Trad/roots: The breathtaking sounds of West Ocean String Quartet's Atlantic Edge

The West Ocean String Quartet has been merging the worlds of classical and traditional music into a unique sound that has won worldwide acclaim – and it is led by a Belfast man, Neil Martin

Neil Martin, second from right, with fellow members of the West Ocean String Quartet Seamus Maguire, Niamh Crowley and Kenneth Rice. Picture by Maurice Gunning
Robert McMillen

ON A visit to a holiday resort in the summer of 1904 the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók overheard a young nanny, Lidi Dósa from Kibéd in Transylvania, sing folk songs to the children in her care. This sparked his lifelong dedication to folk music.

The young Bartók joined up with another composer, Zoltan Kodaly, and the pair travelled around Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia, recording local songs and tunes which Bartók later used in much of his chamber and symphonic music.

He, of course was not the only classical composer to use folk music in his work. Franz Listz used the music of Romani ensembles in his hugely popular Hungarian Rhapsodies while Chopin composed over 60 mazurkas, music for the traditional Polish dance.

There were many others and the idea of a marriage between classical and indigenous music is not unknown in Ireland – think primarily of Seán Ó Riada, but the West Ocean String Quartet, led by Belfast man Neil Martin, has been merging the classical and traditional worlds into a unique sound that has won worldwide acclaim.

Celebrating 21 years together this year, the quartet, which also features Seamus Maguire, Niamh Crowley and Kenneth Rice, has released a new album, Atlantic Edge, which takes what we consider traditional music out of its natural environment, creating for it an entirely new comfort zone.

“I think any traditional music, any indigenous music, if it doesn’t try new things, if it doesn’t go down various avenues, it runs the great risk of becoming stale and stagnant,” says Neil.

“A lot of things are tried in Irish traditional music that don’t work but that’s fine. The main river is travelling all the time and sometimes the tributaries work and sometimes they don’t.

“For me the connection of traditional music and classical most certainly works because the streams have been travelling together for a long time. For instance I remember a talk that I attended when I was a teenager where the late Micheal Ó Súilleabháin spoke about the connection between baroque music and the music of O’Carolan so I don’t see Irish trad and classical in any way as strange bedfellows,” he says.

Indeed, the four members of the West Ocean String quartet personify that intermingling of styles that make up a kind of beautiful musical quilt.

As well as Neil Martin, known to many as a composer, uilleann piper, cellist, TV presenter and much more, there is Seamus Maguire, who although best known as a traditional fiddler, trained in classical music when he was younger.

“There is a very distinctive colour to Seamus’s playing,” explains Neil. “He has a very gentle, very musical sense of performance, very much influenced by the Sligo style."

There is also a Sligo connection with Niamh Crowley, who is from Rosses Point in Co Sligo. Niamh is a violinist from the classical tradition but she works in all musical genres, as Neil explains.

“Niamh played with Barry Douglas in Camerata Ireland for many years and she has performed with major orchestras as well as doing studio and session work so her experience is very broad.

“When she was young, her parents used to take her to music classes, all the way from Rosses Point to Dublin and back again. That shows you the kind of commitment Niamh and her parents had to her music.

“Later she set up the Sligo Academy of Music which meets at Summerhill College in Sligo so parents and budding musicians don’t have to make the same arduous journey.”

Kenneth Rice, on the viola, also has a mountain of experience in different genres, from jazz to tango.

“Ken brings a lot of different colour to the Quartet,” says Neil. “I once heard Ken play with Nigel Kennedy and the Irish Chamber Orchestra and Ken and Nigel shared a jazz solo piece and Ken was WAY better than Kennedy. He had a much deeper understanding of jazz. At this time he also had a Tango Quartet on the go so he brings a lot of different colours to the work we do.”

With such a variety of musical talents and influences how does the West Ocean String Quartet come together to create a unified sound?

With Neil Martin as the arranger of the 11 tracks on Atlantic Edge and composer of two, he will highlight the individual talents of each member of the quartet depending on the piece of music.

The idea for the new album came after a number of ideas were put into the mix. One was for an album with people with whom the quartet had worked before – Christy Moore, Stephen Rea, Maighréad Ní Dhomhnaill, Matt Molloy, Brian Kennedy and Cathal Ó Searcaigh, among others – but when the idea of featuring music solely from the west coast of Ireland, from Donegal to Limerick, came the ideas started bubbling up in Neil’s head.

The results are at times breathtaking but you need only to listen to the first track, Iníon a’ Bhaoilligh/The March of the Mín an Toiteáin Bull to discover that.

The first piece is a song that Neil learned from the singing of Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh who got it from Annie Eoghain Éamonn from Dobhar Láir in north-west Donegal.

If she were still alive, Annie would no doubt have been spellbound at how a traditional song can be remoulded into a work of art, not better but different and equally inspiring.

There are a couple of others spirits gliding through the album – Liam O'Flynn and Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin.

Neil composed The Boy in the Glen for Liam, a colleague and friend of over 30 years, and Slán le Maigh which included as in memory of Mícheál.

Another feature of the album is the quality of the liner notes. To each tune, it’s story, whether it is about unrequited love, or being chased by a bull, 17th century battles or 18th century poets. The repertoire on the album is full of characters, the people who had tunes named after them, the composers, the players who kept the tunes alive, all in an ever-changing musical continuum.

Add to the mix, you have Martin, Crowley, Rice and Maguire – the wonderful West Ocean String Quartet.

Atlantic Edge is available at

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