Earle Hitchner

The Wallstreet Journal & The Irish Echo

In 1990, I asked 25 Irish traditional musicians and music critics in Ireland and America to select the top ten trad albums of the 1980s. The only stipulation was that they could not vote for their own albums. My own vote counted no more than theirs.

By a wide margin, Noel Hill and Tony MacMahon's "I gNoc na Grai" ("In Knocknagree") finished as the top Irish traditional album of the decade. There was very stiff competition from Frankie Gavin and Paul Brock's "Omos do Joe Cooley," Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and Frankie Kennedy's "Ceol Aduaidh," and Matt Molloy and Sean Keane's "Contentment Is Wealth," among other outright classics from the decade.

"I gNoc na Grai" offered a then-unusual combination of attractions: brilliant concertina and button accordion playing by County Clare's Hill and MacMahon, respectively, recorded live in Dan Connell's pub in Knocknagree, County Cork, and played for set dancers hitting the timber floor with gusto as great as the music. The album was a welcome reminder that jigs, reels, and hornpipes are dance music originally intended for dancing, that some of the best trad music is played in a pub, and that live playing in this setting can reach a zenith few studio recordings are able to match. (Note: "Noel Hill and Tony Linnane" was a magnificent studio recording essentially cut live in the studio during late fall 1978, according to Hill in an interview I did with him on my old radio show.)

"I gNoc na Grai" also served as a reminder that MacMahon is one of Ireland's greatest button accordion players. Critics more interested in controversy than art often dwell on his outspokenness (taking swipes at Micheal O Suilleabhain's "A River of Sound" TV series in 1995 and an absent Alec Finn in Frankie Gavin's new De Dannan lineup in 2009) instead of the utter mastery of his playing. I heard MacMahon perform last January at the Irish Arts Center, and he is still a peak accordionist.

How do you come close to "I gNoc na Grai" if you're a young concertina and button accordion duo today? To their credit, Ballindine, Mayo, concertinist Holly Geraghty and Brosna, Kerry, button accordionist Jonathan Roche seem unfazed by the prospect of comparison.

Since 2001, the two have played together simply because they enjoy it, and out of that most natural of musical affinities comes "Ceolmhar," a self-issued recording whose title reflects the spirit of their playing: tuneful. An All-Ireland senior champion on concertina (2002) and harp (2001), Geraghty forges a never-forced, ever-tuneful partnership with Roche, who won All-Ireland titles twice on melodeon and a Munster championship on the two-row accordion. Training breeds skill that breeds confidence, and this talented tandem has all three in abundance. Their music gives the impression of being easy, which is the hardest of all effects to convey, and every one of the 14 tracks on this CD showcases the pleasure each has in playing.

Eight of the tunes were written by Geraghty, who reveals signs of becoming a composer of lasting impact.

Her "Planxty Dermot Grogan" is dedicated to the flute and accordion player from Derrytavrane, Mayo, who died far too soon in 2006 at age 48. It's a lovely melody played hauntingly by Geraghty on harp and backed ably by Roche on accordion and guests Matt Griffin on guitar, Aisling Fitzpatrick on cello, Geraldine O'Callaghan on fiddle, and Dave Duffy on double bass.

Geraghty's reel "Dalgan Lebians," named after small fish in Mayo's Dalgan River, is a snug conclusion to a medley that includes "Bill Harte's" and "McKenna's No. 2," featuring her on concertina, Roche on accordion, Griffin on guitar, and Stephen Markham on piano.

The other tunes she composed are "Saskatoon Jig / Cloondrone Fairy Hill / Session in the Spa Wells" and the reels "Anna Liffey's / Johnny Neville's / Fawlty Towers." The latter medley is the album's finest track, brimming with impeccable tempo and taste, the two boxes sparking off each other without ever losing their grip on the melody.

Geraghty also takes an unaccompanied harp solo on the traditional reels "The Leitrim Bucks / The Wind That Shakes the Barley," and its sprightly energy and deft string fingering are reminiscent of the unsurpassed reel playing by Cork harper Maire Ni Chathasaigh. On a pair of marches, Geraghty's harp playing, with Griffin accompanying on guitar, nimbly segues in pacing, and with Griffin and Markham as backup, she tackles "The Bunch of Rushes / The West Cork Reel" with finesse-tempered fire on concertina.

Jonathan Roche acquits himself equally well on the CD. With just Griffin backing him, he plays the jigs "Contentment Is Wealth / Paddy Fahy's" with appealing elan, and with Griffin on guitar and Scartaglin's Emma O'Leary on fiddle, he shows his polka-playing mettle on "Johnny O'Leary's / The Cascade / T. J. Quinn's." Roche also joins Griffin on guitar and Shane Greene on keyboard for a medley of expertly played reels, "For the Sake of old Decency / Steampacket / The Kilfenora Reel."

The pulsing heart of this album, however, is the duet performances by Geraghty and Roche with support from Griffin and Markham. That quartet appears on six tracks, all outstanding.

On "Ceolmhar" Geraghty and Roche represent an infusion of freshness in the traditional scene of Ireland. The mix of original and traditional tunes works exceedingly well. But what distinguishes this CD from many others is the way the two well-educated musicians (both have master's degrees) avoid a studied approach so that their music can unfold organically and gracefully.

Noel Hill and Tony MacMahon's "I gNoc na Grai" is indisputably the summit of concertina and button accordion dueting, but Holly Geraghty and Jonathan Roche's "Ceolmhar" establishes its own lofty foothold on that mountain of reeds.

Siobhan Long

The Irish Times

A cool mix of restraint and easy companionship characterises this solid collection, which features the unlikeliest of duetting instruments: concertina and accordion. Tony MacMahon and Noel Hill forged a heady reputation for this instrument pairing long before Mayo concertina player and harpist Geraghty swapped a tune with Sliabh Luachra accordionist Roche.

Ceolmhar is a fleet-footed collection of original tunes (from Geraghty) sitting cheek by jowl with traditional sets. The trio of reels bookended by the traditional Bill Harte's, and Geraghty's scintillatingly titled Dalgan Lebians, underscores the natural compatibility of old and new. Geraghty's harp tunes are an unexpected joy as well, and linger restfully beside the more structured, reed-driven tunes. Accompaniment on guitar, piano and a handful of other instruments is equally unobtrusive and insightful. Regional accents speaking in surprising unison: an impressive debut.

Niall Keegan

Course Director, MA Irish Traditional Music Performance, Irish World Academy of Music and Dance

There's something seductive about the combination of concertina and accordion. As a duet pairing it shouldn't work, two contrary free reed instruments, the accordion with its loud and brash tones and the concertina's sharp commentary. However, Tony MacMahon and Noel Hill have shown us that, like chili and chocolate, they can sit well together. Holly and Jonathan's recording adds further flavours to this unlikely recipe.

Here we have two young musicians producing an honest and inspirational account of their musicality, moulded by an obvious sense of tradition and place. Both are technically excellent and thankfully we get to hear both play individually. I love Jonathan's jigs in track 7 - here he refuses to be seduced by the chromatic possibilities of box or Fahy's tune. Also Holly's harp tracks add an important dimension to the recording, showing her to be a significant force in the recreation of the harp in mainstream tradition.

The ensemble is precise and impeccable, and I dare anyone to find a discrepancy in the accuracy of the unison playing which, despite this, maintains a feeling of ease and freedom. The clarity of the recording and the philosophy that underlies it is, all of which is excellent, is only accentuated by the accompaniment. In particular, the interplay between Stephen Markham on piano and Matt Griffin on guitar mirrors the close musical relationship of Holly and Jonathan themselves.

The repertoire performed is indicative of the best of their generation, grounded in their local traditions, as in Jonathan's north-Kerry polkas, whilst also providing new takes on popular session fodder, such as Miss McGuinness in track one, and introducing some of Holly's newly composed material. The idea and reality of 'newly composed traditional tunes' is a semantic, musical and philosophical minefield.

Among musicians there is a consensus that new tunes with any true worth will gain immortality within the tradition whilst others, for all their sparkle and dexterous turns, will disappear into the CD-shop bargain bucket. I expect tunes like 'Johnny Neville's' and 'Dalgan Lebians' to live on in sessions for quite a while, although the names might change! However, I have to admit that 'Planxty Dermott Grogan' is one of my favourite tracks, an enviable testament and indicative of the scope these two musicians are capable of.

Ethnomusicologists and popular music scholars like using the term "groove", a term expressed differently in various cultural contexts. No-one can really define it, but we know when it's there. This recording will groove its way into your heart and the wonder of it is you'll never be able to satisfactorily work out why. That's the magic of Ceolmhar.

Nioclas Mac Amlaoib

College Lecturer , BA, MA Drama and Theatre Studies, Institute of Technology, Tralee.

One of the first duets recorded in the early years of the twentieth century was the duet recorded in Chicago by Mayo Piper Edward Mullaney and North Kerry Fiddler Patrick Stack. The music they played represented the purest old time traditional music of that era.

This second album of Mayo and Kerry combination, almost one hundred years on by Jonathan and Holly, features irish music at a unique level. It is a product of close friendship and an intuitive understanding of each other's playing. Listening to the material on the album, which spans from the collector George Petrie (1789 - 1866) to the present day compositions of Holly, we can hear personal styles which are comparable to today's highly advanced concertina and accordion playing.

Ad multos annos, ar aghaidh leis an gceol agus bimis ag rince.

Philippe Varlet

Celtic Grooves
The combination of concertina and accordion is no longer as novel as it might have been when Tony MacMahon and Noel Hill produced their landmark "Knocknagree" album, but the two young musicians featured here put their own stamp on it by playing music that is not just tuneful (the meaning of the Gaelic word "ceolmhar") but also unexpectedly sweet.

Perhaps it has to do with Geraghty and Roche's specific instruments, their manner of playing, or the way they were recorded, but we are far from the exuberant roar of MacMahon and Hill. Which is not to say that there is anything dull about this album either. Geraghty and Roche, who met and developed their musical partnership while studying at University College Cork, have both tremendous technical skill and great taste.

The duets on concertina and accordion are strikingly tight, and Geraghty proves to be a dazzling harp player as well. In addition, Geraghty shows much promise as a composer of tunes in traditional form--eight of her compositions are recorded here. Her "Planxty Dermott Grogan" and "Dalgan Lebians" reel, for instance, are both wonderful tunes in their respective vein. The contribution of the accompanists shouldn't be overlooked, as both Griffin and Markham show great skill as well in matching the feel of the music conveyed by the lead players. A debut album that is as impressive as it is tuneful.

Alex Monaghan

Living Tradition Magazine

This young duo are from the same mould as Fox & O'Flaherty or Peoples & Ryan: outstanding musicians whose music has developed and grown together over several years, to give an almost genetic empathy and unity. This is instantly apparent in the opening reels: the confident sashay into Miss McGuinness, the easy move through Jack Coughlan's Fancy and the lovely change into Jim Kennedy's, with variations in unison.

There's an uncanny degree of tight controlled playing on The Forgotten Fling, and then a great leap into Miss Galvin's. Slower tunes are sweetly handled too: Holly's delightful Planxty Dermott Grogan for fellow Mayo musician is one of many highlights, and her harp solo With Her Dog and Her Gun is a sublimely peaceful air.

I should explain that most of Ceolmhar features accordion and concertina duets, raw and powerful instruments combining to sweep all before them, but for three tracks Holly switches to the harp: total contrast, and lovely playing, both on the slow pieces and on a pair of well-known reels. Jonathan takes his solos on a set of gentle polkas from his native North Kerry, on a trio of reels inspired by Tulla and Kilfenora bands, and on a couple of fine jigs ending with one of Paddy Fahy's.called Paddy Fahy's. There's a concertina solo too, two rolling John Kelly reels including the popular West Cork Reel.

While Holly and Jonathan show off their individual abilities in the middle of the CD, it's the duet tracks which really make this a memorable recording. Saskatoon Jig bounces along in perfect oneness, Bantry Bay is a nicely syncopated hornpipe which keeps a steady pace, and the final track shows split-second synchronisation on three of Holly's own fine reels. Ceolmhar is an exemplary duet album, with a rich and varied store of music, enhanced by some excellent accompaniment and first class packaging. Highly recommended: hollygeraghty.com and jonathanroche.com can tell you more.

Edel McLaughlin

Irish Music Magazine

Duet recordings of the concertina/box pairing are conspicuous in their absence within the body of commercial recordings in Irish traditional music. When one considers this unique pairing, the immediate album that springs to mind is that of Noel Hill and Tony McMahon. Here, we have the new pairing of Mayo and Kerry musicians, Holly Geraghty and Jonathan Roche.

One of the most striking aspects of this album is the fresh, lyrical feel that permeates throughout its highly impressive fourteen tracks. Without doubt, these musicians are a duo that is very much at ease playing with one another. Their styles are very similar - an aspect that allows the music to flow very well together. Their music is close-knit, and their ornamentation extremely tight, allowing their duet to sound as one.

Fortunately, we also get to hear both musicians play solo. Jonathan's understated box playing flows effortlessly on track seven, whilst Holly shines on her harp solo, track six, as well as a lovely set of traditional reels on concertina, track nine. Another refreshing aspect of this album is the blend of old and new tunes that have been carefully selected to feature on this recording.

A sizeable portion of the album is comprised of a number of original tunes penned by Holly - each of which sit comfortably alongside standard tunes. Listen to the beautiful reel, Dalgan Lebians, on track five for example. There are a great variety of tune types on the album including flings, polkas, slow pieces and hornpipes as well as jigs and reels. "Ceolmhar", the Gaelic word for "musical" is certainly an apt title for this highly polished and richly musical debut album. The accompanists deserve special mention for their significant contribution to the overall sound, in particular the playing of Matt Griffin on guitar and Stephen Markham on piano.

In the words of Niall Keegan, "This recording will groove its way into your heart and the wonder of it is you'll never be able to satisfactorily work out why. That's the magic of Ceolmhar."


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