Fine new film on Tommie Potts
Macdara Yeates’ fine new film on the life of the remarkable “fireman fiddler” Tommie Potts may never have come to fruition if the Covid-19 lockdown had not cancelled all live performances in the second quarter of the year.
Though it was originally intended to be performed before a live audience in April as part of the MusicTown series, necessity became the mother of invention – or rather re-invention. So Tommie Potts: The Fireman Fiddler from the Liberties was transformed into a beautifully crafted film.
While Yeates makes great use of precious archive footage of Tommie playing and talking to the late Mícheál Ó Suilleabháin, the musical heart of the film are the performances by Potts aficionados, Liam O’Connor and Aoife Ní Bhríain – who not only deliver stunning interpretations of tunes associated with Tommie but also provide analysis of Tommie’s distinctive approach to the music.
Neither Liam nor Aoife had the privilege of meeting Tommie who died in 1988. But another great fiddler and broadcaster, Paddy Glackin, is on hand to supply perfectly formed insights based on his interactions with Potts – including the sense of spirituality that informed his playing. Tommie seemed to go into another zone when he played, explained Paddy, who also recalled Tommie’s performance at Willie Clancy’s funeral with tears streaming down his face as he played.
Portraits of the man behind the music are provided by Tommie’s daughter, Helen, and by Las Fallon, historian of the Dublin Fire Brigade. Helen reveals Tommie’s intense passion for music (involving playing for hours on end in the evening) – complemented by a great sense of fun. This intensity steered Tommie away from céili bands.
Although he was a member of a céili band for a short period, the idea of repeating the same phrases, no matter how well executed, did not appeal to his spirit of curiosity and creativity. Helen also credits her cousin, Séan (Potts), with persuading her father to record his acclaimed album, The Liffey Banks.
Las Fallon provides a poignant counterpoint to the musical focus by recounting Tommie’s experience as a fire-fighter with Dublin Corporation. Joining the brigade in 1935, Tommie became a key figure in the catastrophic Pearse Street fire in October, 1936, in which three of his close colleagues died. The dramatic story is underlined in the film by the visual backdrop provided by the Dublin Fire Brigade Training Centre which contains a large quantity of artefacts and memorabilia.
Bob Gallagher’s cinematography contributes to the high production values throughout the film which, in Dara Yeates’ confident hands, combines spectacular musicianship, thoughful insight and dramatic storytelling into a well-crafted exploration of one of traditional music’s most ground-breaking exponents.