Trad/roots: Could fiddler Oisín Mac Diarmada be the Simon Cowell of Irish music?

New ways-old ways, Sligo-Clare, classical-trad, with Téada or not – fiddler Oisín Mac Diarmada is a one man melting pot of styles and influences

Oisín Mac Diarmada – we learn a lot of traditional music informally
Robert McMillen

ONE thing that might surprise people is that fiddle player Oisín Mac Diarmada, long associated with Sligo, actually began his musical education in Co Clare, growing up in Crusheen, about six miles north of Ennis.

I ask him if, as it seems, Clare people and blow-ins to the county become musicians due to osmosis, if they just breathe in something magical in the air that turns them into players of fiddles, concertinas, uilleann pipes etc. Of course, Oisín laughs.

“Well, it started for me when I was five and my mother took me to fiddle classes in Crusheen,” he explains. “I never looked at it as a chore and I like the mixture of learning and playing and there were some great concerts going on in Clare during those years which my parents took me to.

“I was also introduced to the Willie Clancy Summer School at an early age and I loved the wealth of music and song and that was always very enjoyable to me.”

Before he knew it, Oisín was winning fiddle solo and duet titles as the All-Ireland Junior Champion at the Fleadh Cheoil of 1988. In 1989, the family moved to Co Sligo where Oisín attended the music school in Ballymote and started studying classical piano when he was 14 and later played with the Innisfree Céilí Band.

So there was a musical mélange going on there, with three competing styles. I ask Oisín if it was difficult mixing classical with trad?

“Well, they certainly are different worlds,” he says. “We learn a lot of traditional music informally so you are soaking it in through other people and through other people's music at sessions and so on.

“Classical music, on the other hand, is a completely different musical language and it imposes a real discipline. I learned to read music on my first day while reading music and reproducing the notation isn't something we're used to in traditional music. We're used to putting our own shape on it,” says Oisín.

Obviously, there were things he learned from classical music and even from playing with the Innisfree Ceilí Band.

“As a listener, I am very much attracted to melody and harmony but ceilí bands really reminded me of the power of rhythm and it's wonderful when it works.

The third element of Oisín's musical evolution was not only the geographical move from Clare to Sligo but also from one style of fiddle playing to another. But with the (greatly exaggerated) death of traditional styles, was it really a big deal?

“Well, yes it was,” said Oisín. “I probably wasn't even conscious of a Clare or a Sligo style of fiddle playing but the flute was beginning to win ascendancy in Clare when I moved there in 1989.

“When the flute has such a prominence that really shapes the phrasing, the speed, even the versions of tunes that are being played and, to be honest, I think I missed some of that expresiveness that I enjoyed in Clare.”

While he admits to not having listened to céilí bands or even traditional music groups very much – he was more of a solo or duet artist – Oisín is probably best known as a member of Téada which he and a bunch of friends including bouzouki/guitar player Seán Mc Elwain and bodhrán player Tristan Rosenstock formed in 2001.

They were described as being “at the cutting edge of the next generation of Irish musicians [but]… with a fierce familiarity with the old ways”.

But playing in a band and being a professional musician was something that Oisín had genuinely never thought about.

“I was never one of those youngsters who always dreamed of being in a band or playing music professionally,” he says. “I'm being totally honest when I say that that was never on my radar at all and I couldn't be cured of that. I often wonder why that was and I think that maybe it was because of the fact that most of the musicians that I encountered in my life were people who were working at other jobs. They weren't full-time professional musicians but of course, I knew that that world existed, it wasn't really in my sights.

“However, because I was playing with so many people of my own age and the social side of things, the fun of spending a lot of your free time at festivals, that can gear you towards forming a band and that is what happened to me."

Prior to my chat with Oisín I relistened to Téada's last last album, 2013's In Spite of the Storm, and was blown away by it – again.

The big difference between the early band and the current line-up comes in the form of a big man with a sweet voice from Kerry, box player Séamus Begley.

The great news is that Téada are already working on a new album that will be coming out sometime near the end of this year. However, Oisín Mac Diarmada is more than a musician. He is also director of SCT (Scrúdu Ceol Tíre) Traditional Irish Music Examinations.

“The exams came about around 20 years ago when the Royal Irish Academy of Music teamed up with Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann to put together exams similar to those which were already in place for classical music,” says Oisín who adjudicates all over the world.

He laughs when I suggest he is the Simon Cowell of the trad world.

Oisín's latest project, along with Tristan Rosenstock, is Trad Ireland/Traid Éireann, an initiative with three main objects, the first of which is up and running.

“The first thing we are doing is setting up a research project into opportunities and challenged faced by traditional musicians in the professional and semi-professional spheres on the island of Ireland. In essence, we are hoping to get some detailed figures and recommendations as to what is really happening out there in the field,” explains Oisín.

“What has been interesting in my lifetime is that the traditional scene has become very complex and very interesting inside the country and also abroad. Things have evolved, so I think it's time to really look at what is happening out there.

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