The Poet and the Piper

A Review by Tony Smith

Seamus Minogue, a valued friend and playwright of Nenagh Tipperary, has sent me much literature and music over the years. I was flattered when he found my taste in songs similar to that of the great Luke Kelly.

The latest treasure to arrive is a CD called The Poet and the Piper. I was expressing an interest in uilleann pipes and complained that the pipes are not well known and appreciated in Australia. They certainly are much admired in this house now.

The poet is the late Seamus Heaney. The uilleann piper is the late Liam O’Flynn. The works of both are immortal. Heaney was one of the best known Irish poets writing in English. O’Flynn played with Planxty and collaborated with numerous other musicians.

Mostly the poet and the piper feature on alternate tracks, an arrangement which has a refreshing effect on the ear. The opening track is an exception, showing how easily the voice – ‘The Green Note’ – and the pipes – ‘Port na bPucai’ – blend, complement and strengthen one another.

Heaney writes about essentially simple matters in which he finds beauty and wonder. In ‘Digging’ for example, he sees his father outside his window harvesting new potatoes and recalls that his grandfather was a champion at cutting turf. The poet on the other hand, breaks the tradition, holding only a pen in his hand. As the pen is quickly becoming obsolete, it will be a challenge for another generation to extend this theme.  

Heaney writes too about ‘The Wellhead’ and a blind neighbour who played piano all day and said she ‘saw’ their voices. ‘Midterm Break’ finishes with the jolt that he has been called home to see that his brother had a four foot box, one foot for each year. In so many poems he describes natural phenomena uniquely from animals such as the otter, to the bogland. Heaney’s writing evokes a sense of wonder in which pioneers ‘dig downward’. The tragedy of political extremism is there too in ‘Two Lorries’.

In ‘Postscript’ Heaney suggests taking the time to drive to County Clare and see how ‘the wind and the light are working off one another’ and ‘catch the heart off guard and blow it open’.

There is great variety in the moods and rhythms of the pipes, and on several tracks, including ‘Ardai Chuain’ and ‘Sliabh Gallon’s Brae’, O’Flynn takes up the whistle. These tracks are every bit as poignant and haunting as those featuring the pipes. ‘The Humours of Castlebernard’ and ‘The Bank of Turf’ provide jaunty contrasts, and ‘Garret Barry’s Reel’ and ‘Sean Reid’s Favourite’ make an uplifting finish.

For these 27 tracks, Heaney and O’Flynn are assisted by producers and arrangers Rod McVey, Stephen Cooney, Mick Barry, Richard Ryan, Tim Martin, Ciaran Byrne and Perry Ogden. This is another great contribution to traditional music by Claddagh Records.

Dr Tony Smith is a former academic. He lives near Bathurst New South Wales and raises funds for the Leukaemia Foundation while busking with folk instruments – whistle, melodeon, and jig doll. He writes regular reviews for Trad and Now magazine.