Trad/roots: Barry Kerr takes his four masters music and paintings to Cultúrlann

An exhibition of paintings by Lurgan-born musician, singer, songwriter and acclaimed artist Barry Kerr opens in Belfast next week. He draws on a rich source of tradition from around Lough Neagh for his inspiration

Musician, singer, songwriter and artist Barry Kerr, from Lurgan, spent a lot of time soaking up the lore of Lough Neagh in his youth
Robert McMillen

WHEN the good Lord created mankind, it must have been part of his great design to locate Barry Kerr near the shores of Lough Neagh. It was fertile ground for the young man from Lurgan to hone his artistic and musical talents while enjoying the open air lifestyle he celebrates in song and on canvas.

“I’m originally from Lurgan but I spent a lot of time around the loughshore," he recalls over the phone. "My mother’s family is from Castle Bay and I do think I’m very lucky to have grown up in such a beautiful part of the world and to go out into the lough fishing, shooting duck and so on.

“When I was young I would also have gone to horse fairs like the one at Ballinasloe which goes back to the back to the 18th century so I loved all the excitement and hustle and bustle of rural Irish life."

Barry has always been at one with not only the tangible physical land where he grew up but, like Seamus Heaney, he was part and parcel of the human landscape, the people of the area, their real life histories and their stories and music. The ethereal and the earthly.

These were people who knew what social cohesion was all about before sociologists gave us the term and Barry remembers listening avidly to the stories his elders would tell him as a child.

“I alway loved listening to stories from my granda and from the local fishermen and from some of the older ones who lived around home and I was always very aware of what was unique to where I lived,” he says.

“Where my mother’s family are from, everyone who lives there are kind of related to you and you always have these tales about generations past and those stories always seemed as if they were about yesterday and not set way back in the past so I was always very aware of what went before and that has always been in my mind when it comes to Irish music,” says Barry.

Long-dead fiddlers like Michael Coleman are talked about as if they were still around, and traditional musicians would always say where they got a tune or a song as a sign of respect for their predecessors or contemporaries.

Barry started playing music when he was 12 and is accomplished in the flute (Seamus Tansey would call to Barry’s house three or four times a week to teach him!), the uilleann pipes, whistle and guitar (although I’ve probably left many other instruments out).

His songs have been championed by Karan Casey, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Pauline Scanlon and others whether they are reflecting the strong sense of place Barry has or his more political output about the state of the environment or the plight of refugees. Perhaps for someone who is so grounded in his native soil, the idea of being uprooted is something he feels very strongly about.

When he was 16, Barry took up painting; he is fast becoming an important figure in contemporary Irish art, exhibiting at home and abroad to critical acclaim. Next up is his his new exhibition Ceathair, the Irish word for four, opening at Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich in Belfast next Thursday, where Barry mixes his music and his art.

It promises to be an unforgettable evening as it will be followed by a concert featuring Barry, Donal O'Connor, Seamus Begley and Síle Denvir.

The 16 paintings are inspired by the work, emotions and experiences of four musical and poetic masters, each from one of the four provinces, to bring us on a powerful journey into the essence of their music, poetry and song.

Barry has chosen people who are deeply rooted in the traditions of their respective areas and he uses their songs, tunes and poetry to conjure up images for him to paint.

Seamus Begley has an almost mythical status in Irish music, coming from a musical dynasty of Gaelic west Kerry, a sweet-voiced singer with a roguish sense of humour whose accordion has the ability to raise the rafters in the sturdiest of buildings! For Seamus, Barry has chosen his lovely song Bruach na Carraige Báine among others to tap into. He also takes on the idea of tunes being got from the fairies, a common theme in traditional music.

Seamus Ennis was one of Ireland’s greatest pipers and tune collectors, recording all over the country. He was also a master storyteller.

Caitlín Maude, died at the tragically early age of 41 and was a world-class poet, singer and songwriter as well as a champion of her native Connemara and of the Irish language.

At the concert, Síle Denvir, who has done a research project on Caitlín, will sing some of her songs.

Ulster will be represented by Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh of Altan, a heroine of the Donegal fiddle style as well as someone who breathes life into the Ulster song tradition.

The work of these four masters has been interpreted by Barry to include themes such as the connection to land, place and the sea; how music, song and language passed down through the generations and representations of the otherworld in traditional Irish music.

:: Ceathair, an art exhibition and concert, is being launched in Cultúrlann McAdam Ó Fiaich next Thursday, 3 August.

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