It is natural to turn to Turlough O'Carolan the still inspirational down the generations blind 17th-18th century harpist revived by Seán Ó Riada and the Ceoltóirí Chualann in the 1960s and to Ireland's national poet W. B. Yeats when the harp is played so inspiringly as here on the opening night of the Samuel Beckett festival Happy Days held in the place that the great writer went to school from 1919-23, the wooden hall named after a head master of the school to generations known as Portora, William Steele.
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?
Beckett updated the dictum not at all absurdly but somewhat tragically via Lucky's dance and speech in Waiting for Godot - to some the true hero of Beckett's greatest play.
We in the collective throng gathered to welcome back the festival after an absence of three years were exceptionally lucky hearing the former Hothouse Flowers 'Don't Go' icon singer-songwriter, pianist, flautist, harpist, percussionist and more the deeply soulful Liam Ó Maonlaí playing his first gig in Enniskillen since 1993.
Hirsute, barefooted, he appeared with a similarly shoeless dancer who was best during the whirling dervish sufi passages when Ó Maonlaí accompanied her playing harp under Oscar Wilde’s name in the school 19th century scholars list just visible later during the performance when the lights were that bit brighter lifting the murk of an empty sepulchral stage.
All you could see before the duo came on stage included an upright piano, Celtic harp, mikes and a seat. The contra flute by the look of it you could not really see but you could certainly hear it when the set went free which it deliciously did.
It was by local standards a warm night, overcast, the quietly lapping waters of the river Erne where Beckett once swam some few hundred metres below benign. The water is the living spirit of all that happens here. That hasn't changed since the great miserabilist's day.
Telling us about the spiritual 'Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child' and how he opened the performance Ó Maonlaí, now in his late fifties, referenced ''Van the Man'' and glossed the spiritual as ''a version of African gospel slave survivors''. He also spoke of how much a privilege it was to be with the audience spending time in the town beforehand.
The set included wonderful Sean-nós (beautiful traditional Irish language unaccompanied song - often characterised by love lorn heartbreak) and long instrumental sections that went free into discernible African kora-like asides.
Ó Maonlaí's extraordinary voice had huge flexibility and seemed to have infinite resource whether heartfelt intimacy was conjured when singing tenderly about his daughter and his baby son or when reaching deep into the heritage of centuries old Irish traditional music say from the Gaeltacht of Connemara.
'Worry Not' had the audience singing along early on while the Tinariwen-esque Malian resource that the singer conjured especially during the dance was epic. Perhaps the hits were introduced too early for some. But they could not at all have followed the freer section. The audience also warmed to Ó Maonlaí's wonderful version of the Johnny Nash 1972 classic 'I Can See Clearly Now.' The festival is off to a fine start on a night that thrived on a spirit that sought and found a winning sense of the transcendental. SG
Liam Ó Maonlaí, top. Under the sign of dear Oscar - at Happy Days. The festival continues until Monday. More at Arts Over Borders
Tags: gig reviews