MICHO RUSSELL was to Irish traditional music what Muddy Waters was to the blues. Almost singlehandedly he put the tiny fishing village of Doolin, Co Clare, on the map as the musical capital of Ireland. For years people from all over the world have been flocking to the cluster of houses perched a few miles from the Cliffs of Moher, on the edge of the Atlantic, to hear Russell play.
Two generations ago this wild and windswept part of Clare was Gaelic-speaking and desperately poor, a majority of its children emigrating to Boston or London upon leaving school. Nowadays, thanks to the continuing traditional music revival, it is a cultural Mecca for Europeans, where German, French and Dutch are as likely to be heard in shops and pubs as English.
A totally unassuming singer,
storyteller and musician, with a deceptively simple style, Russell exuded a good-humoured honesty and authenticity that was tremendously appealing. To sit in a small smoky pub, with an Atlantic gale howling outside, and hear the lilting notes of his tin whistle bring silence to a noisy room, could be a spine-tingling experience.
Russell's music reflected his inimitable personality and helped preserve a local style of playing at a time when the distinctive regional styles of Irish traditional music were being lost.
Unlike that of such musical virtuosi on the tin whistle as Mary Bergin, whose stunning playing is crammed with ornamentation, rolls and flourishes, Russell's style was stripped down to the bare minimum, with long silences between notes. To the uninitiated ear, it could sound deceptively simple and even plain, but nobody could imitate him.
His playing belied an artistic strength which could draw on a storehouse of tunes and melodies. Many of these survive on both audio and video recordings in archives in Ireland and abroad.
Paying tribute in the Irish Times last week to Micho Russell's endless generosity towards fellow musicians and folklore collectors, Dr Micheal O Suilleabhain, the noted musician and head of music at the University of Limerick, recalled how Russell would tell endless stories about the origin of his flute and tin-whistle tunes, interspersed with musical illustrations on the whistle which he always carried with him in his breast pocket.
'I got that version of 'The Silver Spear' from Old Flanagan, Micheal Flanagan up the road there, when I was a small boy, and he always played it like that - du dil dy, du dil dy, du dil dy dil dero,' Russell would say.
He came from a family steeped in traditional music and folklore and was one of three brothers whose unique style of playing put an indelible mark on Irish music. Pakie Russell, who died in 1977, was a renowned player of the concertina, an instrument long associated with music-making in Co Clare. His surviving brother, Gus, is a highly regarded flute player.
Music and folklore collectors spent many hours in front of the three brothers recording for posterity the enormous body of music and stories they possessed, much of it local. The brothers, who were born in Doonagore, first became known outside their own area as long ago as the 1930s when Seamus O Duillearga arrived in Doolin with his bulky recording equipment to capture their music and stories for the Irish Folklore Commission. Seamus Ennis, the renowned uilleann piper and folklorist, also recorded Micho's work.
The three brothers rarely played together and, while Pakie and Gus chose to stay at home, Micho travelled around the world playing with prominent artists like Clannad, Frankie Gavin, and the accordion player Tony MacMahon at major festivals and concert halls. Until quite recently he regularly toured in Germany and other parts of the Continent where traditional Irish music has a large following. His first commercial recording was a Topic Records release in 1974, which brought his music to a wider audience, and before long a legend was born.
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