Tommy Fitzharris, left, and Dónal McCague.
By Daniel Neely
It’s back to school time and I, for one, couldn’t be more excited! The season’s beginning to change, football’s back and school’s started, which means the kids aren’t home all the time. And with sole possession over the house’s sound system once again restored, I’m afforded more time to sit down and really listen to some great new stuff, among it a brilliant new instrumental album called “The Bank of Turf” that accordion player Dan Gurney recently hipped me to. It features Tommy Fitzharris (flute) and Dónal McCague (fiddle) with piano accompaniment by Brian McGrath, and it’s a collection of gorgeous, starkly delivered music that is definitely worth the time of anyone who loves traditional music.
Fitzharris and McCague are both very well known in traditional music circles in Ireland. McCague hails from County Monaghan and made his solo debut in 2011 with the CD “Bits ‘n’ Pieces.” In 2013 he was named Young Musician of the Year at TG4’s Gradam Ceoil and his recording credits include his brother Michael McCague's album “The Waylaid Man” and Seán McElwain’s inspiring “Our Dear Dark Mountain With The Sky Over It: Irish Traditional Music From the Sliabh Beagh Region of North Monaghan/East Fermanagh.” (Readers might remember both of these albums covered in this column.) McCague’s also made numerous appearances on television and has toured extensively.
Fitzharris is a gifted multi-instrumentalist from County Laois. He won the senior All-Ireland concertina competition in 2009 and then the senior All-Ireland in flute in 2012. Fitzharris, too, has toured widely and is in demand both as a performer and as a teacher. Both musicians have unassailable bona fides, really, and have been at it, honing their shared music, ever since first meeting at a session at the Ennis Trad Fest in 2012.
The articulation between the two musicians is the story here. Both play with rich, powerful tone and a oneness in execution that yields a very transparent expression of the tradition. You hear this on the album’s opening set of reels “Rooney’s / Sound Man, Eamonn” and the jigs “Paddy In London / Jackie Smalls / The Reaper,” where the two musicians settle into some familiar dance rhythms with style and superb lift. There’s nothing to not like about them.
The album indeed has many, many rich tracks to speak of. McCague, for example, makes the most of a pair of hornpipes, “It May Well Be / The Monaghan Fiddler.” The former a composition of McCague’s and the latter one of box player Johnny Óg Connolly’s, the tunes are distinctive and McCague delivers them with charm and fabulous style. The same can be said about the polkas “The Recreational Team / The Ewe,” a couple of excellent and memorable tunes (the first of which is another of McCague composition) that the two men make good time with. Then there’s Fitzharris’s delivery of “The Flower Of The Flock,” which is stirring and a perfect lead in to the full group playing of Micho Russell’s version of “The Masons Apron.” Lovely stuff.
“The Bank of Turf” is an album that fans of traditional music will be very excited to hear. Fitzharris and McCague have a fierce chemistry that is well expressed and don’t just take my word for it, the guys got Frankie Gavin, Matt Molloy and Bryan Rooney each to write a glowing testimonial for the liner notes. There’s good reason why this would have happened. Although McCague and Fitzharris come at the tunes here slightly differently, their respect for the music and emphasis on rhythm and tone reminds me of an album like Mike Rafferty and Willie Kelly’s work on “The New Broom.” It’s full of lovely playing and it’s extremely enjoyable to listen to – definitely one for the collection. “The Bank of Turf” is available for preview and download on Bandcamp (donalandtommy.bandcamp.com) wherever the finest traditional music CDs are sold.