Liam Gaul,
Masters of Irish Music
(Nonsuch, 2006)

This is an accessible, bright and comprehensive guide to the true masters of Irish music in all its guises.

The music of the Emerald Isle has spread to all corners of the globe, and Liam Gaul's lifelong dedication to the music of Ireland as listener, composer, performer and latterly as a scholar is evident in every page, paragraph and sentence of Masters of Irish Music.

Starting with Carolan in a chapter titled "Journeys with a harp, a horse & a helper," he brings that long gone period of Irish history to life. Continuing on, he brings us the potted biographies of well-known performers, composers and writers like Thomas Moore, PJ McCall, Leo Rowsome, Sean O'Riada and Luke Kelly. He also enlightens us on some perhaps lesser-known names -- at least to those not steeped in the music. They include Dermot Troy, Catherine Hayes and Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore.

He lets us know that the latter, Gilmore, predated the more famous Sousa as the "father of the American marching band." Born in County Galway, he was a member of the Ballygar Fife & Drum Band before emigrating to Boston in 1848. He played with the bands we associate with the American Civil War and in fact composed one of the best-known songs of the era, "When Johnny Comes Marching Home." In fact, Liam tells us that although the lyrics are credited to Louis Lambert, Patrick Gilmore can claim them because that was his pen name.

The book is peppered with such interesting and revealing nuggets. Did you know that an Irishman wrote the lyrics we sing to our children about the "Teddy Bears Picnic"? It was called "Teddy Bears Two Step" when Jimmy Kennedy from Omagh wrote them. He is probably better known for "South of the Border."

Sean O'Riada is one of the better-known masters on offer, but Gaul still digs deep and unearths gems of trivia to enthrall us. O'Riada, best known for themes like "Mise Eire," also was a mean jazz musician in his native Cork. In the chapter on Leo Rowsome we are enlightened on the secrets of the manufacture of the uilleann pipes, and we learn that the man seen as synonymous with that instrument commenced his musical career playing violin.

But Irish music has a much wider span than traditional or folk or popular music. Liam also takes in the classics, with John Field, Michael William Balfe and the influence of the Wexford Opera Festival getting informative entries. He rekindles nostalgia with references to Ruby Murray, Delia Murphy and the effervescent Derek Bell of the Chieftains.

This book provides a wealth of information for the specialist or the general reader. It will be of infinite use to those writing liner or programme notes for CDs or concerts and will no doubt give many performers a fund of anecdotes to introduce songs or tunes.

This is a book to study or to dip into, but most of all it is a book to enjoy.

by Nicky Rossiter
6 January 2007