An Irish Trad Music Remembrance: Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill, 1952-2006

John O’Regan from Northern Ireland penned this remembrance.

Sudden deaths bring a sense of finality. With the news of the death of Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill, who left this world suddenly on Saturday July 8th, 2006 in his Dublin home at the age of 54 from injuries sustained when he fell down the stairs, Irish music suffered a substantial loss.

Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill is best-known in Irish music circles from his work with Skara Brae with his sisters Tríona and Maighread, and Dáithi Sproule, Monroe with Mick Hanly, The Bothy Band, Relativity, Nightnoise and most recently his collaboration with fiddler Paddy Glackin.

Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill was one of the background movers and shakers in many of the pivotal developments in Irish music during the 1970s. 1 He contributed acoustic and electric guitar and harmonium backing on various influential recordings including Clannad’s second album Clannad 2, Noel Hill and Tony Linnane’s self-titled duet album for Tara Music in 1978, and Kevin Burke’s If The Cap Fits album in 1978.

The unofficial Nightnoise Web site cites the following information on Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill’s early life. ‘Born and raised in Kells, County Meath, Ireland, Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill comes from an interesting family background. His grandparents were from Rann na Feirste (in English “Rannafast”), a village in an Irish-speaking region (a “Gaeltacht”) in County Donegal. They received a land grant in County Meath as part of an Irish government initiative to set up a Gaeltacht near Dublin by transplanting native Irish speakers to the area. Irish was, and still is, only spoken as their daily language by a minority of the people of Ireland, concentrated mainly in certain western areas of the country.

Mícheál’s grandparents returned to their native Donegal after 15 years. However, in the meantime their son Hugh, also known by his Gaelic name Aodh (to whom the tune of the same name by Tríona on the album At the End of the Evening is presumably dedicated), had married a Dublin woman, Brid Comber, and settled as a teacher in Kells, County Meath. His children Mícheál, Tríona, and Maighread grew up in Kells, spending their school holidays in Rann na Feirste. Hugh was also a musician, singer and collector of songs, and Brid was a choir singer, so the children grew up in a very rich musical environment. They received music lessons from an early age.

Mícheál recalls receiving piano lessons from the age of six until he was 16, when he was able to focus on the guitar, his preferred instrument. Summers in Donegal brought the siblings into contact with their aunt Neilí, a renowned singer who had a vast repertoire of songs in Irish and English. Other acquaintances made in Donegal were Pól and Ciarán Brennan (members of Clannad), and Dáithi Sproule (long a member of Altan). Micheal would work with all of them in later years both on a recording and touring basis.

Skara Brae was one of the most influential Gaelic groups of its time. They mixed traditional songs from the Donegal tradition with contemporary treatments influenced by established folk groups like the Johnstons, Emmet Spiceland, and Sweeney’s Men, and contemporary artists like Pentangle, and Joni Mitchell. They consisted of Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill, his sisters Triona and Maighread and singer/guitarist Dáithi Sproule from Derry. Mícheál and Tríona met Dáithi when they went to University College Dublin in the late 1960s. They played gigs around Dublin and Mícheál and Dáithi spent a summer as the house band at Teach Hiudaí Bhig in Gaoth Dobhair (Gweedore), Donegal. Around 1970, Mícheál, Tríona and Maighread and Dáithi decided to form a group and called themselves Skara Brae apparently at Mícheál’s suggestion. Sacra Brae was an archaeological site in the Orkney Islands in Scotland comprising of a bleak stone village built in the second millennium B.C.

Skara Brae’s sound was dominated by the vocal traditions of the Donegal Gaeltacht including material learned from Neilli Ni Domhnaill and Aodh O’Domhnaill. Musically the line up included two acoustic guitars and an electric clavinet with the four voices firmly in the spotlight. Skara Brae appeared on RTE television’s groundbreaking series ‘Fonn’ produced by the late Aine O’Connor. They also shared a TV series with influential Belfast-born Gaelic singer Albert Fry. Fry would later feature Frankie Kennedy and Maireid Ni Mhaoinaigh making their recording debut on his final album Albert Fry for Gael Linn in 1979. Albert Fry is now retired from professional singing but still lives in Donegal.

Gael Linn released Skara Brae’s first album Skara Brae in 1971. It was recorded in one afternoon session at the Marianella Hall in Dublin in 1970. The front cover photo featuring four fresh young people was taken in a nearby graveyard. The album featured songs that the O’Domhnaills had gathered from their trips to Donegal and also items from the repertoire of Neilli Ni Domhnaill and Aodh O Domhnaill. The arrangements made fine use of their distinctive voices, especially on the unaccompanied ‘Bánchnoic ƒireann Ó written by West Clare poet Donncha Rua Mac Conamara (1715-1810). In other places the influence of outfits like Pentangle, especially in Mícheál and Daithi’s guitar work, showed definite Jansch/Renbourn touches. Among the tracks that highlight this connection are an atmospherically moody rendering of ‘Airde Cuain’ sung by Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill and the self-penned instrumental ‘Angela’ dedicated to Angela Murphy, a friend of the group, that featured Mícheál and Daithi’s guitar playing fusing Jansch/Renbourn style motifs allied to traditional themes. Tríona Ni Domhnaill also made exquisite use of the electric clavinet on this record, adding a fresh instrumental accompaniment to songs and her solo ‘Casadh an tSugain’.

After releasing their debut album and appearing on the 1971 National Song Contest, Skara Brae added bass player Jim McCloskey and went electric. Their repertoire also widened to include covers of Joni Mitchell songs and Beatles material. After playing their last gig in Wexford in 1972, Skara Brae broke up. Mícheál went into collecting songs in Scotland. Dáithi worked with Folens, an educational publishing house in Dublin, and also played traditional music in clubs such as ‘The Tradition Club’ held in ‘Slatery’s’ of Capel Street, often in the company of musicians like the Clare fiddle/concertina player John Kelly. Maighread pursued her nursing qualification, married Cathal Goan, raised a family and recorded a solo album Maighread Ni Dhomhnail for Gael Linn in 1976. Tríona spent some time in Brittany and Ireland while touring solo and recorded her first solo album Tríona in 1975. Jim McCloskey eventually became a University lecturer in America. Skara Brae reformed briefly in 1975 recording a single ‘An Buinneán Bui’/’Caitlin Trial’ released by Gael Linn as part of the ‘Eigse Bhreifni’ commemorating the Cavan poet Cathal Bui Mac Giolla Ghunna (1690-1756).

Skara Brae reformed in 1997 with the original lineup for a one-off concert in Dun Luidhe as part of the Frankie Kennedy Winter School. While the reunion was a one-off affair, the band enjoyed the experience so much that they staged further reunion concerts intermittently between 1998 and 2005. Skara Brae was released on CD in 1998 by Gael-Linn with the addition of the two tracks from the 1975 Gael Linn single to enthusiastic critical response.

When Skara Brae disbanded first in 1972, Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill went to Scotland where he worked with the School of Scottish studies collecting Gaelic songs on the Islands of Lewis and Skye. Returning to Ireland, he recorded and collected songs in Donegal. Many of these came from his Aunt Neilli Ni Domhnaill who had a great collection of local songs.

In 1973, with Limerick-born Mick Hanly who was also playing the club circuit in Ireland at the time, Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill formed Monroe. Monroe played a mixture of Irish, English and Scottish ballads, many sung in Gaelic, as well as including some contemporary material. Musically the line-up comprised acoustic guitars and dulcimer and their two voices gelled, Mick Hanly’s brusque tones complimenting Mícheál’s lower-key vocals. They recorded a single ‘The Hills of Greenmore’ and toured supporting Planxty before recording the seminal Celtic Folkewave album for Polydor Ireland in 1974. Donal Lunny produced the album and it featured contributions from Matt Molloy, Tommy Peoples, Tríona Ni Domhnaill and the late Declan MacNeilis.

Often looked upon as a predecessor to The Bothy Band, Celtic Folkweave includes some fine examples of the Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill style and approach. Versions of ‘The Banks of Claudy’ and ‘Heathery Hills of Yarrow’ and the winsome ‘Brid Og Ni Mhaille’ show his sonorous voice in good stead. The Scots Gaelic mouth music of ‘An Bothan a Bhaig Fhionnughala’ later became ‘Fionnughala’ on the second Bothy Band album Old Hag You Have Killed Me issued in 1976. This album has now become an acid folk collector’s ”holy grail’ along with fellow Irish cult acts MacMurough and Mellow Candle. Monroe also toured Brittany often, meeting with other local and visiting Irish musicians. Brittany was at this time in the cusp of its own major folk revival with artists like Alan Stivell, Tri Yann, and Sonnerien Du coming to the fore.

In 1974 the group 1691 with Tríona Ni Dhomhnaill, Matt Molloy, Tommy Peoples and Liam Weldon toured Brittany and recorded an album for the Lorient-based Arfolk label, 1691- Songs and Dances of Ireland. On returning to Dublin, they were, along with Paddy Glackin, rehearsing in a house in Rathgar with Tony McMahon for a Gael Linn function. Meanwhile Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill and Mick Hanly were also in the same house rehearsing for a tour in Brittany with Monroe. From these connections — 1691, Munroe, and Seachtar — came the eventual formation of The Bothy Band. In early 1975, Mícheál, Tríona, Maighreid and Donal Lunny recorded under the name Ceathrar (Gaelic for a quartet) with a Tríona Ni Domhnaill/Michael Davitt composition ‘Faoilean’ entered for the 1975 Pan Celtic Song Contest in Killarney. Their Donegal neighbours Clannad eventually represented Ireland with ‘An Bealach seo ta romham’; however, Gael Linn issued both songs on a 45 rpm single.

With Donal Lunny’s departure from Planxty and with the failure to launch of his initial band project Bugle with Shaun Davey, he joined forces with Matt Molloy, Paddy Glackin, Tommy Peoples, Tríona Ni Domhnaill, Paddy Keenan, Donal Lunny and Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill in The Bothy Band. With Paddy Galckin’s departure the line up sealed itself into a seminal Irish music powerhouse. The result was one of the most celebrated Irish traditional music ensembles. When it gelled, the results were lethal. The Bothy Band’s three influential studio albums The Bothy BandOld Hag You Have Killed Me and Out of the Wind Into the Sun and their live recording After Hours neatly capture their musical legacy. On form they could kill any competition playing traditional music with a rock ‘n’ roll energy and application. However, Mícheál always grounded them with his solid guitar playing and his sensitive voice. I remember him crouched over his Martin guitar on frenetic tune sets or singing ‘Casadh an Tsugain’ or ‘Death of Queen Jane’, his sonorous tones coming from some sort of deeper earthly connection. The BBC archives show some fine recordings of The Bothy Band in action, including one session with Peter Browne replacing Paddy Keenan. A selection of these recordings made in The Paris Theatre in 1976 and the National Ballroom in Kilburn in 1978 was issued in 1994 and re-issued in 1998 by Strange Fruit.

However, business complications and lack of commercial success signalled the Bothy Band’s demise and the members began working on solo and duet projects. After The Bothy Band’s final gig at the Ballisodare Festival in County Sligo in August 1979 they went their separate ways. Matt Molloy joined The Chieftains. Tríona Ni Domhnaill moved to the USA on the recommendation of Linda Ronstadt to work as a solo artist and songwriter in Nashville. Ms. Ronstadt joined Tríona one night on stage in Dublin at the ‘Lady’s Choice’ gigs that Tríona organised in Shay Spillane’s Meeting Place in Dorset Street and issued the invitation. Emigrating to America would see Tríona eventually settling in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and forming Touchstone with Mark Roberts, Zan Mcleod, Claudine Langille, and later Skip Parente. Touchstone recorded two albums for Green Linnet, The New Land in 1982 and Jealousy in 1985, both pursuing an Irish/American/European crossover style. Tríona would also deputise for Enya on a 1982 Irish tour with Clannad and present The Long Note briefly on RTE and on her return to the USA rejoin her brother Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill in Nightnoise.

Donal Lunny resumed his duties with Planxty and Paddy Keenan moved to Brittany. Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill and Kevin Burke recorded and released the Promenade album on Mulligan. This featured Mícheál seminal treatment of ‘Lord Franklin’, a song I first heard from Pentangle. It reached the Irish charts as did The Death of Queen Jane the last Bothy Band 45. The album also featured Mícheál’s own recording of ‘Coinleach Glass an Fomhair’ and ‘Ar a ghabhail go Baile Atha Cliath Dhom’ arranged by Declan Sinnott.

However, the economic downturn of the ’80s was approaching, and Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill and Kevin Burke decided to relocate to America. While they had toured in Europe predominantly, America had proved fertile ground for The Bothy Band. They may have never toured the USA as a unit, but the albums crept through the import stores and ignited a host of eager ears from the East to the West coast. Mulligan Records signed a US distribution deal with Rounder Records in 1979. This allowed for greater access to mainstream stores. A reciprocal arrangement allowed for the domestic release of Rounder material in Ireland. Then in the ’90s when Green Linnet licensed the Mulligan catalogue, The Bothy Band’s albums finally made the major stores. Now with the acquisition of the Green Linnet back catalogue by Compass Records, will we will see a further issue of the Bothy Band’s seminal recorded works?

In the early ’80s Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill was based in Portland, Oregon, and he and Kevin Burke toured and recorded Portland in 1983 for Green Linnet. He had also begun working with Bill Oskay on the new age folk duo Nightnoise. Nightnoise was signed to Windham Hill Records on the strength of their demo tape. The label then released it as an official album. Nightnoise went on to develop a huge reputation touring the USA, Japan and Europe and released seven albums. After the success of their debut album Nightnoise for Windham Hill, the band added Tríona Ni Domhnaill on keyboards/vocals and flautist Brian Dunning, and became a full-time touring band. Nightnoise played what could be described as original acoustic chamber music with an Irish feel mixing jazz, classical, folk and new age idioms. Their self-penned music made full use of the O’Domhnaill’s folk base and their folk/jazz combinations as used in Skara Brae also Brian Dunning’s jazz background and Bill Oskay’s classical influences.

Nightnoise recorded six studio albums and one live album for Windham Hill, and touring the USA frequently, developed a huge following on the concert circuit. While Nightnoise toured the USA and Europe, they only played once in Ireland but had two albums released, Something of Time, their first official Irish release in 1996 and The White Horse Sessions, their final album, in 1997.

Many people stateside will remember Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill more from Nightnoise than The Bothy Band or Relativity, the sibling quartet consisting of Mícheál and Tríona Ni Domhnaill and the Cunningham Brothers — Johnny and Phil. Relativity was another interesting combination, mixing Irish and Scottish traditional roots with contemporary influences. Their two albums Relativity, issued in 1984 and 1987’s Gathering Pace on Green Linnet capture their unique musical approach. Relativity was another interesting combination with the Cunningham and O’Domhnail siblings recording together. A mix of two musical families from the Irish and Scottish traditions, the music of Relativity was both energetic and subtle. The instrumental talents of Johnny and Phil Cunningham blended with and complimented Tríona and Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill’s vocal inputs. Relativity and Gathering Pace show an ingenious outfit at work striving for a personalised brand of Celtic music highlighting the ethnic roots and compositional abilities of its four members.

When founder member Bill Oskay stepped down from Nightnoise, his replacement was Johnny Cunningham. Nightnoise relocated back to Ireland in the middle ’90s. In place of Johnny Cunningham, who remained in the USA, multi-instrumentalist and arranger Frank Gallagher from Mary Black’s touring band initially joined on fiddle/whistle/keyboards but returned to session work recording with people such as Shirley Bassey, whose last studio album he produced. Frank Gallagher was replaced by Belfast violinist John Fitzpatrick, himself classically trained. Nightnoise were the house band for Brideog a television series fronted by journalist/presenter Brid Óg Ni Buachalla. This programme, with its mix of arts and music items in the Irish language, harked back to the seminal Fonn series in 1970 on which Horslips were the house band and Skara Brae made their initial Irish TV appearances. This time Nightnoise was the studio band with different guest musicians each week. They also recorded tracks for Windham Hill’s Celtic Christmas compilations.

Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill’s next collaboration was with a revived Skara Brae and familial appearances with his sisters Tríona and Maighread. He contributed to their duet album for Hummingbird Records Idir Dha Sholas — Between Two Worlds and also formed a duo with original Bothy Band fiddler Paddy Glackin. The final recorded work of Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill was on the Athcuairt CD for Gael Linn issued in 2002. Skara Brae also held some reunion gigs over the last few years and they have been well received. As well, the Bothy Band reconvened for one last time to back Maighread as she accepted the Singer of the Year award at the TG4 Gradam Ceol awards in Cork in 2004. The line up for the night had Matt Molloy, Paddy Keenan, Paddy Glackin standing in for Kevin Burke, Manus Lunny replacing Donal Lunny and Tríona and Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill.

Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill’s last public appearance was in Dublin’s National Concert Hall on June 12, 2006, in a concert titled ‘Sing for the Homeless’, a charity concert organised by Belfast singer Josephine Mulvenna and dedicated the bettering the services provided to homeless Irish men in the UK. This year’s beneficiary was the Teach na hEireann Day Care Centre in Coventry. According to Irish Music magazine editor Sean Laffey, ‘ He was on top form that night, relaxed and happy. He played brilliantly with his two sisters and joined in the end of show jam with an air of fun’.

Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill passed away suddenly at his Dublin home on Saturday, July 8, 2006 at the age of 54 years. Heart attack was diagnosed as cause of death. Friends, relations and musical colleagues, including the remaining members of The Bothy Band and his sisters Tríona and Maighread, attended his funeral. Tríona and Maighread sang while members of The Bothy Band provided appropriate music.

I would now like to take this opportunity to share some of my remembrances of Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill the times I met him and the things he did that influenced me.

I remember seeing The Bothy Band live with Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill on three occasions in Limerick’s Savoy Cinema in October 1977, April 1978 and March 1979. The stories of the energy and excitement of their live shows are true. While they lifted roofs with their powerful energy, Mícheál’s restrained approach helped keep them solidly grounded. I also remember Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill playing with Jimmy Crowley and Stokers Lodge producing their first two albums The Boys of Fairhill and Camphouse Ballads for Mulligan Records in 1977 and 1979. He also contributed ‘Church Harmonium’ to a notable version of the hornpipe ‘Johnny Cope’, played by Noel Hill on concertina recorded on the duet album Noel Hill and Tony Linnane issued by Tara Records in 1979. Another notable session was with Clannad on their second album Clannad 2 for Gael Linn in 1974 when Mícheál contributed a blistering electric guitar solo to the Scots Gaelic waulking song ‘Deanan Sugradh’ and also played acoustic guitar on ‘Coinlach Gleas an Fomhair’.

I have many memories of meeting Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill. We first met at the Parkway Motel in Limerick in 1980 when he Kevin Burke and Jimmy Crowley were on tour together. We met again in 1987 at the Two Mile Inn Limerick when Relativity played their only Irish tour. The crowd was so small the band decided to pull the gig and Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill went around to everyone and apologised personally. I remember meeting him again in Cruises Hotel in Limerick in 1990 with Puck Fair — Brian Dunning and Tommy Hayes. My final meeting with Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill occurred at the Everyman Palace Theatre in Cork in 2002 during the Cork Folk Festival.

Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill was so pivotal to many eras in Irish music history. He may have been a quiet man but his influence can be detected and felt to this day. As well as a performer I will always remember Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill as a sensitive musician, poignant vocalist and above all a kind and gracious man. He was among my heroes and when I hear his dulcet tones on ‘Is Trua Nach Bhfuil me in Eirin’ on the first Bothy Band album or ‘Lord Franklin’ on ‘Promenade’ — I know one thing for certain — we won’t hear Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill’s like again. Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill, singer, guitarist, composer, will be sorely missed.

1. Here, and in places throughout this remembrance, the writer mistakenly attributed the work of radio presenter, collector, arranger and record producer Michael O’Donnell (who remains alive at this writing)with that of musician Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill. Green Man Review regrets the error.

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