I went to see The Gloaming for the second time last night. It was their sixth concert in a week in the National Concert Hall, every one packed, every one ending with rapturous standing ovations.
Both times I’ve seen them it’s been an intense, reflective and deeply emotional couple of hours. It’s a sense shared by others I’ve spoken to who’ve seen them, as is the slight confusion about what it is causes such powerful attraction to their music.
For those who haven’t come across them, The Gloaming are a traditional ensemble of sorts, combining the song and music of such traditional stalwarts as Martin Hayes, with the otherworldly fiddle creations of Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, strained traditional Sean Nós singing and impossible-to-pin-down dissonant piano compositions from an American-accented eccentric with no discernible knowledge of Irish traditional music.
If somebody described a band to me in those words, I’d probably fairly dismissively respond ‘Oh so they’re some sort of fusion like Afro-Celt Soundsystem or Kíla?’ – but, somehow, everyone agrees, The Gloaming’s music is far, far more powerful than just that.
Throughout the concert, I sat in silence, listening, and trying to figure what is it that goes to my bones about their style – what lifts the audience in the National Concert Hall night after night, and has us all emerge onto Earlsfort Terrace gleaming at one another to have shared such a moving experience?
Its impossible to attempt an answer without setting Irish music, the familiar drumming guitars, the Kerry slides that have sounded familiar since I could barely walk, in the far, far broader history of this country we have built this past 100 years.
At a trad session in a corner of a pub, there is no audience, no stage, no silence or applause. The musicians face into one another, more keen to appreciate each other’s rhythm than be appreciated by those who are listening. Other musicians, those who know the code at least, will sit nearby, calmly waiting to be called upon for a tune – never setting a foot forward before being asked, but with an instrument discreetly hidden beneath a bar stool in the knowledge that space would open up eventually. At some point, a song will begin, and the bar will hush, and those confused tourists who could not understand why the idle chatter had continued above the music, are even more confused as to how, suddenly, everyone knows to pause.
All this is so deeply familiar to us, that we don’t even know what it is in order to explain it. Custom and tradition, by its very nature, is never actively sought out or selected. It is the part of our aesthetic surroundings that we never choose. It was here before us and will outlive us.
So when Iarla Ó Lionaird’s eerie Sean Nós eases into a reel from Martin Hayes, the audience in the concert hall understands that although we may never have hard these specific notes before, the music is part of the unchosen weight of our history.
At times, and we feel this as we listen, that weight of history – whether in traditional music or in Cathleen ní Houlihan, or in the hurling match on a Sunday afternoon – that weight of history feels bound up in the things which have held us back from building a stronger society. Rome and DeValera’s unrelenting Catholic nationalism were able to rule us for a century and more, often because our feet had become stuck in the mud of romantic, rigid history and tradition. The fiddle, the dancing shoes, the cross and the hurl became bound up in the horrors of Tuam, the Kerry babies, Ann Lovett. Historical tradition demanded conformity. And conformity always benefitted those in charge.
So sometimes we hear the Kerry slide and we want to reject our heritage, and yet it cannot be rejected. We cannot rid our society of all its guiding rules, customs, ways of seeing and being, and in any case we know that the new ways of seeing and being – the entrepreneur, the market, the cut throat killer instinct – are no less rigid than the old. That tension makes us feel unrooted, unstable.
And then, just as the deep familiarity of Martin Hayes’ reels and slides begins to sink beneath the weight of rigid history, just then it is pulled into an unexpected turn. Effortlessly, the dissonant chords of an eccentric piano lift a tune, born from the deepest reaches of Irish myth, out of the mud of history and into a fully-formed twenty first century life.
Suddenly, the weight of history is no longer the thing that pulls us back, but the thing that grounds us.
It grounds us against the onslaught of ads, brochures, the entrepreneurial narrative that tells us that if we lose our home its our fault, that its our fault our health service is chaotic, our fault we polluted the air and poisoned the fish, and if only our children had been taught to be self-starting, risk-taking entrepreneurs in school, we wouldn’t all be in this mess.
It grounds us against accepting that these are our only options – the dead hand of Catholic nationalism or the murdering hand of the free market.
The weight of our history grounds us against that onslaught that wants us to believe we have no human soul, that there is no community.
When The Gloaming seamlessly fuse our most basic traditional rhythms into the new, the unexpected, the vibrant and the creative, it gives us hope that we too can use our history not as mud to hold us down, but as roots from which a socialist republic can be born.