Peadar MacMahon and The Legacy of Percy French Tour Report

by Jan Peters

In photo: From left to right: Aaron Harmonson, Richard Scholtz, Peadar MacMahon, and Jan Peters at The Bridges of Ross near the village of Kilbaha. The group was in Ireland July 4-8, 2016. Photo by Helen Scholtz

Peadar MacMahon and The Legacy of Percy French Tour Report – With Peadar MacMahon, Richard Scholtz, Jan Peters, & Aaron Harmonson.

One morning a few years ago Peadar MacMahon woke up with a bit of a song line in his head; ‘I don’t know, maybe so’. It was so familiar. He soon discovered and remembered it was from his childhood of hearing and singing the songs of beloved late nineteenth, early twentieth century Irish songwriter Percy French. He realized he’d had a lifelong interest in the life and work of this man, and then in this past year he realized a beautiful album that was quickly received with high praises back home in Ireland where he grew up. Skip ahead to this July 2016, to a two-week tour of the album in Ireland.

Eight shows happen – three concerts, three pubs, one live radio show, and one session in the round.

Thursday morning we head out to Roscommon where Castlecoote is the site for the first concert and the home for the annual Percy French Society gathering – an eclectic group of esoteric thinkers and philosophers who share a great knowledge and love of Mr. French’s works. The fella who booked us, and Peadar himself, were really not sure how Peadar’s versions of these songs would go over and there was a subtle but palpable tension in the air. We started, and when Peadar got to the first song’s chorus, all these voices joined in. We were home. Peadar was home and had hit the mark with his chamber folk renderings of these iconic songs. At points there were closed eyes and tears on some faces. A powerful welcome back for next year’s event. This set the tone for all the other shows as for the first time Peadar brought home to his family, friends, and to Ireland at large, who he is and has become as a great singer and interpreter of songs.  We said our farewells with our ‘see you next year’s!’ and head on back to Kilkee, where we based in the MacMahon’s sweet little summer chalet.

The next show was Friday evening, and also quite an unknown – but this one more in terms of whom, if anyone, would show up. Peadar’s dear friends Margaret and Kevin own the Diamond Rocks Cafe in Kilkee. It’s a very fine diner right on the ocean and at the base of the seriously enchanting Cliffs of Kilkee. (I’ve decided one can, if you like, skip the tourist pack and charge at the gate for the iconic Cliffs of Moher and just spend time losing yourself in Kilkee and not be bereft of any missing out. The cliffs there are sweeping long and high and beyond spellbinding with the tide continuously churning, ebbing, hiding and revealing all manner of rock formations, swimming holes, and sea life. There are often times when you can be the only person out there). Diamond Rocks normally closes at 6PM but opens again for special occasions like Peadar’s homecoming performance. Here are the cliffs, swimming holes, wide curving beach, village of shops, pubs, and people of his childhood summers. He is from Limerick where he attended school, but every summer the family came to stay in the little chalet-cottage up a curving alley and just a one-minute walk to the water and its endless options for play. It’s where he boldly walked into O’Mara’s Pub at the age of 14 and ordered his first pint of Guinness and was served because the bartender knew him and his family his whole childhood. And in the car on the way there they always sang some Percy French songs, especially the widely loved and known “Are Ye Right There Michael?.” You see, the West Clare Railway originally operated in County Clare, Ireland, between 1887 and 1961, and was famous for its poor timekeeping and track quality.  Purportedly, Percy French missed a show in Kilkee in on August 10, 1896, because of these issues. He certainly wrote a song about it that spoke to hundreds of people in the region, and became known to many thousands in Ireland.  He was sued for defamation by the railroad company but was very late to his court appearance with the judge. He apologized to his honor for his tardiness explaining he’d tried to get there on time via the West Clare Railway – The judge threw the case right out.

All of Percy French’s songs are poignant, catchy, sometimes very humorous, and of superb construction – they stay with you. Chiefly one Brendan O’Dowda carried them into the 20th Century mainly by the operatic Irish tenor singers, and. There are many recordings and YouTube videos of these songs and this is how Peadar reacquainted himself with them. Then he took a couple years to make them his own and bring them into the folk music idiom. When you take in the album, you’ll hear the charmingly stunning results.

This show in Kilkee was a very big moment for Peadar as these were his people. His home, his place of countless childhood memories. They did not know him as the singer-musician he’d become here in America, but they do now. The concert began at 8:30 and at 8 there were only a few people there. Then steadily the place filled up. Friends, family, and the curious packed into the large room and became still and quiet as soon as Peadar greeted them from our improvised stage area. The emotion in his voice was high and came out as an aching beauty and even prayer for acceptance and approval. And once again, as soon as the first song was going, it connected, lips moved or sang out, smiles grew, and the applause was off the scale. In a pure state of wonder, amazement, and joy, Richard, Aaron and I just did our parts of playing the nuanced arrangements and supporting the songs. We enjoyed ourselves immensely and for the ensemble Peadar brought home with him, our first time in Ireland felt like it had fully commenced with the second concert beautifully underway. We spent a relaxing weekend in Kilkee, resting and walking by day, and pubbing by night.

Sunday – The third show was on a radio program hosted by a lovely and rather famous man, John O’Regan. He and Peadar had gone to school together in Limerick, and this album provided for a great reconnection for them. John has an encyclopedic knowledge of Irish, Celtic, and Folk music, and we piled into the radio station’s little room to get situated and tuned up. You can hear this program on Limmerick Community Radio’s Archives in Podcasts: Show – Eclectic Celtic, July 10:                http://www.limerickcitycommunityradio.org/podcasts.php?show=eclectic-celt&date=2016-07-10. It was a great joy and privilege to witness the re-kindling of this old friendship and John’s considerable appreciation for the ‘Legacy of Percy French’ and the ensemble Peadar had brought with him.

Monday – The fourth show was in Scott’s Bar in Kilkee village owned and run by another old friend of Peadar’s who offered to have us come play after a night of celebrating and drinking in there. It was Monday night and Michael Martin welcomed us into his place and got situated, tuned up, and started right in. It was noisy but friends old and new gathered round and cozied up to take in Peadar’s singing of songs they all knew – Aaron’s consummate double bass playing grounding and rounding out the sound perfectly, Richard’s masterful autoharp creating an extraordinarily uncommon melodic shimmer set into Peadar’s arrangements, and my tenor banjo or harmonica playing making hopefully what were canorous contributions in the chosen moments in between it all.

Tuesday – The fifth show was the biggest pub show of them all. John O’Regan has set us up to do a whole set of songs in the midst of the open mic at Charlie Malone’s in Limerick – a pub of great renowned. We had some songs for a warm up out in the smoker’s patio, and it sounded amazing in there while the madness of the packed to the gills pub noise and open mic boomed inside. Then we were called up for a quick as possible set up on a tiny box of a stage. We piled on; the sound guy got us quickly dialed, and we started right in. Once again Peadar commanded the room, the packed back third anyway, where all eyes and ears leaned and sardined in to take in the set. It was powerful to play all plugged in and mic’d up, as all other shows were pure acoustic. It was a feeling that may be described as going from being a fine chamber folk ensemble to being a band taking no prisoners in the rowdiest of pubs.

Thursday – The sixth show was a pub show just down the street from Scott’s in Kilkee, at The Greyhound. I had actually set this one up as the inimitable Felix Sonnyboy had messaged me, seeing some of my Ireland posts from Kilkee. He said to say hi to Jon at the Greyhound as he had played there many times. Well I did, and Jon was very happy to hear it. This led to me saying how much fun we’d had drinking in there the other night and who ‘we’ were.  He took a keen interest in hearing about Peadar’s return and the work with the Percy French songs. I asked if we could come in and play and he proclaimed absolutely yes we could. It was a great show in there all squeezed into a window seats/stage area. Once again, the folks in the part of the pub we were in, (they all tend to have several if not many rooms), all turned and tuned in as soon as Peadar started singing. Someone commented that at one point the floors shook from his voice, and sure the whole room joined in on ‘Are Ye Right There Michael’!

Friday – The seventh show was the most intimate of concerts. We visited another of Peadar’s brothers in Miltown Malbay, and several other family members and some neighbors gathered in a cozy living room to hear the songs. Suffice to say yet more of his family members opened their hearts to Peadar’s own, and took in the songs with eyes closed, and cheeks tear misted never having heard him sing in person before. It was like the album made for a curious and impressive attainment, but hearing it live made it a reality.

Saturday – The final show was not a show but a sharing. Richard had made friends with the man who owned the place he and his wife Helen stayed at in Kilkee as he is an exceptional musician himself – Joe Nolan. He invited us to come play a session in Bearna at a fine place called Donnelly’s. We gathered around two tables and Aaron found a spot with his bass in a corner. They started playing tunes, Irish traditional tunes, and they were fantastic. Mandolin, tenor banjo, fiddle, and guitar. Aaron joined in on their tunes and a subtle vibe of dubiousness of how that might work disappeared into big smiles and a comment of ‘‘you’re hired!’’ I joined in on harmonica on tunes I knew and started a couple as well and was confirmed as a player of tunes on that thing – except for the time I started the famous slip jig ‘Kid On The Mountain’ too fast and derailed. But fortunately they like and play that tune so we all started it over together at a reasonable pace. Then they said “Peadar, sing us something” – and you know he did. Our ensemble had its last performance of the tour and they received us with huge appreciation and the session lasted three hours like. Peadar brought out some of the Ewan MacColl songs we’d been doing here and there as perfect contributions to the weave of the night.

New friends were made at every turn be it one of the Percy French shows, or just out in a pub together. I went off a couple times to where there was traditional music being played, sat near to just take it in. Each time upon meeting the session players I ended up being invited to play and had unforgettable times playing tunes with these superb Irish traditional players. I sang a song a session at Fitzpatrick’s, and woke up out of it to smiles and requests for more, not to mention a new pint before me.

I spent quite a bit of time walking on the Cliffs of Kilkee, as our base there afforded quite a few hours of downtime in between the engagements. I felt so lost and truly so at home at the same time. I felt a deep connection to my ancestors, the Kavanaghs of Wicklow, and an ancient one of the people I met there to place and time. I let the tides and winds wash and blow me about by just sitting in one place for a spell and walking around, and I feel more open, fresh, and brighter inside for it. Yet darker too. Darker in the ways I’ve been drawn to my whole life – the great boundless wealth of darkness reflected in the endless deeps of Ireland’s modal music, sound of their language, and heartbreaking history of centuries of brutal subjugation. Yet at the same time their music and language reflects an inexhaustible brightness and humor. On the plane ride home drifting in and out of sleep I came to realize that the very cadence of how the Irish speak contains a built in ebullience – a never ending mirth reeling out in almost every turn of phrase.  At one point there in Kilkee my eyes watered up just because there I was, in Ireland for the first time, and my soul had been wanting and needing this for years now. At another point a stranger and I were in line for our next drink at Scott’s. I couldn’t tell you now what he was saying, but he had me nearly falling over with his comedic analysis of the state of American politics.

Bruce Shaw plays exquisite claw hammer five-string banjo on this warm and distinctive recording, but he had other commitments to be able to make the tour. Peadar and I had been playing and working together for almost two years as we started Irish & Folk Mondays on November 3, 2014.  I’ve been producing it weekly since then with Peadar as my go-to consult and regular contributor. Percy French himself played the banjo, a seven string no less, and Peadar asked me if I would take it on. It became clear I loved to play it on a friend’s borrowed banjo, and then equally clear I needed my own for the tour. I fell in love with one I saw at Dusty Strings in Seattle, and long story short, the Irish and music community at large here all kicked in and bought the thing for me. While I’ve only played it for roughly two months, this beautiful four-string tenor banjo and I made quick friends. I am beyond grateful for the gift of the instrument and for the opportunity to play these songs with Peadar, Richard, and Aaron, in Ireland.

I feel deeply honored to have witnessed and participated in Peadar’s homecoming as a wonderful man of song, and to be a part of a truly unique group of musicians playing our music in the Motherland herself.

Do yourself a favor and find ‘The Legacy of Percy French’ online, or get it from Peadar himself, so that you may take in this unique and rare contribution of the Irish heart in song. He visits most every Irish & Folk Monday.

Jan Peters, July 4 – 18, 2016