EARLIER this year, Cathal McConnell made his debut appearance at Wexford Opera House, but it wasn't arias he was singing. The Fermanagh-born flautist and singer, whose music and onstage eccentricities have been an integral element of the Boys of the Lough since he co-founded the renowned folk band more than 40 years ago, was being honoured with a prestigious Gradam Ceóil award by TG4, the Irish Gaelic television channel.
• Cathal McConnell formed the first incarnation of the Boys of the Lough in 1967. Picture: Kerstin Gruenling/Complimentary
Gradam Ceil can be translated as "esteem for music", and McConnell was presented with the Traditional Singer of the Year award, recognising his excellence as a singer and vital role as a tradition bearer, performing and generously dispensing from his immense store of songs and tunes. He was similarly honoured last year by that hot-bed of west of Ireland music-making, the Willie Clancy Summer School at Miltown Malbay, and tomorrow night in Edinburgh, Cliona Manahan, the Irish Consul General, will host a reception to honour the musician, who has made the city his home for the past 30-odd years. "It was a great honour," he recalls of the Wexford affair, "but quite stressful." Not least because the Boys of the Lough, who played at the event, were bedevilled by the enforced absence of current members, Shetland fiddler Kevin Henderson and Irish guitarist Garry O'Briain and had to recruit distinguished temporary replacements Irish fiddler Gerry O'Connor and American guitarist Dennis Cahill.
McConnell, however, was particularly gratified by the presence of family and friends from his native Fermanagh. Now 65, he grew up in Bellanaleck, near Enniskillen, a fourth-generation flautist whose father was a also singer and writer of songs who recorded for the BBC in the 1950s, while his late sister, Maura, was also a singer. His three brothers, all musically-inclined journalists, include Mickey O'Connell, writer of songs like Only Our Rivers Run Free and McKeown and I. The first instrument he was given as a child was a fiddle, but he didn't take to it, so started on the whistle, then flute. "I think some people are destined to play a certain instrument," he muses. His playing was shaped by other Fermanagh musicians such as flute player John Joe "The Puck" McGuire, who died this year, and fiddler "Big John" McManus, while later influences included the great Donegal fiddlers John and Mickey Doherty.
In 1967, with an older-generation Fermanagh fiddler, Tommy Gunn, and another Ulster musician, Robin Morton, he established the first incarnation of the Boys of the Lough. In 1968, he and Morton were touring Scotland and England when they met Shetland fiddler Aly Bain, then playing in a duo with guitarist Mike Whellans. The four combined, again as the Boys of the Lough, making a big impact with their fiery playing at the Cambridge folk festival in 1972, the year they also made their first American tour.
Four decades on, the Boys, in a succession of varying line-ups with McConnell as the constant, have chalked up more than 70 US tours, taking their virtuosic, tradition-rooted music to venues ranging from village halls to New York's Carnegie Hall. They were the first of the internationally touring "Celtic music" bands, although McConnell, not long back from the latest transatlantic jaunt, confesses: "We've cut back a lot on the globetrotting. You slow down a bit with advancing years."
One reason his contribution has only been lately acknowledged in Ireland is that he has lived in Edinburgh for so long. It didn't take much to prompt his exodus to the other side of the Irish Sea. Being near the border with the Republic, his area saw more than its fair share of sectarian and political violence during the early Seventies and, as he puts it, "I had a vibe that I shouldn't hang around". His comically laborious on-stage deliberations and air of bespectacled bewilderment belie a formidable musicianship and commitment to passing on his vast repository of music and song, from Fermanagh and elsewhere.
Dave Richardson, manager and second longest remaining member of the Boys of the Lough, credits first hearing McConnell's playing in 1970 as a life-changing experience, prompting him to chuck his research studies at Durham University, to join the Boys three years later.
"When Cathal performs," says Richardson, "be it in an Edinburgh pub or a major concert hall or festival, it is not primarily that he wants the listener to know about himself and how accomplished he is, but rather that he wants to act as the best possible conduit for the music and song itself.
"He understands, perhaps more than anyone I have met, that music and song are not just notes and words to be performed, recorded or written down, but that music is, above all, a process, a two-way street between him and whoever listens."
McConnell hasn't recorded prolifically under his own name, although he recently released an engagingly idiosyncratic album of often little-heard Scottish and Irish material in duet with the North-east Scots fiddler Duncan Wood, Auld Springs Gies Nae Price. In performance, hearing him give lilting Fermanagh voice to such enduring songs such as The Flower of Magherally or The Maid With the Bonny Brown Hair, one is conscious of a huge regard for the material. "If you have a lovely tune with words that are good, and a good story," he says, "get these elements together and you have a good song. Some of the best songs are stories, but people sometimes feel they're too long to sing on a commercial recording."
Which is one reason why his latest project has been a mammoth, Irish Arts Council-funded exercise, recording his song repertoire in an invaluable archive he reckons must comprise between 150 and 160 songs. "I'm too weary to count them," he laughs. "It's been the hardest work I've done in my life. I had to be completely sober and sane and I was living like a monk."
Monkish living may not be a term which comes readily to mind after 40 years in a fast-travelling folk band, but McConnell's characteristic willingness to pass on repertoire will benefit future generations of folk musicians. As the pawky Scots title of that recent album with Duncan Wood suggests, such things are without price.
• The TG4 Gradam Ceil awards ceremony and audio extracts from the Willie Clancy Summer School tribute to Cathal McConnell can be seen and heard on http://live.tg4.ie/main.aspx?content>66842369025 and http://www.itma.ie/audio/cathal_mcconnell_ tri bute.html