Musician and artist mourned
Alec Finn born June 4 1944 – died November 16 2018
Alec Finn, one of the twin pillars at the heart of the acclaimed traditional group, De Danann, died in November at the age of 74. A multi-instrumentalist who was best known for his prowess on the bouzouki, Alec made a significant contribution to the development of traditional music – both in live performance and on record – in over forty years since the creation of De Danann in An Spidéal in the mid-1970s.
The original line-up which emerged from sessions in Hughes pub included Frankie Gavin, Ringo McDonagh and Charlie Piggott – while fiddler, Mickey Finn, also sat in with the others in the early days. With Dolores Keane as the first in a series of top-drawer vocalists, they recorded their first album – under the direction of Donal Lunny – for release in 1975.
After Keane’s departure, De Danann included as vocalists many of the finest singers in traditional music – some, already well established, and others, at the start of their careers including Andy Irvine, Johnny Moynihan, Tim Lyons, Maura O’Connell, Mary Black, Dolores Keane (again), Eleanor Shanley, Tommy Fleming and Andrew Murray.
Among the instrumentalists who have also played with Finn and Gavin in De Danann in various line-ups were Jackie Daly, Máirtín O’Connor, Aidan Coffey, Derek Hickey and Colin Murphy.
Following De Danann’s debut album, Finn recorded a two-handed album with Gavin in 1977, Frankie Gavin and Alec Finn, before further group albums including The Mist Covered Mountain (1980), Star Spangled Molly (1981), Song for Ireland (1983), Anthem (1985), Ballroom (1987), A Jacket of Batteries (1988), Half Set in Harlem (1991), Hibernian Rhapsody (1995), How the West Was Won (1999) and Welcome to the Hotel Connemara (2000).
Alongside his work with De Danann, Alec also featured in highly acclaimed albums by Noel Hill and Tony Linnane, and Mary Bergin.
Until De Danann’s demise in 2003 after almost thirty years, Alec’s subtle accompaniment of Frankie Gavin’s fiddle leads was at the core of the band’s unique and distinctive sound. In adding colour and tone to the overall sound of the ensemble, Alec once described his approach as a combination of a number of elements:
“It’s a mixture of chord, rhythm and counter-melody. If I can, I’ll put in as many harmonies to whatever the lead musician is playing, [and] try and give it a bit of colour, but not dictate the rhythm…”
Although the break-up of the band resulted in a sometimes acrimonious dispute between the two principals over the use – and indeed spelling of the name, De Danann or De Dannan – the two eventually reconciled.
Last summer, Finn, Gavin and Keane reunited for a special set at Traidphicnic – while just six weeks before his death, Finn and Gavin launched their second duet album together, Traditional Irish Music on Fiddle and Bouzouki Volume II – a mere 41 years after the release of their first duet album!
From Rotherham to Oranmore
Born in Rotherham in South Yorkshire to steelworker, James Phinn, and wife, Patricia Mullarkey, Alec was the third of four children. His younger brother is the educationalist and author, Gervase Phinn. Alec changed the spelling of his surname from Phinn to Finn on moving to Ireland.
A graduate of Rotherham Art College, he continued to develop his artistic sensibilities along with his musical talents – both of which he combined them to great effect in the design of many of the band’s album covers.
Though firmly embedded in the firmament of traditional music stars, Alec was originally a blues man – and his broad musical tastes influenced De Danann’s repertoire in sometimes quite surprising directions – like their recording of the Beatles classic hit, Hey Jude, and their equally idiosyncratic take on Handel’s The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba (in Galway).
Another ‘blow-in’ who made his home in Galway is, of course, President Michael D. Higgins who paid a fulsome tribute to Alec:
“Alec Finn, an enormously talented musician and an influential bouzouki player, and founding member of De Danann, helped bring Irish music to the attention of a global audience.
From their early beginnings in An Spidéal and Galway City, De Danann grew to become one of the most significant and best-loved representatives of Irish music at its best.
Alec Finn was also a distinguished solo artist and session musician, playing on a variety of string instruments, but always bringing his famed sensitivity and skill to every performance.
It has been a privilege to know Alec Finn. Sabina and I send our deepest condolences to his family, colleagues and friends, in the full knowledge that Alec Finn’s music will live on and continue to inspire countless people around the world.President Michael D. Higgins
In a rather prescient piece of scheduling the TG4 series, Sé Mo Laoch, broadcast a new documentary on Alec on November 11 just a few days before his death.
The programme provided not only a sense of his musical and artistic legacy but also a glimpse into his daily life in the fifteenth century Oranmore Castle which he shared with his wife, Leonie King, the artist, and their two children, Cian and Heather. Ciarán Ó Maonaigh’s film also references Alec’s lifelong love of game birds – including owls and falcons.
The programme is available to view online at http://www.tg4.ie/en/ programmes/se-mo-laoch/