It’s a truly wonderful thing when two of your passions meet in the middle. In this case it was Irish traditional music and photography.
A couple weekends ago I had the pleasure of spending some time with the Mac Gabhann’s (pronounced “MacGowan”) as they visited Phoenix. I’ve visited and shared tunes with Antóin Mac Gabhann twice before; first in Arizona, and again in Ireland. I’ve found him to be one of the kindest, most encouraging people I’ve met. In addition to sharing music, he took my wife and I for a tour around Folk Park when we were in Clare and I was deeply impressed with his wealth of knowledge about his country (and his generosity of spirit to give up his afternoon to do touristy stuff with a couple of yanks!). Antóin is a master musician and one of very few to win the Senior All-Ireland title at the Fleadh two times in a row (1972). However, the man is so humble and genuine you’d never know about his accomplishments unless someone else mentions them.
After a lovely evening of Irish music and dance at the Connor residence I got the courage to ask if I could come back the next day and take some photographs of Antóin and his wife, Bernie before they left town. I mentioned in a previous blog post that I’m only driven to make a portrait of someone when I see something special about them. When I look at Antóin and Bernie I see something quite special indeed. Antóin, as I already mentioned, is amazingly talented, kind, humble and generous. Bernie is a fireball of spirit and positive energy. She refers to Antóin’s fiddle as his “first wife,” and says, “this one (the fiddle) has no cleavage but she’s got the curves!” She fueled the photo shoot with her wit and laughter. When Antóin is playing music his expression is quite focused (as in the picture above). But when Bernie says, “Oh, Tony, you’ve got her flyin’ now!” as he launches into a set of reels, his expression turns into an ear-to-ear grin. Shortly after that she suggested to me and my camera, “make sure you’re getting those eyebrows in there!”
After we wrapped up the photo shoot Antóin disappeared to the back of the house momentarily, and returned to place one of Tom’s whistles on the table in front of me. “Let’s have a tune, then,” he said. So we played. I’m typically a nervous wreck when I play in front of people, especially people who I know are ten times the musician I’ll ever be. I tend to get down on myself about the music now and then, feeling as though I’m not good enough. I’ve been especially neglectful of practice in the last couple of years being a new father and all, which takes it’s toll on my confidence when I do get the opportunity to play. But Antóin’s gentle demeanor and passion for the music put me right at ease. It was a delightful moment of release from insecurity and fear. The music just flowed. It didn’t matter how rusty my technique was, or whether I was struggling to remember the tunes. In that moment it was just two people, connected by a common passion, and that was all that mattered in the world.
Prior to this wonderful weekend I had just come out of a couple of really rough weeks and was a bit down in the dumps. Spending an evening (and, subsequently, the next morning) with Antóin and Bernie–plus their hosts, and my good friends, Tom and Mary–was just the breath of fresh air I needed to cleanse the palette. I went to work the following day a new man, spirits up and smiling with Irish tunes running through my mind. I am very grateful to have found Irish music, and for all of the joy it has brought into my life; especially for the wonderful people I am fortunate enough to meet who I might not have otherwise crossed paths with. I don’t believe in putting people on pedestals. I do, however, believe in celebrating people like Antóin and Bernie who give so much to enrich the lives of those around them. I hope these photographs are able to do that.