|DAYS OF SPIDDAL HOUSE
I invited myself to Spiddal House, cycling out from Galway one day in Spring ‘88 to visit the new neighbours.
Crunching up the gravel driveway I was a wee bit apprehensive as to how I might be received. I’d met Mike Scott at a gig in Galway but didn’t really know The Waterboys or how they might react to my casual dropping in on their recording sessions.
I arrived at a good moment; there was a lull in proceedings, time for a tour of the studio that had been set up in the reception rooms of “the big house”. Pat McCarthy and John Dunford were in the control room with a huge mixing desk. Trevor Hutchinson was in the recording room jamming with drummer Jay Dee Daugherty. The sounds they were making were being monitored in the control room, as Pat fine tuned the thump of the bass drum.
Fat black audio cables ran from the control room through the hallways. The gracious old ascendancy style house, with its polished wood and carpeted rooms, echoed quietly as music resonated around the building.
The engineers were amused by an incident that had happened earlier that day. Jay Dee had just arrived from New York and was feeling a bit chilly in the damp Spiddal climate. Someone suggested he light the fire. He was looking for an electrical switch to start the turf burning in the grate when he got given a box of matches!
Mike made us coffee in the kitchen, and then hurried away back to the recording session. I cycled home to Moycullen over the high bog road well pleased with my outing.
Those were exciting days in Galway. The new theatre group Macnas was working on the Gulliver show - an outdoor pageant featuring a cast of hundreds which would feature a sixty foot giant floating in on the tide, then waking up and walking through the streets of Dublin. The Saw Doctors were playing every Tuesday in the Quays bar. I was playing drums with both groups. A wave of creative energy fuelled those heady times.
The Waterboys came to the Sawdocs gigs at the Quays, and got involved in all the local happenings, turning up at benefit shows, book launches and bottle openings, late sessions in pubs all over town, playing music at every opportunity, enlivening the proceedings with their raggle-taggle chic - hats, mandos and bodhrans, fiddles and whistles, making great music, great times.
They’d come west to record in Connemara. This is the area west of Galway city. Mountains, lakes and distance make it a place apart, one of the last strongholds of the Gaelic language. The Connemara people are fiercely independent. They ran their own pirate TV station in the 1970’s and take great pride in their language and their culture.
The Waterboys recordings took place at Spiddal House, but the band and crew lived in various holiday houses dotted around the village. They cycled to and from the sessions. Mike, Trevor, Steve Wickham and Anto Thistlethwaite were the core group; other musicians were brought in for each song. Traditional players Brendan O’Regan, M‡irt’n O’Connor and the members of De Danann all contributed some of their magic,
Jay Dee and Fran Breen played drums. Another drummer was due to fly in but couldn’t make it. As I played drums, lived in the area and was available, I got drafted in at short notice.
Toms MacEin - or to call him by his Connemara name ‘Thomas Jimmy’ - was one of the foremost exponents of the Connemara ‘sean-nos’ (old style) singing, and his tape had become a favourite at Spidfdal House. He was drafted in to the same Waterboys session as me, along with Scotsman Colin Blakey. The song to be recorded was Mike’s setting of the W.B.Yeats poem ‘The Stolen Child’.
Mike had written the music, and played his part on electric piano. His style was very percussive, a rolling hand-to-hand rhythmic flow. I couldn’t find a drums part to enhance or complement this so tried all kinds of percussion instruments instead. Steve bowed a cello while Anto played a Hammond organ but it was Colin with his concert flute and soaring melodic line that carried the track and created the atmospheric mood. Trevor played his zingy bouzouki, and eventually the arrangement settled down to Steve on fiddle and Anto on sax. It was sounding good.
Everyone played live, over and over again, honing and refining each tiny detail. It kept getting better and better and I felt privileged to be with this group of people making music at the height of their power and skill.
There were many “takes” or recordings of the song made over a few days, each one carefully stored on 24 track 2 inch tape. Thomas Jimmy’s spoken vocal line was added afterwards. My addition to the song was also added on as an overdub: I borrowed some little bells from the neighbours, and shook them to evoke the sound fairies might make. Thank you Kate Duignan and Annette Moore for the use of your tinkling bells
It was not all work! The band had been at Spiddal for months and this was the final week of the sessions. There was a hint of a holiday atmosphere - football games on the lawn, communal meals round the massive kitchen table and impromptu music sessions at every opportunity.
There was a memorable session on the flat roof of the house one fine afternoon. This was recorded and the ad hoc ensemble was even named for the event; we became “The Woodland Band”, playing fiddle tunes and the reels and jigs of the Celtic tradition.
There was also an outing or two to the local pub, Hughes’, where the band and its music making had become a regular part of proceedings. The craic was good, with landlord and pub goers all enjoying the merry-making and excitement.
The last time I’d been to Hughes’ it had been a bit different. During a Fleadh Ceoil (music festival) in Spiddal in 1971 a group of us went in and played our music. Alec Finn, Ivan Paul and I were kicked out of Hughes’ for singing a Van Morrison song on bouzouki, guitar and bongos. It was not Irish enough! But things had changed, and in 1988 I got a secret enjoyment from remembering those earlier days before rock’n’roll was allowed in Connamara.
On the final night at Spiddal House we had a band jam session, playing whatever songs and tunes came to mind. I got a chance to play kit with the band then and did enjoy that.
The following year, after the album was in the shops, Mike came back to Spiddal for a short visit. He and I met in Eyre Square in Galway and as we passed the Music City record shop he pointed to their window display. Fisherman's Blues was featured with a couple of other records, one being Chris Rea’s latest.
“Look”, said Mike, “we’re up there with the best of them”.
It was interesting to hear his point of view, his pride that the Waterboys’ work had been accepted and was on a par with the other releases of the day, but I was surprised to hear him say it; I thought Fisherman's Blues was the best record of the era, and contained a blend of rock’n’roll and celtic music that enhanced both genres. There had been a lot of attempts at a fusion of the two musics, and even more since, most of the crash-bang-diddley-eye school, and of dubious merit.
Fisherman's Blues, on the other hand, is full of sensitive and fine music. It lifts the spirit and celebrates the culture, creating something both new and enduring.
Singer, drummer and songwriter Padraig Stevens is from Tuam, Co Galway, Ireland. He was an original member of the Saw Doctors, writing many of their early songs. Padraig has since released two solo albums, ‘Sound’ and ‘Puddles And Rainbows’. For further information on his activities visit www.padraigstevens.com