The Irish Film Festival’s Sé mo Laoch is a documentary on the life and music of Melbourne-born Steve Cooney. I’ve never met Steve Cooney, but he has been on the periphery of much of my life. Both of us emigrated from our respective countries, Ireland and Australia, in our 20s. I’m not a musician, but I am an admirer of musicians and I have lived through the metamorphesus of Irish traditional music from afar, starting with coming back from a holiday to Dublin with a precious copy of ‘Planxty’ and sharing it with other Irish ex-patriates in Adelaide.
Over the years, I became aware that this Australian had found his home in Irish traditional music. This year, during the pandemic lockdown in Adelaide, I whiled away my time by improving my Irish by listening to radio na gaeltachta’s Saol Ó Dheas and hearing on one programme a unique guitar rendition of an O’Carolan tune. It was from Steve Cooney’s latest CD’ Ceol Ársa Cláirsí’, and I sent for it straight away. So, it was with great delight that I found that a documentary of Cooney’s life and music would be part of the 2020 Irish Film Festival, and I would have the chance to increase my knowledge of his musical contribution to Ireland.
Sé mo Laoch is more than a biopic of Steve Cooney. It is a grand sweep of Irish folk and traditional music thanks to Cooney’s role as an interpreter and an innovator. But Cooney’s love of musical interpretation had a solid foundation before he left Australia’s shores. His musical Dad lived through depression years and brought this experience into his singing. Cooney recalls blues and gospel music and especially the song ‘Try a Little Tenderness’ as sung by his Dad as having a particular depth of meaning in the household. In time, Cooney was drawn to Australian Indigenous music in the musical instrument the didgeridoo and lived for a time with the family of the Indigenous dancer and film actor David Gulpilil. In the documentary Cooney recalls learning how to play the instrument from an Indigenous teacher ‘Leo’ in such a way that the teaching ‘travelled into his consciousness’. In a moment that is evocative of W B Yeats’ advice to John Millington Synge to go to the west of Ireland to find an Irish expression in his writing, Cooney was advised by his Indigenous teacher to go to the land of his own ancestors to learn language, music, dancing, poetry, and magic.
On coming across Planxty for the first time, Cooney was intrigued by the counterpoint achieved with the bouzouki and guitar. His hunger for opportunities to find authenticity and innovation led him to joining Stockton’s Wing. Cooney’s contribution to Irish traditional music reached its pinnacle in the recent awarding of a PhD for his own method of staff notation. The documentary shows Cooney’s notation in action in taking down a sean nós song and teaching the method to music students.
Cooney spent many years in West Kerry learning and interpretating the traditional music there. He later moved north and spent time in Rostrevor where his musical style was noted as being finally detailed, ‘both methodically and rhythmically’. The documentary captures well Cooney’s embrace of a wide range of music that has informed his work in the traditional sphere. The harpist Mary O’Hara was an early influence in how an instrument could be used to accompany a song. Folksinger Mary Black expresses her admiration in the document of Cooney’s song ‘Bless the Road’ and how his guitar accompaniment seemed like ‘crying the melody’. When Cooney moved down to West Kerry and subsequently formed a duo play with Seamus Begley, he found in the West Kerry polka a pulse that reminded him of Chuck Berry. In Kerry too he found a parallel to Indigenous Australian culture where the singer was not necessarily the best singer of a song, but had the right to sing the song.
The documentary is full of surprises and insights, one of the most remarkable being Cooney accompanying the US country and western singer Dolly Parton who chanced to turn up at a Kerry pub where Cooney was playing. Cooney boldly asks her to sing ‘Coat of Many Colours’. Parton is reluctant at first, not knowing the musician, but halfway through the song she puts her arm around Cooney’s shoulder in gratitude, which gesture emboldens the star-struck pub crown to sing the final few lines of the song.
Despite having lived so long in Ireland now, Cooney still retains a different eye. His view that Irish traditional music’s ‘one instrument, one player’ as being incorrect is thought provoking. The Battle of Kinsale robbed Ireland of a baroque tradition.
Sé mo Laoch is narrated in parts by Martin Hayes. It is a bilingual production that allows us to appreciate Cooney’s acquisition of the Irish language. In doing so, he has fulfilled that part of the requirements of ‘Leo’ back in Australia to connect with his own culture. There are many comments about his draíocht, ‘magic’. His songs are poetry. We learn that he accompanies set dancing, but we do not see him dance.
This documentary warrants many viewings for a full appreciation of Steve Cooney, a hero of Irish traditional music. But with just one viewing, there’s eating and drinking in it.
See preview at the Irish Film Festival page here in Tinteán or at https://www.tg4.ie/en/player/categories/irish-music-series/play/?pid=6120996798001
Dymphna Lonergan, Adelaide, South Australia