We are going into town to pick up a veg for dinner. It is the Thursday before the four-day Feile Na Bealtaine, the town’s arts and culture festival. We had read that a painter whose work we have admired for years would be opening his studio for the festival and Sara suggested we stop by to see if he was around. The studio is dark.
She knocks on the door. “There are no lights on,” I offer.
“I thought I saw someone,” she persists. She knocks again.
“It’s obvious he’s not here. We’ll stop back tomorrow. Let’s just get the veg,” I protest. Of course, she knocks a third time.
The door opens and a tall man with a mischievous glint in his eye invites us in. “I was just putting the kettle on before I hang the pictures,” he says. “I thought it might be Marion, from next door, but you’re welcome to come in.” We walk into the renovated fisherman’s cottage now serving as an artist’s studio, overwhelmed by the smell of oil paint and surrounded by an explosion of color. His paintings are almost three dimensional, textured with a palette knife, drawing you deep into the scene. We succumb.
And that’s how we ended up buying a Liam O’Neill painting, called Lobstermen Cuas, and squandering a chunk of our children’s inheritance.
Suddenly, we are chatting away with a renowned painter who is represented in collections worldwide, as he explains his paintings to us. Soon his lovely wife walks in and the conversation doubles. Liam is a former schoolteacher who taught special needs children in Dublin for thirty years while painting and earning critical acclaim in his free time. After retirement, he returned to the special light of the Dingle Peninsula to paint full time. Our painting is from a place not far from our house, the dark cliffs near Brandon Creek, where Liam used to fish with his cousins. As we look into the center of the painting, almost feeling the tug of the waves, Liam observes, “If I do say so myself, I’m getting better.”
Amazingly Liam is a self-taught artist. I ask him about that and he tells me a story about his first exhibition in Dublin forty years ago. A famous Professor of Sculpture from a prestigious Irish art school came to the show. Liam nervously asked the Professor, “Do you think I could get into the school?” The esteemed expert said to him, “Don’t you dare. They’ll knock it right out of you.”
“Will you be coming to the Cormac Begley concert on Monday?” he asks. “His father is a childhood chum and I’ll be giving a little speech to kick it off.”
“We’ll be there,” we promise, before strolling off to get the veg.
It was broccoli, as I recall. Broccoli and a painting, not a bad trip to town.
Three days later we crowd into the St. James Church; it’s Irish Protestant, so no genuflection is required. Cormac Begley is the finest concertina player in the world. I can make that claim with some certainty because I know of no other concertina players.
Liam walks to the stage to get the program started. His “speech” is a prose poem that explores the importance of place to Irish music, art, and literature. He almost sings the words, alternating between Irish and English, describing the sound of the wind on the cliffs as the lobstermen pull their pots, or the crash of the surf on the strand as the naomhog (pronounced nay-vogue, a lightweight boat made of skins pulled over a wooden frame) nears the shore, and how those sounds become the music we are about to hear. He quotes The Given Note by Seamus Heaney, a poem about a fiddler who receives a mysterious tune called The Fairies Lament (or Port na bPucai in Irish), from the wind.
He got this air out of the night…
So whether he calls it spirit music
Or not, I don’t care. He took it
Out of wind off mid-Atlantic.
And then Cormac Begley walks out. He is a large man in his thirties, with wild red hair and a wilder beard. I must make a small confession here – we are in a church, after all – but I have never been to a concertina concert before. I have heard them as part of an ensemble – a fiddle, guitar, bodhran, or tin whistle, perhaps – but never as a solo instrument. But when Cormac plays it is mesmerizing.
Cormac explains that the concertina is actually a reed instrument similar to the harmonica and accordion. And there is more than one type: There are English and Anglo and German concertinas; baritone and bass and treble and piccolo concertinas. He has them all and in his hands they become magical.
He plays airs and laments, reels and hornpipes, switching instruments between each piece. We can hear the wind on the cliffs and the waves on the shore. His father, Brendan, with long white hair and beard, comes to the stage to sing a Sean-nos ballad with the mournful single-note drone of Cormac’s bass concertina in the background. Uncle Tommy hauls his accordion up to play a duet with Cormac, who jokes, “the accordion is much easier to play.” His mother, he says, “is a wicked bodhran player, but too shy to come up here.” Oh to be in the Begley kitchen on a cold winter night.
Picking up his piccolo concertina, he explains, “the last two notes are so high they can’t be heard, but I play them anyway.” And he proceeds to play a reel that disappears into the air, the only sound the tapping of his foot keeping time.
We clap and cheer and call for encores. It is fabulous.
We leave St. James, grateful that the choir loft above us had not collapsed from the stomping of feet, and head home to sit in front of Lobstermen Cuas and listen to the wind.