Trad/Roots: Michael Sands brings Irish music to book in Tadhg And The Pockel
Is there anything sexier than a girl playing trad? These and other great philosophical questions of our time are posed – and answered – in Co Down musician and writer Michael Sands's new book, Tadhg And The Pockel
AIRPORTS. It wasn’t the answer I was expecting when I asked Michael Sands what he remembered most about growing up with a father who was part of the globe-trotting Sands Family folk group.
“Yeah, One of the outcomes of it in a peculiar way is that I love airports,” he tells me over a cup of coffee in the Bia restaurant in the Cultúrlann on the Falls Road, home to trad music, Saturdays, at lunchtime.
“We started off living in Lurgan and then moved Newry, but from about seven or so, we would have driven up to Dublin airport to pick up or to leave off musicians and that was always a great adventure.
“Practically, in the house, there were always instruments laying about and you’d rattled your fingers through a guitar or a mandolin in Dad’s case but on top of that, as a family, we would have been very close so we rehearsed a lot and then we would meet up with cousins and so on who would have had similar experiences so there was an extra-special closeness that that shared activity brings you.”
Of course, there was also a downside in the life of a professional musician, and Michael remembers the periods of absence when his father and then his mother would be away playing anywhere across the globe and this meant staying with grannies and grandas and aunties and uncles but the silver lining on that particular cloud was that this provided the opportunity to get to know the extended family a bit better.
It is unsurprising then that Michael would have picked up communication skills, mainly from the Sands family, and that is reflected in how he plays music.
“Our job is to make the distance between the audience and the stage disappear,” he explains. “It goes back to ceili house culture and when I am on stage, I try to make everybody part of the occasion.
“My da or Tommy always said your job at the start is to make people relax because then they will go with you. The trick of it is to make your introductions just long enough so you can then release the story through the song.”
Good advice there for anyone starting off on a musical career.
Michael is now a regular on the north Antrim trad scene where he and his wife Catherine run a bilingual B&B called Teach an Cheoil in Ballyvoy near Ballycastle. He also teaches guitar, banjo and the Irish language but this love of communication also shines through in works of literature.
He has written a Celtic fantasy story for children, Nut Hollow, the Knife and Nefairious, and two collections of poetry entitled Away with Words and A Moment’s Notice.
No matter what he does, it is all about engagment so, about his very first book Michael admits he didn’t know how to do readings, so when one came up, he asked the audience of young and old, to close their eyes as he read from his fanatatical novel.
“It was magical,” he recalls. “Some of the parents came up and said the last time they had been read to was when they were seven or eight. With their eyes closed, they were in the best place to receive the story.
“When you do readings, you open up your inner Sean Connery,” he says.
However, Michael’s latest work is a different kettle of fish from his previous works although one that combines the Co Down man's two passions, music and writing.
Tadhg and the Pockel is an honest look at a world he knows well and hence there is language in the book that would make a sailor blush.
Many Irish have an odd relationship to certain swear-words which one can accept as a term of endearment or a reason to commit GBH.
It's hard to know into which category the word Pockel falls, an insult or a bon mot. The book gives a definition early on.
“A pockel (noun): ”A b***ox! A f***in’ eejit. A dose and pollution and yet... strangely likeable.”
Tadhg of the title is a mixture of Michael himself and sidekick AN Other with whom he would play in the Stray Leaf folk club in Mullaghbawn in south Armagh and in other great veneus.
But Michael was also greatly influenced by the Belfast Brigade, musicians who would have played in Madden’s or the Rotterdam, the Hercules, Kelly’s Cellars in the mid-1990s.
"For me, coming up from Newry with this great love for the guitar and having had little exposure to trad of this strength and quality, it was like the end of the rainbow for me,” he recalls.
It's from that boozy, sarcastic, hierarchical yet democratic milieu that Tadhg and the Pockel emerges complete with sacerdotal impropriety. When I was writing the book, I wanted it to be as close the truth as possible about the world of folk and trad and sessions and all that.
“I really wanted to portray the fun of it, the atmosphere, the chaotic nature of it all," says Michael and some of us will recognise the otherworldliness of a session that hits peak trad as described in the book.
"Like birds on the wing each of the musicians took off into their playing at a slightly different moment until the flock was circling and swooping among the pint glasses which soaked in the power of it. Indeed many began to vibrate toward the edge of their tables such was the foot tapping ferocity. It was as if the eternal energy of the very sea itself had somehow been channelled into the bar. Hands shot out just in time to prevent carnage.”
?Great philosophical questions are posed and answered too, such as “Is there anything sexier than a girl playin’ trad?”
The book mixes real musicians known to many of us and venues such as the Garrick Bar in Belfast or The House of McDonnell Bar in Ballycastle and many others where gigs and reels are welcomed, all wrapped up in a storyline that will have you in stitches, whether you are into trad or whether you think it is just the same tune played over and over again.