‘A physical embodiment of the big bang theory’

Máirtín O’Connor on playing accordion

THE GENIUS cartoonist Gary Larson, of Far Side fame, has a memorable two-tiered cartoon in which the top half depicts an angel welcoming new arrivals to Heaven with the phrase “Here’s your harp”, while the bottom half features a devil saying “Welcome to Hell, here’s your accordion”.

Galway’s own box-wizard Máirtín O’Connor might well prompt Larson to rethink that cartoon as his sublime playing would surely gladden and galvanise the heavenly host and have St Peter himself tapping his toes and perhaps even yelping out an occasional “Up ya boy ya!”

Máirtín and his band feature in the line-up for the forthcoming Galway Sessions festival, with a concert in Monroe’s Live on Friday June 20 at 8pm.

The artist has seen the above-mentioned Larson image, as he reveals when I snare him for a pre-gig palaver; “I know that cartoon and I used the punchline myself when we played right after 12 harpers at the O’Carolan Festival in Nobber, County Meath. It couldn’t have been more apt!”

Máirtín began playing the accordion at the age of nine, and his remarkable career has seen him feature as a member of many of traditional music’s leading groups including Midnight Well, De Dannan, The Boys of the Lough, and Skylark. He has also recorded with such luminaries as Rod Stewart, Elvis Costello, Mark Knofler, Townes Van Zandt, The Chieftains, The Dubliners, and The Waterboys as well as playing a major role in the world-renowned Riverdance.

In 1995 he was the first recipient of the Allied Irish Banks Traditional Musician of the Year award. Most recently he and his group have just finished a tour playing with Christy Moore.

“It was interesting getting used to the idea of songs and playing in that setting and finding the space or role within that,” he tells me. “So you respect Christy’s space musically without being too present. It was an interesting gig from that point of view and musically it was very satisfying.”

I ask what first prompted him as a young lad to choose the accordion as an instrument.

“It was more by chance than design,” he replies. “It started with a visit to my grandparents, both of them played the instrument, I remember them passing it back and forth between them and suggesting tunes to each other to play and I was really taken with this. Then they left it down in the bedroom and I started tinkering around with it myself and felt an immediate affinity with it. It’s a physical embodiment of the Big Bang theory. If the universe is expanding and the background radiation is the same as the contraction we all end up in the bellows somewhere. It’s a universal instrument, it lends itself to music in lots of different forms.”

Recovering myself from that unexpected philosophical sally, I observe that the titles of Máirtín’s albums, and own compositions, often have a tendency toward the themes of journeying and exploration. His debut solo album was A Connachtman’s Rambles (1979 ) and that was followed by such releases as Perpetual Motion (1990 ) and The Road West (2005 ).

“It hadn’t occurred to me before but you are right” he admits. “I suppose there was always an element of curiosity there with me, I loved to travel. Even now, though I love being at home at this stage of my life, I can still feel over-contained if I didn’t travel a bit.”

That travelling does not just mean touring from country to country but also absorbing the influences of accordion players from overseas. Máirtín recounts how he first discovered the variety and range of box-playing from ‘parts foreign’ as well as the impresarios who inspired him.

“I remember getting an LP of accordion music by Dermot O’Brien who funnily enough had quite an eclectic taste.,” he says. “As regards other influences Joe Burke was there of course, Finbar Dwyer, Joe Cooney, those seminal players, then I got into French musette music. In terms of eastern European music I would say Planxty would have been the portal into that music with its unfamiliar rhythms and so on.”

Tickets are available on the door or through www.monroes.ie and 091 -

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