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Piper Ronan Browne reflects on the late head of Claddagh Records
Garech de Brún was a pivotal figure in the renaissance of Irish traditional music. Inspired by the piper, Leo Rowsome, he established Claddagh Records – which has helped to bring the work of many leading musicians and singers to a wider public. Among them was musician, Ronan Browne, who for a time became de Brún’s “court piper” at his home in Luggala, Co. Wicklow, where he entertained celebrity friends and acquaintances from the worlds of art, film and music.
At an exhibition of portraits of some of Luggala’s famous house guests painted by de Brún’s best man, Anthony Palliser, Ronan Browne told an audience in the Farmleigh Gallery of his long association with the founder of Claddagh Records and its impact on his career as a musician and on his approach to music.
Ronan first met Garech back in the 1980s in Inagh in County Clare, where he was introduced by his old playing partner, Peter O’Loughlin, during a session that also included Joe Ryan, Bobby Casey and Junior Crehan.
“Of course, I was aware of who Garech Browne was. He was a family friend – though I didn’t know him personally before then. My father, Ivor, and he were great pals. They set up Claddagh Records together. In fact it was Ivor’s idea initially to find some way of making an LP – the new technology at the time – of Leo Rowsome. And Garech said, as Garech used to, ‘That’s a wonderful idea, Ivor. Let’s see what we can do about it.’ That was the start of Claddagh Records. The first record, Rí na Píobairí by Leo Rowsome, was made by Ivor and Garech.”
Ivor had met Garech with Leo Rowsome in the early 1950s when they were both struggling to learn the pipes. Ivor eventually gave up and passed on his set on to his son, Ronan.
“I think it was a lovely closing of a circle when I met Garech because I should have met him years before but my parents were estranged when I was a kid. His connection was with Ivor and I was with my mother. (In fact I didn’t actually meet Ivor until I was 20 and luckily we have over 30 years under our belt now.)”
Meeting Garech in Clare was to have a transformative effect on the young Ronan Browne. In musical terms, he credits de Brún with enlightening him on the value of taste as well as technique.
“I changed in Luggala from playing mostly dance music to mostly playing slow airs. There is always a story with a slow air. It is very often the music to a song and the song has a story. So when you are playing the music you are not actually hearing the words but if I tell the story, then when you hear the music, I have opened the door to a landscape and you then create the missing pieces. And this understanding all came because of Garech. A lot of things in my life came because of Garech – including many of the great friends that I made over the years.”
“Some saw Garech as a foppish dandy for whom they would have no respect whatsoever. But others broke through that perception and got to know the real Garech who was a wonderful person – a man of great depth and great fun to be with. He would educate anyone who was willing to be educated, just by being in his company. He had knowledge about everything. Whatever subject you could bring up, he would have something to say. He wouldn’t pontificate or try to be big headed about it but he would have knowledge.
“As I grew older, living my own life and no longer able to be his court musician, our relationship was conducted mainly over the phone and wonderful it was too. I’d always try to ring him in the morning because by lunchtime it wasn’t as easy to talk to him. Topics of conversation might often include a good gossip (with a fair bit of hacking and ripping of acquaintances) or more often we talked about pipes, Irish history or harps. He had a wonderful collection of harps. He was mad into the harp as well as the pipes.
“Every time, I would learn something new. Sometimes we might discuss an X-ray of the inside of a chanter or maybe a reed. He would be fascinated and he would have something to add every time. I introduced him to Siobhán Armstrong, the expert on the early Irish harp, and the two of them hit it off – ‘anoraking’ about musical instruments that were 250 years old.”
More than the Court Piper
While Garech earned quite a reputation for his lavish parties with the “jet set,” he used the opportunity to promote Irish music, literature and art as the equals of any others.
“In the world that Garech created he never apologised for Ireland. He excited people about Ireland. When I played to the people gathered under Garech’s umbrella, it was to play Irish traditional music. Everyone knows how Garech moved in the same circles as lords, ladies, actresses, actors. film stars and rock stars. Luggala was full of them. They were the people that Garech gently pushed me in front of. I was terrified at the beginning and a little bit nervous a lot of the time. But I rose to the occasion and learned what I learned.
“One of the things I liked to do was to leave that lovely sitting room of Garech’s and go to my favourite place, the kitchen. It was quite small but with a very high ceiling and the sound in there was gorgeous. So they would all come in – all the famous actors, lords and ladies, princesses whoever was there – to sit around the table and on the cold Aga, squat on the floor and I would play slow airs for them. I remember one time the Rolling Stones were knocking about and Mick Jagger was there with Jerry Hall who kept saying ‘Mick, Mick, make him play The Wild Colonial Boy.’ And Mick was saying, ‘Jerry, I think he’ll do what he’s going to do. He knows what he’s doing.’ ‘But Mick, I want him to play…’
A Day in the Life
“The piece I played most in Luggala was Port na bPúcaí. I’ve been playing it for years but I still love it. I remember one time Bon Jovi were around and their drummer, Tico Torres (who I had never met before and never met again since) said to me ‘Ronan, that’s the most incredible piece of music but you need to finish it. It’s not finished.’ So I said ‘What do you mean, it’s not finished?’ He said: ‘I don’t know. There’s something missing.’
“Port na bPúcaí comes from the Blasket Islands off the west coast of Kerry – from Inis Mhic Uileáin– one of the smaller islands. The story goes that the people heard enchanted music when the spirits were unquiet and they made this air using the sounds they had heard from the cries of the Pookas. But the deep scholars now reckon that the sounds they were listening to were possibly whale song coming up through the bottom of the canvas covered currachs – acting like a loudspeaker. I haven’t actually gone out and tested it, myself. Maybe there’d be an Arts Council grant for it!”
“When a friend gave me a cassette of whale song, I heard killer whales making a sound like the first three notes of this air – which are then repeated throughout the piece. I’ve since heard similar recordings of humpbacked whales: it seems to be a thing with whales.”
“I was brought over to London by Garech for a party in his sister-in-law’s house. I was expected to play – but nobody seemed to care. I had my eyes closed as I was playing – wishing I was back in Ireland away from all this – when this lovely honey velvety voice said: ‘That was just gorgeous,’ and it was John Hurt.
“He sat there beside me for the next two hours and I played tunes for John. He asked me questions and because he had been hanging out with Garech, he had himself somehow been rubbed with the Irish magnet. So he knew how to inquire about the things of depth that I could share with him. And we became fast friends.
“Through him I met Daniel Day Lewis and ended up becoming the godfather to Daniel and Rebecca’s son, Ronan, named after me! All of these things came through my friendship with Garech. So the world that Garech shared with me has formed my existence and where I am now.”
Hand-winding with Cáit
“When Séamus Ennis went to the west to record and write down Irish music and songs, the first house he went to was to my wife’s grandmother, Cáit Ní Choisdealbha. Garech used to go down to the house as well and he would sit on the ground at her feet with his legs crossed. He used to love the hand-winding when sean-nós singers were singing and he would reach up to Cáit and offer his hand. She’d jokingly throw her eyes up to heaven and wind it for him. And though she used to laugh and joke about him in Irish while he was there, it was done with love and respect at the same time.”
Working with Claddagh
“I made a solo record for Claddagh. This was one of the low points of my relationship with Garech. I said I wanted to make this record with Claddagh and Garech agreed. But when it was near the end of the recording, the contract still hadn’t arrived. When it finally arrived, it came on a roll of fax paper that my wife brought up to Windmill Lane where we were recording and it stretched half the length of the room. It was the most rotten, horrible, draconian contract ever – not the kind of contract that you make with your buddy.
“So I had to ‘lawyer up’ and he had his super duper expensive lawyer and I had this lad from Mayo who was a bulldog. It ended up in the law library at the Four Courts fighting with the two of them going from room to room with me spitting daggers at Garech and Garech giggling away and having a ball teaching me what it was like to be in the hard world of business.
“On the sleeve notes for my record, I spoke about Tom Pháidín Tom Ó Coisdealbha who was the first cousin of my wife’s grandmother, Cáit Ní Choisdealbha (Bean Uí Chonláin). So when Garech was working on my sleeve notes which John Montague had written with information I had given to him, he fixed what he thought was a ‘mistake’ by separating Tom Pháidín from Tom Ó Coisdealbha. He put a comma in between and created names for two men instead of one. But I fixed it.
“But I realised then that to work with Garech on sleeve notes, you had to design in deliberate mistakes so that he could correct them and not mess with the stuff you really wanted to include.
“Also at Claddagh, I remember a record was to be made by a Scottish highland piper, Robert Wallace of the Whistlebinkies. Garech had done tons of research for this and we were working on the sleeve notes. But it went on so long that the record never came out. But Garech discovered in his research that – and this not to be repeated anywhere outside this room (!!!) – Scottish pipers could learn their craft up to a certain degree in Scotland but then they had to go to Ireland for five or ten years to get the final knowledge. He had already mentioned this to a few people in Scotland and at that point he became public enemy number one in Scotland. And maybe that’s part of the reason why Robbie Wallace’s CD never came out.”
Garech the Collector
“Garech had the most incredible library and only last autumn (2017) he showed me his broadsheet collection that I didn’t even know he had. We all collect things and we have five or ten of them. He collected things and had hundreds of them. So he had tons and tons of broadsheets just sitting in boxes – with maybe half a dozen or ten framed and the rest all sitting there. He also collected carriages.”
”When Claddagh was set up, one of the important things was that it be pure Irish music that wouldn’t be messed with. So Claddagh was set up to record and publish good music but there were good musicians who were playing music that just didn’t really fit into the Claddagh thing. So he created a subsidiary label called Phaeton, which was a particular type of carriage, and the logo was one of his carriages. And on that label you could play, excuse me, crap music if you were a good musician.”
“He had beautiful important harps, gorgeous sets of pipes one of which (by Timothy Kenna) he gave to me. Garech also had the world’s best collection of Claddagh rings. His collection of paintings was stunning. Any time an old painting of Luggala came up he would have bought it. Some of the paintings go right back to the La Touches when they built the place as a hunting lodge in 1787.”
”He had lots of Anthony Palliser and he had Francis Bacon, whose pictures command terrifying prices nowadays. But these were all his buddies. A portrait of his mother, Oonagh Guinness, used to hang above a lovely long side table. When his mother died – I played at her funeral and piped her into the ground – she left that portrait to one of Garech’s half-brothers. Garech was heart-broken.”