Poetry Day Ireland 2020: Mary O'Malley & Tommy Keane

Almost two years ago on Thursday, 20 June 2018, poet Mary O’Malley and uilleann piper Tommy Keane took part in the live ITMA/Poetry Ireland series "Soul Clap Its Hands and Sing". 

To celebrate Poetry Day Ireland 2020, Mary & Tommy have generously given permission to share the reading of 'Ixion Stopped Tony Mc Mahon Plays Raglan Road' and the playing of Fáinne Geal an Lae.

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Poetry Day Ireland 2020 / Mary O'Malley, poet, and Tommy Keane, uilleann pipes

The series paired poets and musicians from different musical genres in performance at Poetry Ireland headquarters in Parnell Square, Dublin. These events were recorded by ITMA.

The poet/traditional music partners were: 

  • Moya Cannon and Kathleen Loughnane 
  • John McAuliffe and Kevin Doherty
  • Mary O'Malley and Tommy Keane
  • Nessa O' Mahony and Dermot McLaughlin

In advance of each traditional music partnership, former ITMA colleague Rebecca Draisey-Collishaw prepared a blog about the performers and their craft. 

Included below is the piece she wrote in advance of Mary and Tommy's event on the 20 June 2018.

The blogs for the other performers can be found in the related materials at the bottom of this blog.

Jun Pi
Poet Mary O'Malley & uilleann piper Tommy Keane feature in the June edition of 'Soul Clap Its Hands and Sing.'

'I work at an oblique angle to music,' Mary O’Malley tells me when I ask her about how her poems reflect and react to the sounds and people she hears. Sometimes her words are meditations on particular tunes. Sometimes content reflects a visceral reaction to the medium—the instrument—of performance. And sometimes poetry intertwines with the auras of particular musicians. 

Playing the Octopus is the latest book of poems by Mary O’Malley, an award-winning poet, member of Aosdana, and regular contributor to RTÉ Radio. Born in Connemara and educated at University College Galway, she lived and taught in Lisbon for eight years, and subsequently has taught on the MA programme for Writing and Education at NUIGalway and held the Chair of Irish Studies at Villanova University. 

She has listened to music and musicians her entire life, so it is fitting that the poetry in Playing the Octopus uses music, particularly the playing of the pipes, as a metaphor for life. 

If Playing The Octopus is 'about' anything, it is how life takes hold of us, about the howls and screeches it squeezes out of us, the sweet or grieving music it plays on us and how much we call the tune or how often it is the tune that calls us. So there are poems that consider tunes, and what is worth keeping and celebrating in this republic of Ireland.
'Mary O’Malley on Playing the Octopus: An alien in Eden,' The Irish Times, 30 August 2016: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/mary-o-malley-on-playing-the-octopus-an-alien-in-eden-1.2773159

One poem from the collection, 'Ixion Stopped,' is after broadcaster and box player Tony MacMahon’s playing of 'Raglan Road.' 

Tony Mc Mahon Plays Raglan Road 
And every girl pregnant with disappointment
and death is in it. The man on the rock 
saying ‘is uaigneach a bheith fireann 
ar an gcarraig crua seo’ is in it. It is played
on the ribcage, teased out of the bone nest 
of the tune with care, with skill. Kept beating—
for the exact caesura a tired heart needs.
Then resumes.
I have heard it fleshed out with lush curves,
too much pigment in the tint. This is the poem
scored on bone, the tune given back to itself.
The stops played this way once, and only once.
The air shivers. Her own dark hair
a glint of copper—the snare. The sign that’s known. 
(from Playing the Octopus, Carcanet Press 2016; used with permission) 

Her words reflect on the music’s despair and its capacity to be felt in the bone, but also react to the musician. Indeed, Mary commented that Tony’s is a presence that could inspire an entire book of poetry. 

Another poem in Playing the Octopus, 'What Ireland Needs,' came about when Mary heard percussionist Mel Mercier play the bones, an instrument that she often heard in childhood but that now occupies the sidelines for many traditional musicians. The simplicity of the bones—at their most basic they are scavenged by their user—prompted her to think about getting back to basics in the face of modernity’s chaos and distraction. In 'What Ireland Needs' Mary reacts less to melodies and rhythms, and more to the act and medium of performance. 

As Mary says, 

I work at an oblique angle to music.
Mary O'Malley, phone conversation, Wednesday, 20 June 2018.
Tommy Keane, uilleann piper / Tony Kearns, photographer
Tommy Keane, uilleann piper / Tony Kearns, photographer
Tommy Keane, uilleann piper / Tony Kearns, photographer

Tommy Keane, uilleann piper / Tony Kearns, photographer

© Tony Kearns

The 'many tentacled' uilleann pipes inspired the title poem in Playing the Octopus, so it’s fitting that Mary O'Malley is joined by Waterford-born uilleann piper Tommy Keane for their 'Soul Clap Its Hands and Sing' performance. Like Mary, Tommy is no stranger to collaboration: he has spent his career working as a session musician, appearing on the albums of the likes of Elvis Costello and the Pogues, as well as crossing boundaries to perform with the Rambart Ballet Company in London, the Druid Theatre Company and An Taibhdhearc in Galway, Iarla Ó Lionárd, and the Irish Philharmonic. 

Tommy took up the uilleann pipes in his early 20s. He learned his craft from local piper Tommy Kearney, and also was influenced by the tuition he received at the Willie Clancy Summer School—namely from Pat Mitchell and the late Liam O’Flynn. While living in London during the 1980s, Tommy benefited from being part of a vibrant Irish music scene that included the likes of Tommy McCarthy, Bobby Casey, and Roger Sherlock. He was also a member of London’s Thatch Céilí Band, 1986 winners of the Senior Céilí Band Competition at the All Ireland Fleadh Cheoil in Listowel, Co Kerry.  

A recording of Tommy performing at the Wednesday lunchtime piping recital at the 2010 Willie Clancy Summer School demonstrates his lineage as a piper from Waterford. He performs a reel, ‘The hornless cow,’ that he learned from the playing of Tommy Kearney. 

An ITMA Field Recording of Tommy Keane playing a reel set ('The hornless cow' / 'Gorman's reel') at the pipers' Wednesday lunchtime recital, 2010 Willie Clancy Summer School.

Since returning to Ireland in 1987, Tommy has lived in Galway. A regular teacher of traditional music in Co Galway, he also has taught at festivals and Uilleann Pipe clubs throughout Ireland and the world. Tommy holds an MA(Hons) in Traditional Music Performance from University of Limerick, completed in 2000, and was the Chairman of Na Píobairi Uilleann from 2013 to 2018. 

Get to know the artists

Visit ITMA to hear more from both Mary O’Malley and Tommy Keane. Here’s just a short list of the recordings, tune books, and field recordings in the ITMA Collection that might interest you. 

Our recordings of Mary O'Malley reading point to her important work in environmental education. Both Behind the mist (2000, CONCD001) and An cosán draíochta = The magic path: celebrating 25 years of bog & sea weeks (2009, CMCD004/005) were released by the Connemara Environmental Education Centre.

Omalley Cds Hero
Recordings featuring readings by Mary O'Malley in the ITMA Collection: Behind the mist & The magic path.

The ITMA catalogue includes Tommy Keane’s solo album, The piper's apron (1991, LUNCD052), a duo album with his wife and musical partner, concertina player Jacqueline McCarthy—The wind among the reeds (1995, MMCCD51)—not to mention countless commercial recordings that feature Tommy in a variety of roles ranging from session musician to producer (e.g., The family album by the McCarthys [2002, MMCCD54]). 

Keene Cds Hero
Recordings featuring Tommy Keane in the ITMA Collection: The piper's apron, The wind among the reeds, and The family album by the McCarthys.

Available only at ITMA are a range of non-commercial field recordings, as well as printed tune books:

Keene Tunebooks Hero
Tunebooks by Tommy Keane in the ITMA Collection: The piper's apron and The wind among the reeds.

Book now to hear what happens when Mary O’Malley and Tommy Keane take the stage in Poetry Ireland.


Rebecca Draisey-Collishaw
ITMA Archive Assistant (Digital Collections)
25 June 2018

Mary O’Malley, Tommy Keane & Tony Kearns


Grace Toland
ITMA Project Manager
30 April 2020