Micheal O Domhnaill

Bothy Band guitarist and singer


Mícheál O Domhnaill, guitarist, singer and folklorist: born Kells, Co Meath 1952; died Dublin 8 July 2006.

Irish music didn't quite know what had hit it in 1974 when the Bothy Band exploded out of traditional music, all guns blazing. They were a folk group in personnel, acoustic instrumentation and pedigree; a rock band in attitude and vision. Most of the focus fell on the band's more flamboyant virtuosos - the ferocious Donegal fiddler Tommy Peoples, the travelling piper Paddy Keenan, the master flautist Matt Molloy, the alluring singer and harpsichord/clavinet player Tríona Ni Dhomhnaill and the bouzouki rhythm king Donal Lunny.

But Mícheál O Domhnaill offered a subtly crucial counterpoint to the musical fireballs bursting around him, with his thoughtful accompaniments and gentle voice. His contribution to the legend of the Bothy Band was profound and, through many years playing in an assortment of styles, he was recognised as one of Ireland's finest accompanists of traditional music.

O Domhnaill was also a fine singer who did much for raising awareness and interest in the Irish-language song tradition both before and after the halcyon years of the Bothy Band, going on to achieve further acclaim with the American-based bands Nightnoise and Relativity.

Born in Kells, Co Meath, Mícheál O Domhnaill inherited a deep love and understanding of Irish culture from a family rooted in the Donegal Gaeltacht (Irish-speaking) area of Rann na Feirste and steeped in traditional music history. His mother Brid was a choral singer and his father Aodh was a teacher who also sang and collected music for the Irish Folklore Commission. Aodh's sister Neilli Ni Dhomhnaill provided a goldmine of material with a fund of over 300 Irish- and English-language songs, some of which - like "Do You Love an Apple?" - found their way into the Bothy Band repertoire.

Taught piano from the age of six, Mícheál gravitated to the guitar and formed his first band, Skara Brae, with his sisters Tríona and Maighread and the gifted Derry guitarist Dáithí Sproule. Their beautiful, adventurous arrangements of mostly Irish Gaelic material did much to raise the profile and status of this tradition when they released their first and only album for the Gael Linn label in 1971. By this time both Mícheál and Tríona were students at University College Dublin, where Mícheál forged a partnership with Mick Hanly under the name Monroe, recording one fine album, Celtic Folkweave, with him, released by Polydor in 1974.

The origins of the Bothy Band were set when the accordion player Tony McMahon recruited both Mícheál and Tríona to play at a one-off concert with Donal Lunny, Paddy Keenan, Paddy Glackin and Matt Molloy under the name of Seachtar ("seven"). The night was such a success and the rapport between them so instinctive they decided to formalise the group.

At Mícheál O Domhnaill's suggestion they called themselves the Bothy Band after a group of itinerant Irish labourers who worked the farms in Scotland by day and entertained themselves with wild, impromptu music sessions by night. Tony McMahon had a day job and bailed out and Paddy Glackin soon left to be replaced by Tommy Peoples, but the incredible energy generated by the new band caused an immediate impact. Planxty had already opened young people's ears to the joy and excitement of Irish music, but nobody had heard anything quite like the Bothy Band in full flight before.

Full of strong characters and brilliant, thrilling musicians, they had a natural dynamism that manifested itself in fury of passion and blistering power that belied their acoustic line-up and blew most electric rock bands out of the water. People still talk in awe of their legendary début concerts in Ireland (at Trinity College Dublin) and Britain (at Hammersmith Town Hall).

The Bothy Band split after five years in 1979, but they made three classic albums, 1975 (1975), Old Hag You Have Killed Me (1976) and Out of the Wind, into the Sun (1977), plus a fine live collection, After Hours (1979). They set the benchmark by which all succeeding Irish bands have been judged and most of the leading Irish bands of today like Altan, Danu and Dervish point to the Bothy Band as a primary inspiration. It made them famous, but not rich, and due to business and record-company problems none of the band made much money out of the experience.

O Domhnaill went on to record the lovely Promenade (1980), an instrumental album with the fiddle player Kevin Burke (a post-Tommy Peoples member of the Bothy Band) and followed his sister Tríona to the United States, settling in Portland, Oregon. Tríona and Mícheál were subsequently reunited in Nightnoise, a band Micheal had formed with the violinist/keyboard player Billy Oskay, and the flautist Brian Dunning.

Nightnoise couldn't have been more different from the Bothies, moulding a mellow, ambient instrumental style involving jazz/classical fusion full of spirituality that almost came to define the new age culture. The Celtic influence was minimal, dismaying many of O Domhnaill's old fans from the Bothy Band era, but they hit a chord in the US and sold more records than the Bothies ever did. They were mainstays of the Windham Hill record label, for whom they recorded seven albums, and O Domhnaill stayed with them for over 15 years.

During the ambient years of Nightnoise, however, O Domhnaill did continue to involve himself in Irish music, founding the band Relativity with his sister Tríona and the great Scottish musicians Phil Cunningham (accordion) and his brother Johnny on fiddle. The late Johnny Cunningham, one of the finest fiddle players of his generation, was even inducted into Nightnoise as Billy Oskay's replacement after their fourth album.

With the Cunninghams on board and Tríona and Mícheál sharing the vocals, Relativity were an outstanding band, recording two fine albums, Relativity (1986) and Gathering Pace (1987). It proved yet again that Mícheál O Domhnaill had few peers when it came to providing the understated guitar arrangements for others to blossom and get the best out of a jig or reel. Indeed he was critical of the high-octane obsession of many Irish musicians trying to recapture the magic of the Bothy Band.

He returned to live in Ireland in 1997 and again showed his adeptness with arrangements and sparingly sympathetic guitar accompaniments when he teamed up for a tour and a 2001 album, Athchuairt ("Reprise"), with his close friend the original Bothy Band fiddle player Paddy Glackin. Glackin gave O Domhnaill particular credit for his work on popularising Irish language songs. "He took a lot of old songs and re-fashioned them and made them accessible to a new generation," he said.

A gentle, unassuming, mild-mannered character, Mícheál O Domhnaill was held in high regard by his peers for his quiet influence both as an ambassador of Irish music, his willingness to embrace other styles and the rich legacy of tunes and songs he brought with him. He collaborated on an album by the Japanese singer Mimori Yusa and appeared weekly as part of the house band on the RTE1 show Brid Live. He was also a producer, radio presenter (he was the first host of the Irish music show The Long Note) and a keen golfer, but, perhaps more than anyone else, he defined the role of the guitar in traditional tunes with his lightness of touch and understated style.

Colin Irwin

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