Michael Walsh’s moving and innovative Quarehawk

Michael Walsh

Greater Manchester flute player, Michael Walsh describes his first solo album, Quarehawk, as charting “the last three years of my life: celebration, loss, moving on and finding my own voice.” Through its intriguing and innovative arrangements and sequencing of its component parts, the album has such a strong narrative arc it could easily be the soundtrack to a biopic.

This sound documentary begins with the strains of The Lathe Revival, Part 1: Marian’s Favourite sounding like a a well-worn old 78 or perhaps a slightly muffled old radio broadcast from Radio Éireann in Athlone, as it might have been heard in the English homes of nostalgic ex-pats of the Irish diaspora. Walsh is joined by fellow flute player, Paul Daly and fiddler, Amanda Lewis, in this atmospheric recreation of the reel – written by Tony (Sully) Sullivan for his former band-mate, Marian Egan, who was one of the young Walsh’s flute teachers.

The opening track gives way to Quarehawk, a set of three jigs, written by Walsh in honour of his family – Celeste’s Jig, named after his daughter; Osgur Boo, named after his son; and Dr. Dalrymple’s Fancy, named after his wife, Sarah. Against this instrumental backdrop supplied by Walsh on flute, Kepa Junkera on trikitixas (accordions), Simon Bradley from Asturian folk legends, Llan de Cubel, on fiddle and Anthony Davis on keyboards, Michael offers us a poetic (almost rap-like) declamation from the perspective of an ‘outsider’ who refuses to be defined by ethnic, gender and other social stereotypes – but finally embraces an identity as a ‘quarehawk’ – playing with the imagery conjured by the term used by his late Mayo-born father, Patrick.

This is followed by a timeless classic, The Shores of Lough Bran, which makes maximum use of the prodigious vocal talents of Rioghnach Connolly and Leticia González Menéndez before Walsh is joined by Bryony Griffith for a fine vocal duet more resonant of the English traditional style. The beautiful arrangement seamlessly intergates the three major musical influences in Walsh’s musical life: the Irish, the Iberian and the English in a manner that is both masterful and respectful. The instrumentation is spot on with Liz Hanks on cello, Davis on keyboards and Walsh himself on hulusi, the Chinese flute.

Next up, the old feis “heavy shoe” standard The Boys of Blue Hill with Walsh on tin whistle, Griffith on fiddle and Will Hampson on melodeon leads into The Stockport Hornpipe, a piece named after Walsh’s home-town, which he found in Koehler’s Repository of Music held in the National Library of Scotland. This is followed by The Visitor – a moving retrospective reflection on the relationship between a son and his father – where any past tensions have given way to a mellowed understanding tinged with regret. The poem, written and spoken by Mike Garry, was specifically requested by Walsh after his father died tragically during the making of the album.

“My dad always talked about making a whole out of the two halves of our identity,” Walsh explained. “to be proud of our heritage but love the country that gave us a living. That’s the underlying idea of the track: fathers and sons, Irish music with an English accent.” The poem is framed by a subtle rendering of An Buachaillín Donn featuring Walsh on flute, Liz Hanks on cello and album producer, Mike McGoldrick. providing drone guitars and samples.

The reflective mood gives way to two jig-like dance tunes from Asturias in Spain, Barralín and Pasucáis De Uviéu, with Bradley on fiddle, Menéndez on pandeiru (tambourine), Helen Gubbins on button accordion and Rubén Bada on bouzouki. Regular visitors to the William Kennedy Piping Festival in Armagh may be familiar with the tunes which are in the repertoires of both Anxo Lorenzo and Jose Mañuel Tejedor.

The album changes gear with a series of spare instrumental duets as well as Ewan Mac Coll’s reflection on the impact of migration on families. Dónal Lunny’s Tribute to Peadar O’Donnell, first recorded on the epic Moving Hearts instrumental album, The Storm, is rendered as a plaintive duet between Walsh’s flute and Hanks’ wonderfully sensitive cello.

Next up is a set of two well-known jigs, Paddy’s Return and Trip To Athlone with Walsh on tin whistle and an appropriately understated contribution from McGoldrick on bodhrán.Ewan Mac Coll’s classic Come My Little Son (England’s Motorway) – set to the air of The Homes of Donegal – is delivered in a heartfelt manner by Walsh – who also backs himself on flute, low whistle and tin whistle.For the two popular reels, The Boys of the Lough and Josie McDermott’s Trip To Birmingham, Walsh on flute is backed again by the bodhrán of McGoldrick

As the spotlight of our imagined documentary closes in on Walsh alone, he gives us an energetic flute solo of three jigs, The Ships In Full Sail, Killavil – the Sligo tune popularised by Brendan Tonra and Frank Finn – and Michael Dwyer’s, written by Dwyer for his friend, Connie O’Connell.
And our imagined documentary ends as it began with an atmospheric recreation of a 78 or an old radio recording of a spirited session, as Walsh is again joined by Daly and Lewis in The Lathe Revival, Part 2: Crowley’s Reel. The final piece on the album is almost a bonus track. Quarehawk – Kepa Junkera Party Mix is a joyful instrumental reprise of the three jigs of the second track.

Though a child of the diaspora, Walsh’s musical style and repertoire reflects a significant Sligo influence – fostered by his early flute teachers, Marian Egan and Tony Ryan – complemented by a love for the música of the Iberian peninsula. A former All Britain Senior Flute Champion, he has performed across Europe and North America with Irish traditional groups, céilí bands and theatre productions.

He cites Roger Sherlock, Tony Howley, Michael Tubridy, Peter Horan and Kevin Henry as inspirations for his flute playing. All of these strands and more can be found in this imaginative album in intriguing and exhilarating juxtapositions. To realise Michael Walsh’s distinctive approach to this deeply personal ‘concept’ album, Mike McGoldrick is the right man in the right place – another child of the Irish diaspora, another citizen of Manchester and another flute player – but not just another flute player – a multi-instrumentalist who has played and recorded with some of the great performers in the world of Irish traditional music.

The production is faultless – from the faded glory of the two Lathe Revival tracks to the controlled balance of the spoken word tracks and the clear freshness of the instrumental tracks. Alongside the creative energy that has gone into the completion of the album, Michael also teaches music (online in the new Covid-19 climate). He is also working on a PhD from the University of Sheffield Department of Music, supervised by Dr Simon Keegan-Phipps and Dr Fay Hield. His field of study is A ‘Celtic’ or ‘National’ Aesthetic? Flute Playing in the Contemporary Asturian Folk Scene. It may be an academic exercise – but if this album is any guide to Walsh’s approach, it should be thoughtful, imaginative and enlightening.

Track Listing:

  1. The Lathe Revival, Part 1: Marian’s Favourite
  2. Quarehawk
  3. The Shores of Lough Bran
  4. The Boys of Blue Hill/The Stockport Hornpipe
  5. The Visitor
  6. Barralín/Pasucáis De Uviéu
  7. Tribute to Peadar O’Donnell
  8. Paddy’s Return/Trip To Athlone
  9. Come My Little Son (England’s Motorway)
  10. Boys Of The Lough/Trip To Birmingham
  11. Ships In Full Sail/Killavil/Michael Dwyer’s
  12. The Lathe Revival, Part 2: Crowley’s Reel
  13. Quarehawk – Kepa Junkera Party Mix

The album is available from https://www.michaelwalshmusic.com.

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