FolkWorld Issue 33 05/2007; Article by Walkin' T:-)M
Inisheer, oh Inisheer
The Story of an Irish Air
The beautiful and lyrical slow air 'Inisheer' is one of the most popular tunes played by traditional Irish musicians. It is played in sessions and on concert stages everywhere. Over here in Germany, no traditional Irish music session passes without having it played at least once. Furthermore, it is quite easy to learn and recommended for beginners. However, 'Inisheer' is not too traditional, neither is it very ancient at all. It has only recently been composed by accordion player Thomas Walsh from Dublin.
On Inisheer, on Inisheer, I had never known a fear,
With 1,400 acres, Inisheer is the smallest and most eastern of the three Aran Islands in Galway Bay off the West coast of Ireland. The islands with their barren and rugged landscape are an outcropping of the limestone layers on the Irish mainland, called The Burren. Many pupils come to Inisheer to learn the Irish language, since it is still in daily use by the 300 residents.
The official Irish name Inis Oírr is a recent invention of the Irish Ordnance Survey. There is no Irish word corresponding to the second element. It appears to be a compromise between the traditional local name Inis Thiar (rear island) and the previous official name Inis Oirthir (east island).
The Islands are a place apart. Playwright John Millington Synge (1871-1909), himself a devoted fiddler, spent each summer during 1898 and 1902 on Aran. This he had to say: Aran came in sight. A dreary rock appeared sloping up from the sea into the fog. A little later I was wandering out along the one good roadway of the island, looking over low walls on either side into small fields of naked rock. I have seen nothing so desolate. Grey floods of water were sweeping everywhere upon the limestone, making at times a wild torrent of the road, which twined continually over low hills and cavities in the rock or passed between a few small fields of potatoes or grass hidden away in corners that had shelter. Occasionally I passed a lonely chapel or schoolhouse, or a line of stone pilars with crosses above them and inscriptions asking a prayer for the soul of the person they commemorated.
Recordings of Thomas Walsh's 'Inisheer':
Buttons & Bows First Month of Summer 87
Cherish the Ladies Out and About 93
M.Donohoe Free Spirit 93
Sean Nua The Open Door 93
Sean Talamh Sean Talamh 93
Danú Danú 97
Fiddler's Bid Hamnataing 98
Shantalla Shantalla 98
Dulsert Days Of Doolin 99
Geantrai The Music Makers 99
R.Jones How Sweet the Sound 99
P.Flanagan Morning after the Night Before 00
G.Hambly Between the Showers 00
B.Phillips Cello 00
Pub Scouts Where Else Would You Be 00
M.Kerry The Rocky Road 01
K.Robertson Dance to Your Shadow 01
Airím Níl na lá 02
J.Autumn California Celt 02
L. Ní Chonaola An Raicín Álainn 02
Derrane/Gavin/McGrath Ireland's Harvest 02
B.Kolle The Northern Folk Harp 02
Rapalje Alesia 02
An Rinn Smugglers 03
A.Crossey Humours of Lewisham Vol.3 03
Mithril Banish Misfortune 03
T.Walsh Ethnic Tears 03
V/A Echa Celtyckie 2 03
M.Wallis A Celtic Heritage 04
E.Eid-Reiner Grand Tour 05
Dave Flynn Draiocht 06
Inisheer Live Traditions 06
T.Walsh The Plassey on the Rocks 06
Sharon Hussey Inisheer 07
On Inisheer Synge met a dunkard and singer: His performance reminded me in general effect of a chant I once heard from a party of Orientals I was travelling with in a third-class carriage from Paris to Dieppe. But as Synge admitted: The sort of yearning I feel towards those lonely rocks is indescribably acute.
Dublinman Thomas Walsh vividly remembers his first trip to the island and how he wrote the tune that made him famous: I composed 'Inisheer' after spending the best holiday of my life on the island. There was no electricity on the island at that time, which was new to a Dub like me. I found the people and the island had something special which I never experienced before. I went for three days and came home three weeks later, due to a lack of money. I composed 'Inisheer' the next day while I was walking in the Phoenix Park dreaming of what I had left behind, and the peace and tranquility it gave me.
The tune soon became quite popular. It almost spread like a disease, so to speak. Hard to tell when and where it entered the tradition and became respected as a traditional Irish tune. Even so that the accordion-fiddle-piano trio Joe Derrane, Gavin & McGrath included 'Inisheer' when paying hommage to the classic years of Irish music in America in the early 1900’s.
It is reported that flutist Joanie Madden and fiddler Eileen Ivers of Cherish the Ladies fame introduced 'Inisheer' to their classes during Irish Week workshops at Augusta, WV, in 1987. When played ensemble for the students concert, it was a smashing hit. In 1987 too, fiddlers Séamus and Manus McGuire and accordionist Jackie Daly recorded the tune on the Buttons & Bows album 'The First Month of Summer'. The most ancient recording I could track down.
'Inisheer' has been recorded many a time (see box on the left), and arranged for a variety of instruments including accordion, harp, flute and whistle, fiddle, guitar and piano. It appeared in print at least once - in 'Mel Bay's Complete Celtic Fingerstyle Guitar Book'. Under various titles such as 'Inisheer', 'Inis Oirr', 'Inis Airr', 'Inis Iar' or 'Inis oirthir'. It reportedly became also known as 'Inisfree' and 'The Old Arm Chair'.
Lasairfhiona Ni Chonaola, who hails from Inisheer herself, adapted some Gaelic words from Ethna Carberry's (1866-1911) poem 'On Inisheer' and set it to the tune of Thomas Walsh's air.
Composer Thomas Walsh is rarely mentioned. Fiddler's Bid attributed the tune to Irish piper Pat McNult, and German band An Rinn even credited it to one Sir Arthur Shaen (who in fact was the subject of a Carolan tune).
Thomas recorded it in 2003 for the very first time on his debut album 'Ethnic Tears'. It is featured again on his second album 'The Plassey on the Rocks'. Over the years Thomas was asked to put lyrics to the air, but he was very reluctant to do this. He eventually wrote a story in English about how he saw the island with the tune in mind. It was recorded in 1985 with Thomas' brother Maurice singing it. Shay Hennessy wrote some Irish lyrics to it, and this is featured on 'The Plassey on the Rocks' sung by David Yeates.
Thomas Walsh returned many times to Inisheer and the island became a constant inspiration for many a tune. As Thomas points out: Has to be the air on Inisheer. My own band Dun Aengus (named after the stone fort on the Aran Island of Inismore) used to play 'Inisheer' for a couple of years, and only recently stopped performing it (after flirting with the idea playing it in 'B flat' instead of the usual 'G'). This is the curse of a popular tune. It might be played to death and become kind of hackneyed.
Any way, 'Inisheer' has become one of the classic slow airs of Ireland. I wonder who and where is playing 'Inisheer' just now when you are reading this.
(1) Inisheer Postcard (unknown);
(2)-(3) Thomas Walsh (taken from website).
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© The Mollis - Editors of FolkWorld; Published 05/2007
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