Máire Ní Chathasaigh - on an endless voyage of discorvery


It’s been quite a journey for Máire Ní Chathasaigh, and we’re not talking about the latest overseas trip that has brought the Irish harper and her partner, guitarist Chris Newman, to Victoria via Western Australia, Sydney, New South Wales, Port Fairy, Blue Mountains and numerous other stops in a seven-week tour down under.


Ní Chathasaigh is on an endless voyage of discovery and has been since she took up the, at the time, deeply unfashionable harp at school. Having run the gauntlet of “diddly dee” taunts on the walk to school, she’s since taken her instrument into styles of music not generally associated with the harp, including bluegrass and swing, and managed the feat of making it sound naturally at home in these genres.


“Bluegrass is essentially a turbo-charged form of American old-time music, which in turn is the music that Irish and Scottish people took over to the States over the past three or four centuries,” she says from her hotel in Victoria, post-gig. “So there’s a connection with the music and the tradition that I grew up with. But I’ve always had a strong idea of the music I wanted to play and it’s the music that’s important. The harp is just the instrument that allows me to play it.”


This was the case right from the start. Growing up in rural West Cork in a family that had poets going back generations on her father’s side and singers with centuries of learning on her mother’s side, Ní Chathasaigh was drawn to what she heard. Fiddle players and uilleann pipers dropping by for conversation and music with her parents would leave the young harper intrigued by how she was going to capture the way they phrased a tune and gave it such expression.


“There was nowhere to go to learn this really authentic style of playing, nobody to copy,” she says. “The harp players who were around might play some O Carolan tunes in a very drawing room kind of way. But I wanted to play the way I heard a tune being played or a song being sung, with all the character these people brought to what they did, so I had to invent it. The whole point about playing traditional music, for me, is that the player should be transparent. I want people to hear the music and not think, ‘What a brilliant player she is’ but what beautiful music she’s playing. I’m really just the conduit, the mouthpiece if you like, for all the people who have played and sung traditional music down the centuries.”


It was when she met Newman, whose background includes spells with jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli and folk band Boys of the Lough and much session playing at bluegrass camps across the US, that Ní Chathasaigh’s musical horizons broadened. Already a virtuoso player – like her sister, Nollaig, who plays both traditional fiddle and classical violin and coincidentally has a guitarist-partner in the legendary Arty McGlynn – she found herself in a duo that played its first gig at Cambridge Folk Festival and won rave notices for its eclectic repertoire.


“Chris is interested in all sorts of music, especially improvised music, which is his thing,” she says. “And I like to think his wide knowledge has rubbed off on me. When I play the tunes he brings to our set, it’s like I use a different part of my brain to play them. I’ve always found that and it’s really exciting, particularly when you start off not knowing where you’re going to end up. In traditional music, the spontaneous variations might be in tone or colour rather than in the choice of notes – the old fiddler players I learned from used to say that beauty lies in subtlety. So playing different styles can mean a very different approach but I love developing different ways of doing things and trying out new ideas.”


For Ní Chathasaigh, who returns with Newman to play at Edinburgh International Harp Festival, which begins on Friday, music should be about that everlasting journey whether you’re playing it or listening to it.


“I always feel that there’s so much more to learn because if you think you know everything, you might as well give up,” she says. “I get that from my father, who was an inspiration to me and had a fantastic knowledge of poetry and folklore but was always hungry for more. He was eighty-seven when he died and at his funeral the priest gave a lovely eulogy that described him as a teacher by profession but a learner all his life. That summed him up perfectly and I hope I’m still learning, still improving when I’m eighty-seven.”


From The Herald, April 8, 2015.


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