Trad: Dónal and Feilimí O'Connor on new TV show Sruth showcasing new Irish and Scottish musical talent alongside old favourites

Robert McMillen chats to musicians and film-makers Dónal and Feilimí O'Connor about their new four-part traditional music series Sruth

Armagh fiddler Méabh Smyth is just one of the performers featured on Sruth
Robert McMillen

SRUTH is a stream, a current or a flow and it beautifully describes the centuries-old movement of people, language and culture across the Straits of Moyle, the shortest distance between Ireland and Scotland.

That musical flow is stunningly captured in Sruth, a new four-part series being broadcast on TG4 and BBC Alba this month in which the finest young traditional musicians from the north of Ireland and Scotland get the chance to show their prodigious talents while getting to play with some of trad's more established A-listers.

Behind the series are the well-known Co Louth musicians and film-makers, Dónal and Feilimí O'Connor. The brothers last year set up their own media company, Tain Media, as Dónal explained to me last week.

"Feilimí and I have produced and directed over 150 hours of television for TG4 and other broadcasters so before the lockdown we decided to get together to form our own company to focus on the arts and specifically on traditional music," he explained.

Given the fact that the O'Connor boys are part of a long heritage of music playing going back generations – they are the sons of fiddler Gerry O'Connor and the late singer Eithne Ní Uallacháin – they are in a perfect position to call on A-list friends to mentor the cream of the new talent that is springing up as quickly as the snowdrops at this time of year.

"We are a traditional music community and that is something that you feel very strongly when you grew up. You have access to the elders, there is a support group that ensures that the tradition is passed on and continues. There is very little exclusivity in traditional music," says Dónal.

This writer once heard the legendary piper Paddy Keenan complain about a very young Jarlath Henderson, asking the promoter "Why did you put him on before me? He's better than I am!"

Whether serious or in jest, many would say that the new generation of traditional musicians arguably have greater technique and aural sense than their predecessors.

Dónal O'Connor certainly agrees.

"I think that, since the great upsurge of the 1970s, a lot of energy has gone into tuition and we are now seeing the fruits of that with huge numbers of young people learning in all parts of these islands," he says.

"Their skill levels far outshine anything I have ever seen over the past 20 years. The challenge for those young people now is to build up their experience and to live their lives through music so they can find a way of expressing their own journeys and their own emotions through the music."

It is the journey of eight of these young musicians and singers that Sruth follows.

Narrated by singer Máighréad Ní Dhomnaill of Skara Brae fame, we get to meet the young traditional musicians who are at the heart of the great flowering in folk and trad both countries have seen over the past two decades.

Julie Fowlis

Sruth shows that traditional music is thriving as much amongst the side-streets of Belfast and the housing estates of Glasgow as it is under the shadow of Mount Errigal or on the Isle of Skye. The series also shows the importance of the family in the nurturing of the musical talent and the communities that helps it flourish.

The series starts off with the wonderful Armagh fiddler Méabh Smith (fiddle) whose parents, Thomas and Rosie, are also talented fiddlers, while Scotland is represented by guitarist Innes White, whose mother and aunts – Eilidh, Gillian and Fiona – formed The MacKenzie Sisters.

People may talk about the "sea-divided Gaels" but it is music that brings them together.

As Scottish fiddler, Duncan Chisholm says in the first programme: "The music we play represents where we're from, who we are and that connection between the north of Ireland and Scotland is very clear in the music."

Sruth strongly recreates the passion the eight young people have for their chosen instruments and they are as eloquent talking about their music – in Irish, Scottish Gaelic and English -– as they are at playing it.

Filmed in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Belfast, Donegal and elsewhere, the series was of course a daunting prospect under coronavirus restrictions, but while the young musicians and their mentors might have been socially distanced, the music they created an intimate bridge between them.

Megan Nic Fhonnghaile and Phil Cunningham

However, as Dónal O'Connor points out, traditional music is essentially the art of solo performance and at the four programmes gives us the chance to experience the magic they can produce.

"The effect a great traditional performance can have on both musician and listener is immeasurable. A great solo performance can grace a moment of joy, it can amplify a moment of sorrow," he says of the series, which features performances that will take your breath away.

Captured by Feilimí O'Connor, viewers will be spellbound by the beauty and grandeur the landscapes from which much of the music draws its inspiration – traditional music is also a vital part of the Irish and Scottish artistic landscapes.

Amongst those featured is Brìghde Chambeul, a Scottish piper who lives in Belfast and plays in the local uilleann piping world.

"For me, one of the highlights was seeing Pádruig Morrison, an accordionist and composer from Uist in the Outer Hebrides, join up with Donegal fiddle player Bríd Harper," says Feilimí, a fine singer and guitarist himself.

"It was fascinating to watch young Pádruig step into the ring with a trad heavyweight such as Bríd and matching her note for note. Brid was also inspired into greater heights by the experience too," he adds.

Sruth is a definitive series about traditional music in the here and now, its debt to the past masters, known and unknown, and to the bright future flowing ahead of it. The good news is that Sruth is being launched online tomorrow night at 8.30pm with a not-to-be-missed concert featuring many of the musicians playing in the series. They include Julie Fowlis, Phil Cunningham, Ríoghanach Connolly, Niall Hanna, Brìghde Chambeul, Bríd Harper, Méabh Smith, Ali Lavack and Niall Valley.

The launch can be seen on TG4's Facebook, YouTube and Instagram pages, on BBC Alba as well as via Tourism Ireland and Celtic Connections. The first programme featuring Méabh Smith and Innes White airs on TG4 on Sunday night at 9.30pm.

Taking part in the series will be:

Feb 21: Méabh Smith (fiddle) and Innes White (guitar)

Feb 28: Megan Nic Fhonnghaile (fiddle) and Padruig Morrison (accordion, composer)

March 7: Niall Hanna (singer) Brìghde Chambeul (pipes)

March 14: Lauren O'Neill (harp) and Ali Levack (pipes and whistles)

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