Cormac Begley in concert in Urney Church. Photo: Darren Coleman

Begley preaches to the agnostic and the converted

REVIEW: Cormac Begley at Urney Parish Church, Cavan Arts Festival

Aw jays’ I thought when Comrac Begley’s first anecdote of the night harked back 400 years to the Battle of Kinsale, we’re in for a long night.

As someone who’s agnostic when it comes to trad music, I wasn’t exactly giddy at the prospect of a whole evening of a concertina player on his own. It was with a sense of duty I headed to the Kerryman’s concert in Urney Church last Friday night, comforting myself that if he’s the star attraction at this year’s Cavan Arts Festival, he must have a special gift.

There was a decent sized crowd, but given the size of the venue many of the pews remained unoccupied. Unlike Mass however, all attending were eager to sit as close to the front as possible.

As the Kerryman strapped microphones onto his wrists he explained he’s a researcher in psychology at UL, and quipped: ‘One of the first things I learned about psychology is that anyone who studies it has really deep issues’.

Begley happily counts his obsession with concertinas amongst his “deep issues”. So he was eager to preach the good news of concertinas throughout, and was happy to field questions from the congregation about the history of the instrument (patented 1829), his favourite from his collection (he’d sooner tell you his favourite child), and what punishment his principal gave him for taking Judas as his confirmation name (it’s a long story).

Anyway, Oscar Wilde’s famous observation of the age old Anglo-Irish enmity that ‘The problem is the English can’t remember history, while the Irish can’t forget it’ came to mind as Begley explained how his ancestors originated in Donegal and marched south to Kinsale in 1601 to lose heroically in battle to the English. It would be a gruelling trek ahead of battle, unthinkable after defeat. So it was little wonder his warrior forefathers stayed on in Munster and settled in West Kerry.

Begley then recalled he was at a gig in London the eve of Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, where upon he refused to observe a minute’s silence. Instead he opened his set with a medley of ‘Rolling in the Barrel/O’Neill’s March’ which the Begleys and their brethren seemingly played ahead of waging battle in Kinsale. It’s a rousing number that would have you searching under the pews for a pike to wield at English usurpers.

His playing is physical a welterweight pummelling a heavy bag with left and right hooks, the concertina audibly winded as each punch lands. If there had been any guest musicians on stage they’d have been superfluous - you couldn’t take your eyes off him.

Once the rapturous applause the greets the climax subsides, you can hear the exertion in his voice.

Soundwise it was even more entrancing. God knows how he cajoled the array of melodies, drones, grunts, rhythymic wheezes, and percussive adornments into such divine order. At one stage it even sounded like he was playing the spoons. One mindblown musician later described it as an orchestra of concertinas.

Begley’s set demonstrated his virtuoso command of the instrument - in The Gallowglas, he played a raucous tune with punk attitude. I half expeted him to be pogoing. Later on Rocking the Cradle he made the concertina sound like the drawl of a fiddle, then in the same song he sustained a note so barely audible, it was if he was playing it on a thread of gossamer.

Trad music at its soul-stirring best, and when played by one as accomplished as Begley, has immense power and can connect with generations long since passed.

I left converted.