“This disc will be a collector’s item,” proclaimed the headline on Bob O’Donoghue’s Evening Echo traditional music column in March 1977. It is safe to say, 43 years later, that his prophesy has proved correct. Jackie Daly and Séamus Creagh’s album of the same name not only made waves on its release at the height of the '70s trad revival, but has proved influential ever since, its popularity prompting its re-release by Gael Linn in 2005.
“Inventiveness,” according to reviewer O’Donoghue, was the essence of an album on which the tunes of Sliabh Luachra “known and played for an age” were again made new.
Daly and Creagh, though, did more than simply revive old tunes – they made them dance, made them cool, and converted a whole new audience to the music of the Cork-Kerry border.
“They were phenomenal, and the excitement that Jackie and Séamus used to generate back then, I’ve never before or since experienced,” said Colm Murphy, who at the age of 18 provided the bodhrán accompaniment on Daly and Creagh’s seminal accordion, concertina, and fiddle recording.
“When they’d get into a little groove and Jackie would do some variation, the place would go bananas. I’m playing 40 years and I don’t remember that kind of excitement very often – it really was an exceptional musical duet,” he said.
The duet, formed after Westmeath native Creagh’s move to Cork, materialised from a '70s haze of sessions and gigs, and from St Anne’s Hydro, the artists’ commune where Daly lived in the grounds of a crumbling Victorian baths complex overlooking Blarney.
“A magic place,” as Daly recalled. “Even though it was the early '70s it was when the '60s hit Ireland really.” Creagh, once an electric guitar player in a showband, slipped effortlessly into the Sliabh Luachra rhythms of Kanturk and Newmarket played by Daly, doyen of the C#/D button accordion.
“Myself and Séamus met around 1972 or '73 and we knew straight away that we were very close together in what we played,” Daly said. “I was into Sliabh Luachra music since I was a child and Séamus immediately fell in love with it completely as well. He went mad into it and straight away became very good at it.” The pair became a regular fixture at the likes of The Gables and The Phoenix in Cork, Dan O’Connell’s in Knocknagree, travelling to “Dingle on Saturday nights in the Skellig Hotel and Sherkin Island on Sundays,” Daly recalled.
In Cork “there was another place where we used to play and it’s gone now - the Idle Buachaill,” he said, illustrating with one of his trademark anecdotes: “Séamus Creagh did a good one there one night.
It was another regular gig, in Baile Mhúirne, which led to the recording of the album.
“Myself and Séamus started to do a residency in The Mills and a woman who worked for Gael Linn, Máire Davitt, heard us there and asked us to do a record,” said Daly.
Its way paved by Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford’s 1969 album The Star above the Garter and Daly’s solo album in Topic Records’ Music From Sliabh Luachra series, ‘Jackie Daly and Séamus Creagh’ caught the rising tide of the trad revival and ensured the musical dialect of Cork and Kerry rode the crest of the wave at festivals in Ireland and abroad.
Recorded at the Eamonn Andrews Studios in Dublin’s Harcourt St, the album’s tracks showcased not only Sliabh Luachra’s trademark slides and polkas, but its distinctive twist on jigs, airs, reels, hornpipes, and one song, from the many Creagh learned from the Ó Súilleabháin family in Cúil Aodha.
“I got to choose most of the music tracks but Séamus’ song, ‘The Tailor Bán’ is a work of art,” said Daly. “He had amazing songs. He’d make the hairs stand up on your head.”
For Colm Murphy, being asked as a teenager to accompany Daly and Creagh’s recording was “amazingly exciting - I was thrilled with myself,” he said.
In a career that was to span appearances on 50 albums, this was Murphy’s first recording.
“The reason I was playing on that record was because Francis Thoma from Kenmare, who used to play bodhrán with Jackie and Séamus, got a job as a roadie for Planxty and upped sticks,” said Murphy, who had played previous gigs with the duo.
“I got in by default when Francis couldn’t do it. I was gobsmacked really, but you just have to sink or swim,” Murphy added. “Back then [recording] was an expensive process, so to be tagging along with that was a major excitement.” The recording, which spanned four days, was engineered by Brian Masterson and produced by Nicky Ryan, who went on to work with Clannad and Enya. The pair’s expertise was crucial to the album’s success, according to Murphy.
“You had Brian Masterson and Nicky Ryan – two really high-quality engineers, Jackie and Séamus who knew what they were doing, and me just doing something fairly basic, so there was no real messing,” he said. “It was all very accomplished.”
The tightness of Daly and Creagh’s playing was “like one voice, one instrument - it was a beautiful melding, but they had something else as well,” added Murphy. “Jackie was really innovative – there’d be little twists, and the subtlety and the trueness to Sliabh Luachra music and the quality of the playing - there were a lot of plusses that make them unique to this day.
“Jackie used to play a grey Paolo Soprani. It had a cleaner sound [than its red counterpart] and Jackie made an innovation to it where he got this constant drone with a lever on the back of it – it was real space-age stuff at the time – so for one set of tunes it was like a set of pipes going in the background. It was very different,” he said.
“Séamus was from Westmeath, and his playing was as good as any Sliabh Luachra musician ever. To play with Jackie, a very exacting fella, was a massive achievement, but his tone on ‘Her Mantle so Green’ is the best slow-air playing that I’ve ever heard. Séamus was a phenomenal, understated, underrated player.” Little wonder then, that the album stands the test of time. “When there’s a popularity in something it can fade away afterwards and the novelty can wear off and it’s something mundane when you look back on it,” said Murphy. “But with the Jackie and Séamus record it is really, as Bob O’Donohue said, a collector’s item because the delivery and the quality of the playing is exceptional.”
The musical partnership between Creagh and Daly reached a hiatus by 1978, with Daly joining De Dannan, but Creagh carried the music of Cork and Kerry with him across the Atlantic to Newfoundland, where he recorded with the group Tickle Harbour. Back in Cork came further albums with Aidan Coffey and Seán Ó Loinsigh, and Hammy Hamilton and Con Ó Drisceoil. Since his premature death in 2009, Newfoundland has commemorated him with an annual Féile Séamus Creagh, with events also held in his honour at Cork Folk Festival and World Fiddle Day Scartaglin.
Now living in Milltown Malbay, Co Clare, where he duets with his neighbour, fiddle-player Eileen O’Brien, Daly is working on publishing a book next year, of around 200 of his tune compositions, with the assistance of long-time musical collaborator Matt Cranitch. TG4 Gradam Ceoil 2005-winner Daly, the man who claims he “put the lucrative into Sliabh Luachra” is now 75 and says with signature wit: “I’m composing, but I’ve gone so old now that maybe it’s decomposing.”
Like Daly, he went on to play with De Dannan, and with Altan, Conal Ó Gráda, and Micheál Ó Súilleabháin among a who’s who of traditional musicians. He has recorded on around 50 albums, including his own An Bodhrán. He is also an acclaimed artist, with a new exhibition of paintings opening shortly at Baile Mhúirne’s Ionad Cultúrtha.