Cork, named Tuirimh Mhic Fhinín Dhuibh, and his startled response to it.
“The first time I heard that” he said, “It was in a small church in Cúl Aodha and I felt like an Iron spike was driven through me.”
Mac Mahon could feel the inner beauty and passions that hide deep beneath the surface of our music and language, not just in his soul, but physically. You could tell it in his extraordinary playing, which had all the sensitivity and poetry and the technical splendour that relayed his soul. He found startling words to convey how music affected him imaginatively and physically – with an intensity that was matched by the powerful effect of his playing.
I imagined him in this church feeling the savage tragedy of this magnificent elegy as a physical shock. His intensity was sometimes troubled, but it was always in search of authenticity and the inner beauty of our native music.
He loved the music of his people with a passion that imbued every note of his splendid, powerful performances that enriched our lives for decades.
Born Co Clare in 1939, he was hugely influenced by the famed box player, Joe Cooley, and from those early interactions he became an extraordinary, insightful and deeply expressive musician who was an icon for many who knew and loved his inimitable style.
He used the press and draw of the button accordion to drive his magnificent renditions of marches and slow airs. Those performances were mesmerizing – his rendering of Caoineadh Eoghan Ruadh would, as my father Séamus said, tear the heart out of you. Famed piper Séamus Ennis first schooled him in the particular art of slow airs, and MacMahon had a lifelong grá for the seannós songs which also carry so much of that haunting beauty.
He advised younger musicians, in fact, to use the sounds and cadences sa Ghaeilge to connect them to the music and to find its heart.
Certainly, the tremendous drive and fire he brought to the splendid old Gaelic marches revealed his own deep knowledge and appreciation of their origin and context. When Tony MacMahon played Máirseáil Uí Néill or the Battle of Aughrim, it transported you to banners and horsemen, harps and war pipes, all in the field of clashing clans. There was pride and defiance in every note, and more in the space between them.
But everything Tony MacMahon played was wonderful: the jigs and reels and set dances also found vivid expression and life in his hands.
Maybe that was because he understood from whence it had come: the “strong, lonely sound” which carried the “heartbeat of the past”, as he once wrote describing Joe Cooley’s music.
This wasn’t simply nostalgia. MacMahon, like Seán Ó Riada and the other great champions of our heritage, understood that what we call traditional music is not folk music but the remnant of a majestic and ancient Gaelic culture, almost lost to us but living still. His people and the generations before them, often through the worst of times, kept it alive – captured it anew from the rocks and the air, or awakened to it from where it is “embedded in our DNA” as he said himself. Playing traditional music, he felt, “touched the pulse of ancestral memory”.
He sometimes described it as a “wild and haunted call”, referencing on that occasion the beautiful piping of Johnny Doran. He didn’t mean a raucous sound, more that it was untamed and free, a thread that had linked and joined us as a people for centuries, perhaps for millenia. He weaved the most profound, deeply expressive, meaningful music by holding fast to that long tradition, and fully understanding its complexity, its magic and its beauty.
Tony Mac Mahon playing An Buachaillín Bán. You’d stand in the snow to listen to him. On MacMahon from Clare he introduces it by saying “I have chosen to play you a lament first because, in our own time, the loss of love is one of the things that afflicts all suffering mankind.”
His work in broadcasting was imbued with that desire to bring traditional music at its best to a people who sometimes seemed in a hurry to forget it, or who were increasingly presented with plastic or over-produced derivations – pale imitations of the authentic culture so ably represented by those who came to prominence in the glorious revival of tradition from the late Forties.
This programme in 1973 from his series Ag Déanamh Ceoil is perfection writ large. The Clare battering set knocking lightning from the floor, the brilliant music, the accomplished musicianship. Darach Ó Catháin standing straight and proud with the Easter Lily in his lapel singing Liam Ó Raghallaigh. He is simply spellbinding.
The collector, Tom Davis, once told us that to hear Darach Ó Catháin sing or Tony MacMahon play was to forget, for that brief time, that we had ever lost our freedom.
Tony MacMahon understood that the tradition which sustained generations could also be lost to a desire to add the ha’pence to the pence, or to bring everything down to the lowest common denominator.
He knew that traditional musicians weren’t simply entertainers, background noise to fill the space between shouty conversations. Instead, like himself, they were the keepers of the flame – often of important regional styles and tunes with their own particular nuances and sound.
He represented the views of thousands of musicians when he spoke on the Late Late Show about his concern that he couldn’t hear much of Ireland in some of the modern movements in Irish traditional music. He felt the sources of the music were in danger of being lost, of being trampled underfoot in the rush to innovate.
“What is happening is that tinsel, glitter and consumerism is actually replacing the tenderness and the poetry and the essential lyrical nature of traditional music,” he said. He was right, however much the ignoramuses shamefully tried to shout him down.
He resisted the attempt, usually coming from the well-funded and the well-connected, to reshape traditional music into their preferred mish-mash of sound – inclusive of everything and expressive of nothing.
He later wrote that the piece under discussion was a “path to nowhere – the dreary rattling of universal bones on a desert highway without soul, without hope.”
MacMahon always had the courage to be a contrarian. Not many do. He was also remarkably articulate: hearing him speak about music was like listening to poetry – arresting, passionate poetry. He wanted to wake us up to the treasure we had, and to the danger that we might let it slip away. The flute-player Marcas Ó Murchú described him as understanding “the poetic structure, lonely notes and soul-lifting spirit needed and inherent in the respected players of our native musical heritage.”
With his friend, famed concertina player Noel Hill, he recorded one of the best-loved albums of traditional music, I gCnoc na Graí.
Recorded in Dan Connell’s famous bar, the opening track – forever known as “Now boys” after the opening exhortation – has all the wild excitement of the house dances they both remembered. It is exuberant, unrestrained, and brilliant music, and the percussive accompaniment of the battering feet is pure heart.
Speaking about him today on Raidió na Gaeltachta, Noel Hill said that Mac Mahon’s music was full of “neart ‘s brí”, of strength and meaning.
“Níl deireadh leis fós,” he said. His music will live on.
Several years ago in Drumshanbo, at the Joe Mooney festival, I listened to a large gathering of musicians, mostly on accordions and concertinas, when they abandoned reels for almost an hour to play a series of magnificent marches.
“God, that was tremendous,” I said to one of them at the bar. “Like happening upon Cooley or Tony MacMahon.”
“Mac Mahon and Cooley, that’s all we listen to,” he said with a smile. That’s some legacy.
Tá Tony MacMahon imithe ar slí na fírinne. Suaimhneas síoraí air. Like the music he loved and championed, what he left will be cherished and will not be diminished