Roger Millington Publishing...
Review by Raymond Greenoaken in "Stirrings" magazine (Sheffield)
A Dossan of Heather Irish Traditional Music from Packie Manus Byrne Mel Bay Publications
Times have changed since I first started looking around for tunes to play on my newly acquired tin whistle. In those days, thirty years back, the choice was limited. If it was the Irish stuff you wanted, there was O'Neill's or the first volume or Breathnach's Ceol Rince Na hÉireann; if Scottish, there were Kerr's durable Merry Melodies and the odd book of pipe tunes; if North Eastern, the Northumbrian Piper's Tune Book was your Bible; if Welsh, you had to make up your own. Nowadays, by contrast, players of all instruments are spoiled for choice: the shelves are groaning with tune books of all shapes and sizes, plump with melodies from all parts of the world. As I asked a couple of years back in these pages, do we really need another?
Well, here's a tune book that makes that question redundant. A Dossan of Heather is a judicious selection of 85 jigs, highlands, airs, hornpipes, germans, reels, slip jigs, marches, polkas, mazurkas and waltzes from the formidable repertoire of tin whistle magus Packie Manus Byrne. If it were only a tune book, it would be interesting enough: Packie's repertoire consists largely of tunes he soaked up during the early years of his life (he's now in his eighties), in Corkermore in Southwest Donegal. Few of them have been heard outside of that locality. As a series of musical snapshots of that time and place, this collection is invaluable. But the book is much more than that.
As Packie says himself in the Introduction, there's a story attached to pretty much every tune here. "Some of the older folks had a little story attached to every tune they played... and the thing about it is, a hell of a lot of them are true." And sure enough, Packie offers an anecdote or a vignette to illumine each tune. The reel An Coileán Cú, for instance. "That's Gaelic for a hound pup. Somebody was going away to England or America and gave this fellow a wee pup. He kept the pup and thought it was the greatest thing in the world and he was feeding it and looking after it until one morning he couldn't find his socks. So he went out into the yard in his bare feet and there were his socks torn to pieces. So he just came in and caught the pup and choked him. That's the coileán cú."
A tasty example of Packie's dry, sometimes gallows humour. There's plenty of that on show, but you also get a vivid sense of a way of life that's largely lost, and meet a gallery of larger than life characters. People like Piddling Peggy, Paddy Bhillí na rópaí, Lilting Ann Byrne, Biddy Sweeney (both of them!), Big Pat, and John Gallagher and his tin fiddle-fiddlers, fluters, singers, lilters the lot of them. Packie's commentary is transcribed from direct speech rather than written down by him, so there's a laconic freshness that comes dancing off the page.
This collection has been a long time in the coming. Stephen Jones, Packie's editor, got the idea from Sharon Creasey, a mutual friend, in the 1980s; but it was superseded by what ultimately became Packie's celebrated autobiography, Recollections Of A Donegal Man, which was also assembled out of transcribed speech. A Dossan of Heather is both a complement to the earlier work and an addendum. Together they comprise an invaluable social document, as well as a testament to a life lived to the full.
But let's not forget the tunes themselves. Taken together, they are an eloquent expression of Packie's personality, but they stand up in their own right as cracking good tunes well worth the playing. They're very much a whistle player's repertoire, being mostly in the natural whistle key of D major, with a significant minority in E dorian , and a handful in G major; surprisingly, perhaps, there's none at all in the other whistle-friendly keys of A major and mixolydian, and B minor. They're also, collectively, of limited melodic range: more than 60% encompass only an octave and a third, with 20% spanning a mere octave. As the Introduction points out, this is almost certainly due to the fact that these tunes were frequently lilted. Despite a proliferation of fiddlers in the Corkermore area, it seems that the music for impromptu dance sessions was frequently essayed by a lilter. One tune, a composition of Packie's (there are a dozen or so of his own tunes here), consists of only the first four notes of the scale; it transpires he wrote it for performance with one hand-he'd be playing a harmony line on another whistle at the same time! So now you know where John Coltrane and Captain Beefheart got the idea from...
Packie's predilections are also reflected in the taxonomy of the tunes. Jigs are most numerous; he admits to an especial fondness for them. Unusually for an Irish collection, reels are relatively thin on the ground, and here he is brutally frank: "I never was really into the reels. Every session you go to, it's one reel after another. I remember being at sessions and you wouldn't hear a thing, only reels, it would be a night full of reels. I like a jig or a highland or set dance or something mixed in. [People today] go to extremes." Fair play to you, Mr Byrne-there are some of us who feel the same. But be not dismayed, reel addicts: the numerous highlands included here can, with a bit of tweaking, be made into very serviceable reels.
It's extraordinary to consider that, when this collection was being assembled, Packie was in some cases digging out tunes that he'd not played or heard in sixty years or more. His memory for a melody, however, is remarkable. Titles, it seems, were a lot harder to recall, and many of the titles in the book have been newly minted by him, and usually refer to people or incidents recalled from that era-Socks On The Crane, We're Having A Drop, Piddling Peggy, The Fumbling Chorister to name but a few.
The book is generously illustrated with photos and line drawings. Stephen Jones' introductory text is exemplary, covering Packie's background, the nature of his repertoire and his distinctive whistle style. If there are any flaws in Jean Duval's transcriptions of the tunes, I didn't spot them. There's an accompanying CD that features 33 of the tunes, some taken from Packie's commercial recordings, but most played by Jones and Duval on fiddle and whistle/flute respectively. They're careful to play the tunes as plainly as possible, as a reference rather than a "performance"; it makes for an agreeable listen, nonetheless.
All in all, A Dossan of Heather is a cherishable volume. Packie has generously waived copyright on the tunes-even those of his own composition-so, with a fair wind, you should be hearing a few at your local session or folk club some day soon. And not before time...