On Christmas Day, director Myles O’Reilly, under his moniker ‘Arbutus Yarns’, released the documentary Backwards to go Forwards, writes Eoghan O’Sullivan
Uploaded to Vimeo, it claims to be “a little snapshot of a very small portion of what special things are happening in Irish folk and traditional music right now”.
The 51-minute episode features a mixture of performances and interviews with musicians both versed in traditional music and those not afraid to try something a little different.
There’s the avant garde This Is How We Fly, featuring shoe percussionist Nic Gareiss, performing in a church; Radie Peat and Cormac Mac Diarmada from the unstoppable Lankum; and an affable Cormac Begley on a park bench playing his concertina. That instrument dates back to the 1880s and retains the key “that our great grandparents would’ve been singing to, dancing to, playing music to”.
Ahead of its release and mired in the editing suite in Dublin’s Back Loft, O’Reilly, who will have been doing Arbutus Yarns for ten years in 2019, says the documentary is an exploration of traditional music.
“I’ve come across traditional music just through my line of work, not seeking to listen to it — it’s never been in my radar because I grew up with popular culture, we all have, and traditional music seems to be quite remote in terms of where it’s practised naturally.”
He came across characters whose influence was bathed in tradition and then got to hear them in a traditional setting — in a pub, in a session, in a gaff playing by a fire. Eventually he was recognising the distinctive violin work of Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, who also stars in Backwards To Go Forwards, on the radio.
“It soaked in that way,” he says.
On the selection process for the film, O’Reilly explains: “I needed the spectrum. From their world, in traditional music, there’s the very raw, ancient musician who will have listened to all the older generation of musicians and recordings even from a hundred years ago, and they stay true to that, just because it’s quite truthful expression, there’s no western influences or other influences, it’s a very Irish traditional expression.
“And then there’s the complete other side of it which is pop and produced and thinking about their work in terms of songs and singles and albums and track listings.”
Does O’Reilly feel like the older generation, for lack of a better idiom, seem closed off to new ideas in traditional music?
“There are some debates — I’ve come across a few debates where older, very set-in-their-ways traditional players might give out about contemporary and how contemporary music is influencing the tradition. What I came across in making this documentary, there was very little of that.
"I think the older players seem to be much, much more open than we might think. Maybe Ireland is changing in so many ways, maybe it’s part of the change.”
Of course, Backwards To Go Forwards isn’t O’Reilly’s first foray into online-only music documentaries. In collaboration with the DJ Donal Dineen, he released the magical This Ain’t No Disco, featuring four episodes, the highlight of which is a unique collaboration between Nico Muhly and Conor O’Brien from Villagers.
“It’s such a beautiful thing that people received it so well. I absolutely know that people are starved for music television, especially live performance,” he says.
Asked whether he wanted to get it on TV, O’Reilly claims he absolutely wouldn’t go to RTÉ with it.
“Involving other people, the more I’d involve any kind of industry, or television, the more it would dilute the whole sincerity of the project. We’re up against a brick wall in terms of going with it because it’s quite draining but we do plan to do a second season.
“At the same time I find myself complaining, ‘Oh we don’t have the funds to do it.’ It’s a lot of energy out of all of us and if we got paid that energy, if what we put out we got back in money, we’d be comfortable, we’d have fucking cars and stuff. So no I prefer to stick on my bike and absolutely do what creatively is right.”