By Brian McGowan
It was with sadness and embarrassment I learned recently of the death of Ciaran Carson, poet, musician and author of what is surely one of the best books written on Irish traditional music I have ever had the pleasure of reading.
I am speaking, of course, of “Last Night’s Fun,” which borrows its title from the tune of the same name. Sadness, at the premature death of a man through who’s writing the world of Irish traditional music, was made eminently accessible; embarrassment, because I didn’t recognize the death of a master until two years had passed. Inexcusable!
The tune, “Last Night’s Fun,” is a simple tune. Listen to it a few times and you’ll have the gist. Listen a few more and your feet will be tapping and your head will nod in time to the tune’s rhythm.
Carson’s book, released in 1992, is the same. It’s 31 short chapters, most bearing the name of an Irish trad tune, give the reader a fascinating trip through tunes, performers and the whimsical nature of Irish music and musicians. Some of the tunes you may be familiar with (“Boil the Breakfast Early,” “Dowds No. 9,” “The Mountain Road”). And the book itself is one of the most eminently readable and entertaining treatises on music and life that you’ll ever read.
Carson died in 2019, at the age of 70, of lung cancer, the same ailment that laid low his favorite musician, and the major subject of the first chapter, the fabled, if not widely famous accordionist Joe Cooley. He plays his final performance with a cigarette clenched firmly in his mouth, a few weeks before his passing.
That first chapter alone is worth the purchase price. I didn’t pay much for my copy, having gotten it second-hand. The prior owner, a girl named Colleen, must have received it as a gift from a friend, named Ellen, all of this deduced from a penciled note on the fly cover: “6/98 To Colleen, who opens my eyes and ears! Ellen.” Ten years later the book was mine, and I have often wondered who Colleen and Ellen were, and what they are doing now.
For those of you to whom Carson is unknown, he was one of Ireland’s most eminent modern poets, winner of numerous awards, with a wealth of publications to his credit. Honing up on his poetry is keen on my to-do list. But it was his book on the music that truly moved me. As a fitting tribute, I have set a goal: to learn every tune Carson mentions, starting with “Last Night’s Fun.”
There’s a nice YouTube clip featuring Cape Breton Island fiddler Chrissy Crowley playing it, the first of several in a set (https://youtu.be/T96DdnK7cuU). You can also access it at “The Session,” a treasure trove of Irish traditional music (https://thesession.org/tunes/63). Use the Play Audio feature.
Here’s a tip if you are learning a tune from YouTube: Play it at a lower speed (settings /playback speed) than normal, say .75 or even .50. The sound will be horrible the slower you go, but it will be far easier to, first, whistle along, and then, when you’ve got it solidly in your grey matter, start trying it on your instrument of choice.
For those of you who’d like to take it further, perhaps we can build up a group of like-minded people, and when COVID finally releases its grip, get together once in a while for a good, old-fashioned “kitchen session” where we can share some tunes, play our hearts out or just listen and enjoy some good times and camaraderie. If you play an instrument, all the better. If you’d like to learn one, there’s none easier (or less expensive) than the tin whistle. Considered humble by some, it can produce the most beautiful of tones and tunes when put to good use.
Now, what makes a reel a reel? That’s for another day! That, and the difference between a tune and a song.
Pleasantville resident Brian McGowan was born and raised in the Bronx and is a second-, third- and fifth-generation Irish-American/Canadian, as his immigrant ancestors followed several paths to the New World. Reach him at email@example.com or on Twitter (@Bmcgowan52M). He is the author of two books, “Thunder at Noon,” about the battle of Waterloo, and “Love, Son John,” about World War II. Both are available at Amazon.com.