After a musical education that involved UCC and the Phoenix Bar, trad stalwart Con ‘Fada’ Ó Drisceoil has released a new collection of comic songs, writes
‘RHYMING becomes almost a disease eventually,” songwriter Con Ó Drisceoil admits. Indeed so well-versed is the retired schoolteacher in the symptoms of this condition, that some might conclude his own affliction to be permanent and incurable.
He may opine that “outfluenza and oldmonia imaginary and phoney are”, but talks of the “attack of beri-beri which I picked up in North Kerry” indicate an inoperable, deep-seated contagion.
Not that Ó Drisceoil has ever sought a cure, because his rhymer’s disease has placed him among Ireland’s leading comic songwriters, officially recognised by a 2009 TG4 Gradam Ceoil. He remains the only person to be awarded the Composer of the Year gradam for songwriting, rather than tune composition.
Though he has carved out his own niche between Irish traditional singing and the comic verse of the likes of Noel Coward and Gilbert and Sullivan, Ó Drisceoil will admit neither to being a singer or a poet. His work is a coalescence of the creative influences on his life, from college days in UCC’s literary Innti generation, through exposure to sean-nós and ballad singing, to playing accordion with the Four Star Trio.
The products are songs long absorbed into the tradition of sessions and singers’ clubs — the likes of ‘The Milltown Cockroach’ and ‘The Spoons Murder’ — soon perhaps to be joined by numbers from his new collection Hunting the Hair, and other pursuits.
The targets of his barbed bardic wit range from the hypochondriac with ‘outfluenza’ to the Pope’s toe, Julius Caesar, castrated canines, and baldness, the latter providing the title of his new book and CD.
Being dead is no defence against the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune, and he gleefully takes aim at his own moribund moggy, a cat “so big I couldn’t fit him in the kitchen blender”. Neither are the love songs of the sean-nós tradition immune, and as an “enthusiastic Gaeilgeoir” Con ‘Fada’, as he is known, rewrites ‘Cuisle mo Chroí’ as a Celtic Tiger suitor’s song.
His love of both Gaeilge and singing are rooted in his childhood in Aghadown, west of Skibbereen.
“I attended a small primary school called Gurranes in Caheragh parish. It was a two-teacher school and the two teachers were my father and my mother, so I got a great grounding in Irish there, and my mother was the singing teacher, so we got lots of songs in both languages,” recalls Ó Drisceoil, who retired from his own teaching career at Douglas Community School in 2008.
Though his parents’ music collection was where he first fell in love with the poetic acrobatics of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, home was not the source of his passion for trad. “I developed an interest in it when I was at college because even though I wasn’t a student of his, I was in UCC when Seán Ó Riada was lecturing there.”
Interest developed into participation when Ó Drisceoil discovered the Phoenix bar on Cork’s Union Quay. “It was an amazing place. You had great traditional music being played there; you also had great bluegrass; some contemporary-style songwriters, people like Noel Brazil. That was my greatest musical education. I’d been sent to piano lessons when I was a small boy but apart from that I hadn’t played any instrument.
“Jackie Daly and Seamus Creagh were the two great heroes of Cork traditional music at the time, and I listened to them constantly. Eventually, I decided I wanted to try the accordion.”
Studying Irish and English at UCC, he helped establish the influential poetry publication Innti but lacked the confidence to put pen to paper himself.
“I never considered myself a poet and I never wrote, even though I was at college in the late ‘60s and part of a gang that included Michael Davitt, Liam Ó Muirthile, and Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. I never had the courage.
It takes a certain courage to compose and put it out there in the public gaze. Everyone who composes has to go through that, but at the time I couldn’t face it.
What finally prompted Ó Drisceoil to begin composing was that well-known source of literary inspiration — the pool table.
“I got to know Jimmy Crowley, who was composing comic songs in traditional style,” he explains.
“The big craze in pubs all over Ireland at the time was to install a pool table. The sad thing was that in some pubs where you could expect a few tunes, all of a sudden the music session was being pushed aside to make room for the pool table.
“I can’t remember which of us said we should write a song about it,” he adds, but the result was a set of “scribbled words” handed by Ó Drisceoil to Crowley, who recorded ‘The Pool Song’ on his first album, The Boys of Fairhill.
While the song took on a life of its own, later recorded by The Dubliners, Ó Drisceoil was honing his compositional skills, influenced by the sean-nós and comic songs to which his friend, the late Cúil Aodha singer Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin, introduced him.
“We used go to Baile Mhúirne a lot that time. Jackie Daly and Séamus Creagh used play one night a week in the Mills back in the late ’70s and very often a crowd of us would drive down.
“Some nights we’d come home but some nights we’d end up in someone’s house and eventually someone would start singing songs,” he says, recalling how others such as Meath singer Deaglán Tallon similarly gravitated towards the area, “contracted the local disease and started writing comic songs”.
The connection later led to Ó Drisceoil’s collaboration with Creagh and Cúil Aodha flute-player Hammy Hamilton on the album It’s No Secret — and to his appreciation of the area’s singing traditions.
Ó Drisceoil points to the “turn of phrase and the cadences, the influence of their style” on his writing, but adds:
I don’t see myself really as a singer. I don’t sing anything apart from my own songs because at least I can’t be blamed for murdering them. If I go much over the octave I find myself coming out in sweats.
Thanks to his ability as a musician, 10 of the 11 melodies on Hunting the Hair are self-composed to suit his vocal skills and he has achieved the happy position of being able to synthesise his many musical influences into his own style.
“When I started with ‘The Pool Song’ I was desperately trying to be as traditional as possible and to ape the Cork street songs or the Cúil Aodha songs, but at this stage, I’m happy to bring in other things which I have enjoyed in my life and been impressed with in my life — and that’s about learning to be yourself while still being part of the tradition.”
Con Ó Drisceoil performs at An Góilín Singers’ Club, Dublin, June 22; Cork Singers’ Club, An Spailpín Fánach, July 1; Feakle Festival Aug 11; Cape Clear Storytelling Festival Sept 1; Fred Finn Singing Weekend, Sligo, Oct 5-6.
Hunting the Hair (Craft Recordings, €25) available from custysmusic.com; pipers.ie; Vibes and Scribes, Pro Musica, An Siopa at the Mills, Skibbereen Bookshop.