I have a DREAM
Sean Tyrrell’s Cry Of A Dreamer has been hailed as a timeless masterpiece. In the long run, however, it may be seen as merely the beginning of an extraordinary musical saga. Interview: Patrick Brennan
Right from the opening bars of Johnny Mulhern’s ‘Mattie’, Seán Tyrrell’s Cry Of A Dreamer sounded like one of those handful of discs that can only be described as timeless and transcendent. Never having heard of Seán Tyrrell before, the impact of his first release was all the greater. Undoubtedly a master of his craft, he seemed to spring up out of nowhere. Not surprisingly, though, Seán Tyrrell isn’t just a by-product of the latest musical downpour.
“I was born in Galway and started playing music there. Then in about 1967-’68 I moved to the States where I played music professionally, for about five or six years, travelling around the country as part of a duet. Eventually I put together a bigger band but it didn’t get past the second rehearsal. While I was there I recorded a single and an album with a group called Apples In Winter, but that didn’t go anywhere either. So, I came back home, around ’76-’78 and I’ve been living in Clare ever since. When I came back home I quit playing professionally. I still played music but I wasn’t going out doing gigs. Or very, very odd ones. I just played in sessions around the area.
“Then about eight or nine years ago I became friendly with Davy Spillane through a gig he used to do in Lisdoonvarna on a regular basis. P.J. Curtis also became a very good friend at that stage, and through both of them, I slowly came back into the professional musical world.
“I first recorded with Davy on Shadow Hunter which P.J. produced. P.J. started trying to convince record companies at home and abroad to record a solo album of mine, but nobody seemed interested. There were a couple of companies dangling carrots but that’s about all they were doing. As soon as I’d reach out for them they’d draw them back. So we decided about a year ago that we’d establish a deadline and if an offer hadn’t come through by a certain date we were going to look for the money off investors. Which, of course, is exactly what we did. We got a group of investors, three businessmen actually, from around Galway to put up the money to record, get it pressed and released. Basically that’s a synopsis of it!”
The result was the creation of a new label, Longwalk Music, of which Seán Tyrrell is ninety-nine per cent the owner. Seán Tyrrell also promises that the hard lesson of trying to get recorded won’t be lost on him.
“It’s my intention that if this is successful – not if but when, let’s be positive about this – when this is successful that there will be a facility there for other people coming along. It annoys me quite a lot about the Irish music industry – and I call it industry – that it seems to be becoming more and more difficult for real talent to come through. I know an awful lot of great singers and bands and musicians around Galway and not only just Galway, all over the country. But unless you seem to be on the inner circle of the Dublin ‘scene’ nobody seems to pay a bit of attention. I think it’s about time that should change and I hope the facility of Longwalk Music can someday do something about that. Hopefully we’ll be able to record others who deserve to be recorded and promote what’s good.
“If I were ever to ‘make it’, or whatever that entails, I would hope to think that I would be looking back and wondering how I can help. I mean it’s a small country and it seems that we don’t support our own. It bothered me there the other day when I went in to buy a phone card and on the phone card I found the dial of Garth Brooks! I mean that man doesn’t need publicity anymore. Why couldn’t they have used an Irish musician? I don’t mean myself but any Irish musician who might be in need of more publicity.
“And it’s the same thing with the radio. Whenever these big names come to town there’s a big hullabaloo about them. But you won’t get that for an Irish musician. There are a few in RTE. I’m not tarnishing everyone with the same brush but there doesn’t seem to be that element of trying to bring new things along. It seems to have got very conservative. Y’know, circle the wagons and whatever we have within it, we’ll keep and forget about what’s outside.”
One of the most striking things about Cry Of A Dreamer is the sheer uncategorisability of a lot of the music. Seán Tyrrell seems to have incorporated other older musical traditions that are both Irish and not Irish at one and the same time. Through the likes of the Johnny Mulhern number ‘Demolition Dan (States Of Decay)’ Cry Of A Dreamer also manages to solder a modern sensibility to these ancient musical lineages. Ironically, though, the very experimentation that recommends Cry Of A Dreamer was also, at times in the past, a stumbling block of sorts to Seán Tyrrell’s progress.
“For certain Irish record companies I wasn’t traditional enough. I sang in English. Or, as in the case of another record company, I didn’t accompany myself with an instrument that was considered kosher for Irish traditional music. It wasn’t a fiddle, a flute, a concertina or pipes. I played a mando-cello. Jesus what is that?! A tenor guitar with only four strings in it, my god what is that?! Actually the mando-cello is probably older than the pipes. Then, on the other side of things, they said I was too traditional.
“When we finished the last track in Súlán, where we were recording it, we went off to the pub to have a few pints, came back, put it on and brought up a bevy of beer to listen to it into the late hours. I remember after it was over P.J. Curtis and a few friends sitting around asking what sort of music is this, even though we had been part and parcel of the making of it. People ask me sometimes, even club owners, what sort of music do I do but I can’t explain it. It’s not traditional music even though all my influences are from traditional music. I regard myself as a traditional musician. Whether the purists would regard me as one is another thing. And I’m not really that interested in brackets anyway to be honest.
“I love the sax,” continues Seán by way of further explaining the different juxtapositions on Cry Of A Dreamer. “A friend of mine, Michelle Bonemie, a great flute and pipe player from Brittany, after a lot of persuasion on my part got a saxophone harmony, which used to be played in the ceilí bands years ago. I think nearly everyone of them had a sax at some stage. A lot of people that come to the gigs live, especially people from outside the country, find the combination of fiddle and sax strange and nice! In fact at times on song-checks I find it difficult to hear them because the fiddle blends so well into the saxophone. It’s just the choice of instruments, probably, I think that gives the album a strange sort of twist.”
Apart from the drunken swagger of ‘Mattie’, the hard social realism of John Boyle O’Reilly’s poems, the dark illegitimate truisms of the ‘House Of Delight’ and the apocalyptic, post-industrialism of ‘Demolition Dan’ Cry Of a Dreamer has its fair share of unashamedly sad songs. In fact, the entire album seems to be pervaded by an unadulterated, naked and inchoate emotion. As it turns out Seán Tyrrell wanted more than anything else to get a lot of feeling into the music.
“Not an awful lot of records excite me much these days because I find they’re very clinically produced. It’s like precision music. P.J. Curtis has, more or less, the same idea of things, so I was delighted he was producing it. He’ll always run the machine even if you’re doing the test. That was the approach I wanted. If we could sacrifice any amount of the clinical technique approach in order to get one ounce more of emotion, then we felt the emotion and that kind of sound was worth searching for. But there was great fun in the making of the album as well, though.”
In many ways Cry Of A Dreamer is centred around a trio of poems by John Boyle O’Reilly which Seán Tyrrell put to music. O’Reilly’s words and Seán Tyrrell’s treatment of them whets the appetite for more of the same. How did Seán Tyrrell come across a man whose work seems to be almost criminally ignored in his native Ireland?
“He was the most amazing man, the most amazing human. When I first found the ‘Message Of Peace’ I thought it was the most unbelievable piece, particularly when you think when it was written.
“I was up at the launching of the John Boyle O’Reilly summer school in Drogheda this year, so finally they’re going to honour the man. Anyway there’s this story going around that when John F. Kennedy was here in Ireland he quoted John Boyle O’Reilly in many of his speeches. I’d say ninety-nine per cent of the people didn’t know who he was. But I have to say that I was the same ‘cause I played in a club in Massachusetts, in Springfield, called the John Boyle O’Reilly and I hadn’t clue who this John Boyle O’Reilly was.
“I used to do this regular afternoon gig in Galway and this friend of mine from Mayo used to come into it and he was the first person I’d met who had ever heard of him. We swopped books. I gave him A Thousand Years Of Irish Poetry and he gave me a loan of The Complete Prose, Speeches and Poetry of John Boyle O’Reilly. There was a whole thing on his life in that. And besides being a brilliant writer, he was an amazing character. And I fell in love with his stuff. I just wonder sometimes why we’re not more aware of men of his calibre. I think his life would make an absolutely brilliant film. I’d love to get somebody interested in it.
“I’ve often told the story about the time I was playing in a place in Lisdoonvarna – don’t mention it by name though because it and I have parted company – and a friend of mine Bobby Romanovski – a Kerry Cronin on one side and a Romanovski on the other! – was over visiting from the ‘States with some nuns. Now what they were doing in Bobby’s company I don’t know. But anyway I sang that song ‘Message Of Peace’, acoustic. It wasn’t over mikes or anything. At the end of the night they remarked: (Puts on American accent) ‘Did you write that one about Ronald Reagan yourself’. No I didn’t write it. But that was the association they made. And I thought Jesus two hundred years down the line and you’re still speaking a truth.”
Speaking of poetry, another of Seán Tyrrell’s projects at the moment is a thing called The Midnight Court. The Midnight Court is Tyrrell’s musical adaptation of an epic narrative dramatic poem called Cúirt Uí Mhean Oíche by Brian Merriman and is based on David Marcus’ translation.
“I found it in A Thousand Years Of Irish Poetry,” takes up Seán Tyrrell once again. “There were a couple of other translations in there as well but when I picked up David’s, I nearly fell through the floor with laughter. I had it for a while and every so often I’d delve into it. Then the thought struck me there might be some good songs in here so I set about looking at converting some extracts into songs and sure then, I thought to myself, Jesus, sure why not put on the whole lot! Luckily though, I didn’t have a large enough ego to attempt to put music to the whole lot, all one thousand lines of it.
“But, you see, it’s actually a feminist statement from way back. The poet wakes up down beside the lake in Loughraney and this old hag of a woman drags him off to court where he’s accused of not using his sexual parts in the way that he should. There’s a whole political statement in it as well. It’s raunchy in the Irish and what I liked about David Marcus’ translation was that he didn’t try to make it nice and digestible for people. There are actually things in there like ‘He’d sit upon their balls’. As well as that there’s references to rugby scrums and lines like ‘he lay there like a human refrigerator’. It was brilliantly updated.
“So I set it all to music and got a cast together of ten people. There were originally six women and four men. Four main women singers and two male singers: Seán Keane is the other singer and Seán plays a weedy and seedy old man. It’s great fun. We’re going back on the road with it very shortly again. We’ve a couple of offers abroad but it’ll be a while before we come back to do it in Dublin again. Dublin will have to treat me a lot better than it did the last time. A lot of people said to me, we should make Dublin wait for it and, by Jesus, they’ll wait for it I can tell you.
“When you get involved in the business end of things it just takes away from the music itself. I had a personal experience of that recently when we brought the Midnight Court to Dublin. I had to get involved in things I would have much preferred not to have been involved in and I’d never go through it again.
“There was a catalogue of absolute disasters before it arrived in Dublin and the fact that it got to Dublin at all was amazing. One of the main people, Liam Lewis, the fiddle player, who’s on the album as well, broke his wrist the night before rehearsals began. And then Mary McCartland, who was one of the lead singers, her baby got ill. Up to about four days before we came up, we didn’t know if we had our lead singer. So the fact that we got here and did as well as we did delighted me in many ways. But Dublin will definitely have to wait to see it again. But I won’t go into it any more than that.”
Does Seán Tyrrell ever worry that there might be too much earthiness and country romanticism in his music for Dublin’s sanitised, cynical and cold urban ears to ever truly understand what’s going on in his music?
“I hope not. I don’t think there’s anything that hidden or oblique or that difficult to understand in there. As you know, I was playing with Davy Spillane last night and James Delaney’s wife Margaret was very complimentary about the music. She kept using the word ‘conviction’. I like that word and I was very honoured by her use of that word. It’s something that appeals to me and I think no matter where people are from or what music they come from – because it’s strange the borders the album seems to have crossed and I’m talking about age groups as well as different kinds of music – once you’re true to what you’re doing and once people can hear that, then I don’t think any of those things matter.”
Spoken like a true romantic, Seán.