by Jim Moginie
The Stick – Episode 5
Jim Moginie is a founding member, and the leading songwriter, guitarist and keyboardist for Midnight Oil. But that didn’t count for much when he exposed himself in Ireland.
Jim has created a Spotify playlist to accompany this article, have a listen here.
Photograph: Christabel Blackman
Neil Finn always said I was Irish. At a B&B in Dublin in 1982, an Irish chambermaid said the same thing. Adopted out at birth, it wasn’t until 2003, at the age of 46, that Neil Finn and the chambermaid were proven to have prophetic instincts, but that’s a story for another time.
The roads in Ireland are tangential. They may start off running parallel, but soon one imperceptibly veers off. Five miles down one road you may meet the other road, but you probably never will.
It will look like it’s the first road, but it’s not. Horses and carts full of hay will block the impatient tourist. It’s in the traditional Irish music too; it twists and turns and never really repeats itself, but if it does, there’s a deadly variant that makes it sound like it’s not repeating at all; magic, shape-shifting, tricky.
At the heart of the expression of traditional Irish music is ‘the session’, communal events where local musicians turn up to play. These are usually held in a place where drink is served, on a quiet mid-week night, to drum up extra patrons. Unlike in Australian pubs and clubs, where people chat incessantly around plasma screens and poker machines, in Ireland there is a strong, ancient etiquette attached to the best sessions. When the story-tellers and solo singers are called by name to perform, someone will invariably quell the chatter with a booming ‘Silence for the singer!’, and you could hear a shamrock drop as the music takes its place in time. A fella named Michael invited me to sit in on his group’s nightly session, playing to tourists. All I had with me was my old Martin ukulele, which is a rare sight in traditional Irish music, but Michael didn’t mind and I joined him and his button accordion (or box), a guitarist and an ‘All Irish Champion’ bodhran player (a bodhran is an Irish drum, and yes, they have national competitions for that). I have a certain pride in being able to pick up music quickly, learning by ear on the fly, over what some might say is a distinguished music career, with a few pointy ARIAs collecting dust on the shelf. And I thought I’d be able to bluff my way through, but I couldn’t keep up at all. The music eluded me like quick fish do a slow spear. If there were rules, I didn’t have the manual.
It didn’t get better. Later in the night an Irish woman with a fiddle asked to sit in, and despite never even having met before, they played dozens of tunes together as if they’d been playing forever. Then there was that Irish lilt, in the singing and the playing; beautiful and heartbreaking. For five nights in a row I could not grasp one tiny thing. I realised with horror that I couldn’t hide here like I could in ‘rock’. It was a mighty kick in the arse. To find out more was the gauntlet, laid down.
I went back to Australia and immersed myself in the form. I joined an Irish band and scoured YouTube for the better versions of the tunes. I went on a website called the thesession.org to check out the sheet music. My friends in the Irish band taught me some important things, which helped me to towards beautiful performances and records, and I discovered many of the masters: Willie Clancy, Turlough O’Carolan, Tommy Peoples.
I went back to that very same pub a few years later. I now had more of an idea. Armed with a cheap bouzouki, I kept pace with about a third of the tunes. That was more than enough to get me travelling hours up and down meandering Irish roads to find any session well thought of. It was a heady time of self discovery. You have to know the music, especially if you’re playing accompaniment. And extra especially if you’re doing the melody.
In Ireland, there’s a wonderful expression, ‘music is no load to carry’. Literally too, because it’s acoustic you just turn up with your instrument, not a black box or distortion pedal to be seen. Children are expected to play from a young age and do gladly, because they are led by example. Most everyone plays but if they don’t happen to, they know the difference between good and bad. The good players eschew the drink and stay on the water all night, creating a lock into a pure magic and mystery that runs through the body like a drug.
Evelyn, who plays in my Australian Irish band, Shameless Seamus, wanted to play the fiddle as a child but her father said, ‘well, there’s a perfectly good piano accordion sitting over there, learn that. It’s all music.’ There are no pennies to waste in those big families. He didn’t play but he would whistle her the tunes so she could pick them up. Decades later, the fiddle she ended up with was from her grandfather. If you show some aptitude you get the heirloom. The sport-obsessed brother will get grandfather’s hurling stick. Which is no small thing either, especially if he was a county champion.
Music runs deep within the culture. I am but a mere student, but I’m inspired by Stephen Cooney, the Australian-born guitarist who got a one-way ticket to Ireland in the early ’80s and learnt this music so well and so deeply that he is now called the Maestro. It is said that he’ll leave his bones there.
It’s the source, the pure form. Have a listen and see for yourself. It could wake up the mystic, the muse. As it did for me. And I did more than keep up in the end. I don’t know if I could ever move there and be bathed in the light of it all like Stephen, maybe that’s what it would take, to receive the holy gifts, hard earned as they would be. But I drank from the same fountain and joined in the song that paves the roads that run like tangents.