FolkWorld Issue 42 07/2010; Article by Seán Laffey
Lore and Tradition
The Mature Mythos of Danú
A hot overcast Wednesday in May, the Angelus has just rung out in Clonmel and Danú’s Benny McCarthy is sitting with Seán Laffey and sipping mugs of coffee in Hearn’s Hotel.
Benny and I are chatting about the new album from Danú called Seanchas, it’s that quite time in the hotel, if this was truly Europe there’d be business men gathered for a light dinner and lovers meeting to start their night with a bite. But it’s Ireland and well we don’t do hotel or restaurant food at dinner time, at this time of day it’s a packet of crisps or four chocolate biscuits with your coffee. Maybe a cheese-toastie? Maybe, but we are too shy to ask. Later the disco crowd might roll in but for now it’s just us two, the barman and Sky TV.
The hotel has a history and the more I talk to Benny the more their stories have parallels. Dan Hearn opened up here in 1792 and did reasonably well until he met his big business opportunity. That was in the shape of a curly haired twenty-nine year old Italian immigrant Charles Bianconi. Charles was into transport, he loved horses, his dream as a small kid was to own a string of white stallions; on the 6th of July 1815 he started Ireland’s first public coach company. Just a month before the French had been crushed at Waterloo leaving a glut of military horses and vehicles in the country (Ireland was so famous as a horse breeding area that a myth began that even Napoleon’s horse Marengo was claimed to have been bred in Wicklow). Bianconi set about acquiring a large fleet of carriages. Hearn provided the entrepreneur with office space and of course a beds for his weary travellers. Business boomed. Bianconi became Mayor of Clonmel and was turning over £40,000 a year by the 1840s, always smart with money, when railways came along he invested his coach cash in steam stock. He was a close friend of the “Liberator” Dan O’Connell (the most famous Irish politician of the early 19th Century and an ardent Catholic (in an age when being Protestant truly had its advantages). Bianconi was made for Ireland and Ireland was made for him.
In 1996 a youthful Benny appeared in the Irish Music Magazine offices, we had a coffee and a quick photo-shoot in the nearby Merrion Square gardens, it was like Dan Hearn meeting Charles Bianconi... I thought ‘this kid is going to go far’ and I wasn’t wrong.
Where have Danú gone might be a reasonable opening question, their appearrances in Ireland are now few and far between and they don’t do a quarter as much overseas touring they once did, but they are still together an actually doing a lot better than before. Some details will emerge as we go through this story, however, the band have realised that you can tour all year round or just tour smarter, they’ve gone for the latter option.
“It must be five years ago that we talked about a Danú album” Benny says with a big laugh, we count back over the past releases. “OK maybe it wasn’t five years but this is the first one for a long time” he tells me. Before we go into the nooks and crannies of the recording I ask him about the band. “We are all married now, that’s a big change, we are all over the place too, Oisin McAuley (fiddle) is living in Massachusetts, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh (flute and vocals) is teaching in the University of Limerick, Tom Doorley (flute) is teaching at DIT in Dublin, Ciarán Gealbháin who guests on Cailin na nÚrla Donn is in University in Cork, Donal Clancy (guitar) has been in the US for a while, Éamon Doorley (bouzouki) is married to Julie Fowlis and is based in Scotland where he has a parallel musical career and a new daughter , Donnchadh Gough (pipes and bodhrán) has his own pub, The Local in Dungarvan. “ Benny is the box player in Danú , originally from Deelish in Waterford but living in Ballinamult now.
Surely becoming involved in more stable lines of work changed the way you make music?
“It has had a big effect on the band, we got to a point where we had been constantly on tour for years, we had worked the festival and Irish clubs circuit and it was giving us a good living, but it’s hard to sustain that if you have a family. It’s not fair to your partner to be away so much and once children arrive, well you’d like to be with them as much as possible, my daughter starts school next September and I want to be at home for that.”
Given that family scenario many bands might put the banjos back in their cases and chalk it up as a well spent youth, but here’s where opportunity knocked for the lads. Benny takes up the story “We are doing most of our playing in America these days and we are lucky that we can arrange our schedules to fit around our domestic commitments. We are restricting ourselves to two weeks on tour at any one time now, that’s better for our families and we can sustain a really intense musical output over those two weeks. We do a March tour and a Christmas themed show in December. Tom Doorley (flute) and Donnchadh Gough (Pipes and bodhrán) both find it hard to tour now so they are in semi-retirement! “We got our big break in 1996 and we got a brilliant start with Shanachie Records. There were clear distribution channels then and record companies took control of all the non-music aspects of the business. Today many bands, probably the majority, are doing everything for themselves. As far as I’m concerned it’s healthy, it forces you to really think why you are in the business.”
Danú were for a long time handled by Pat Garret’s Real Good Music Agency in the US, Benny says “they were excellent and they really got us a foothold in the US, they have a great circuit catering for the Irish community and Celtic music fans, without Pat we wouldn’t have built up such a large following in the US.” However, they now have a new US agent, Marc Baylin. “He took us on board because he liked what we played, liked our shows and he hadn’t any other Irish or Celtic acts on the roster. He specialises in providing acts for community arts centres right across America, he has all sorts of people on his books from musicians to serious theatre. We said we want a tour in 12 months time in March 2010, he said he could do it and he delivered and we now have bookings up to 2012.”
How I wondered has this impacted on the sort of music Danú plays?
“We are still Danú, in fact we are playing more Irish material now, there are more Irish songs in our set and less Americana for sure, playing mainstream America has made us re-think what we perform. Those people are coming out to see an Irish act play Irish music and they want Irish songs too and it seems to be the way to go. We have had the best year ever in terms of audience response and audience numbers, we shifted up a gear from three hundred seat venues to two thousand seat theatres . We are being exposed to people who have no prior knowledge of Irish music, so we have to make it on the strength of our musicianship and our ability to entertain. We all do a fair bit of talking and we find that being able to chat with the audience helps to draw them into the music.”
Where did you learn that stage craft? “Well we thought we had it for ages” he laughs, “until we worked with Liam Clancy, we were on his last album and of course Donal is his son and we’d known Liam for years in Helvic. Gigging with him was not only a pure pleasure but what a learning experience. He had such energy, there wasn’t anything rushed about him, the stage was his world. How he interacted with the audience was breathtaking to watch. We learnt that it’s not about playing music, you know how it is ‘put your head down play three reels. Come up for air, smile, put your head down play three jigs’. It doesn’t connect with people. It works for a while, maybe fifteen minutes, they see you have lightning-fast fingers but after that it gets boring. You have to draw them into your ... well for want of a better word ...your magic , give them a chance to share your passion for the music, call it stage craft if you like, but Liam Clancy had it and as I said we were so lucky and proud to have worked with him.”
His loss must have been hard on the band? “Shocking, we were on tour at the time and Donal of course came home, we’d have all liked to have been at the funeral, but we were committed to a tour and we stuck to it, that’s the hard part of being professional. Liam would have understood.”
So what about the new record? “We like to call Seanchas the mature album” I observe that it is their most melodic for years, (it has only two reels), Muireann and Ciarán are both in fine voice and the sound seems to have seismically shifted closer to Sliabh Luachra, maybe that’s Muireann’s Dingle influence? “Well we didn’t make a conscious decision to do that and it’s funny you picked up on it. We have been playing this stuff live for years and we hoped to get it down on an album at some time, the March US tour was the ideal opportunity to do just that. We went to Grouse Lodge to record it and we had it done in about two weeks. It’s in our opinion the best recording studio in the country, the gear is just so good, the microphones cost thousands of euros each and they run into a valve desk from the 1980s, which makes the sound really warm. Thanks to sound engineer Ivan O’ Shea we think we’ve produced a really fine piece of work and it’s a great feeling to know we did it all ourselves.”
One final point, this is the first Danú album for a long time that doesn’t have a picture of the band on it, is that significant? “Isn't it nice to have a lovely photo of an Art piece by the Irish Artist Niall O'Neill on the cover of a traditional Irish album? You know we were really impressed with Marc Baylin, he came to Ireland to see our photo shoot, we like that attention to detail, we've never met an agent who would take so much care over how his acts are presented. Early on when you are young it's just you in the photo trying to look cool. But now it's different, folks have to know what they are getting when they buy a ticket and it's actually an honour to be photographed holding an Irish traditional instrument. It tells the world what we do and we are really happy about that. We’ll leave those pictures for the posters and we’ll keep the art on the CD.”
Bianconi would recognise a fellow traveller in Benny McCarthy, I’ve a feeling Danú will make the miles ahead equally profitable.
Seanchas is dedicated to the memory of Liam Clancy and can be ordered on line from www.danu.net. Seán's article was originally featured in the Irish Music Magazine (www.irishmusicmagazine.com).
(1) Press Photo (from website);
(2)-(3) Tønder Festival 1998,
(4) Snape Proms 2004 (by The Mollis);
(5) Tønder Festival 2007 (by Walkin' Tom).
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© The Mollis - Editors of FolkWorld; Published 07/2010
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