A Stone Upon a Stone

To mark the anniversary of the death of virtuoso uilleann piper, Liam O'Flynn (1945–2018), piper, composer and artist, Barry Kerr, reflects on the time he spent as recipient of the Liam O'Flynn Award from the Arts Council of Ireland/National Concert Hall in 2020. That time included investigating the Liam O’Flynn collection at ITMA wherein he found much inspiration.

In 2020 I was fortunate to receive the Liam O’Flynn Award from the National Concert Hall and the Arts Council of Ireland. The bursary gave me time and space to compose some new music, to dig deep into the well of the tradition and also to consider my role within it. 

In what was to become a momentous year for everyone, initial plans for the project changed and I adapted as best I could to the circumstances. My original intentions as part of the award were to have some leading traditional musicians perform my compositions as a live concert at the National Concert Hall. Covid restrictions prevailing, I had to pivot to a scaled back online performance of the work. However, as fortune would have it, I was able also to record some of the music in a window between lockdowns and publish it as an online release titled Cairn

The Ghosts of Gullion; Carnac; The Travelling Piper / composed by Barry Kerr. Source: Cairn / Barry Kerr (Boy in a Boat Records, 2020) 

I spent valuable time investigating the Liam O’Flynn Collection at ITMA and found much inspiration therein. I also spent some time in Conamara where a connection with the land and sea always helps with my creative work. In this blog I will address my processes and some standout thoughts on the Liam O’Flynn Collection. I have also included images of some of my paintings which I was reminded of whilst putting this body of work together, along with transcriptions of some of my new compositions.

​Of late I have often found myself captivated by rocks and stones in the Irish landscape – stones that have been moved by human touch and that have weathered in walls and quiet places for hundreds of years.
Barry Kerr, 2021

In craggy Conamara fields you will find little piles of stones balanced on top of huge rocks. These abstract sculptures may have been built by a farmer in famine times, making room for soil in a field, or by children building some imaginary castle for a fairy queen. The stones have an unworldly quality and there is mystery in their making, a tale untold. In Ireland we have an inherited reverence for standing stones and our instinct tells us that these sacred places must be left alone. Perhaps the little piles of stones in Conamara fields invoke those same emotions, their endurance a nod to ghosts of the past, a talisman in the landscape and a reminder of what went before. 

Out of these reflections I chose the word ‘Cairn’ as a title for the recording, its definition being a pile of stones as a marker or memorial. I thought of it as a metaphor for the tradition, where each generation adds their own part to an overall structure paying homage to what went before – ‘a stone upon a stone’ as the song goes.

Itma Blog 2021 Connemara Box Player By Barry Kerr
Connemara Box Blayer / Barry Kerr, artist

Along my journey with this project I encountered some strange synchrony between what was inspiring me in the landscape to write, and the material that I was studying in the collection. One such example was a little note that Liam had written down about Dinnseanchas and writing poems and songs in praise of place. The little note almost jumped off the page as it was so pertinent to my thoughts at the time, about our music and its place in relation to the landscape. In this note Liam wrote: 

In traditional bardic culture, the terrain/landscape was studied, discussed and referenced: every place had its legend and its own identity. Dinnseanchas, the lore and celebration of place names, was a feature of this poetic topography; what endured was the mythic landscape, providing escape and inspiration … writing poems and songs in praise of place.
Liam O'Flynn

Time and time again these little coincidences occurred. Indeed the first material I was directed to on visiting the archive were two tunes that Liam had composed 'The Piper’s Stone' and 'The Return of the Pedalboard'. The first tune relates to the concept of Dinnseanchas in that it is a tune Liam named in honour of a standing stone in county Kildare that he knew well. 

I imagine that Liam had a reverence for the rocks in our landscape too. He was acutely aware of the motivations and instincts that stirred the musicians and composers who went before him, and he carried that weight of tradition in every detail of his own work. I believe that Liam O'Flynn was also very aware of the threads that connect the arts, be it music, literature, or visual art. He was very aware of our oral history and its relationship with the music. Not only did he understand the music, he understood the importance of the narrative that accompanies our rich heritage. Liam could talk in depth about almost every tune he played and being fond of a story myself this aspect of his art always intrigued me.

As I worked through the collection it was the little insights into Liam’s thoughts that really stood out for me. Notes on musicians such as Willie Clancy and Séamus Ennis, his correspondence with the poet Seamus Heaney, all of it magically insightful.
Barry Kerr, 2021

Yes, the collection illuminates the expected highlights of O’Flynn’s musical life, seminal moments with Planxty and The Brendan Voyage for example, but among the comprehensive records that Liam kept, as an artist I took most inspiration from his scribblings and musings on the seemingly mundane. It is all gold dust.

The body of work was never intended to be a tribute as such to Liam O’Flynn, more so a collection of music inspired in part by his genius and his life in traditional music. I was conscious of Liam’s aesthetic when composing and recording the work, the types of tunes he played, his tone and musicality and I endeavoured to bring a little of his sound into my own work in some way. 

I distilled what I was writing, I cut out anything that did not feel right or honest and I let the freedom of the time I had been gifted guide me to a happy conclusion. I did compose one of the tunes however in his honour, a waltz I named 'The Gentleman Piper'.

Itma Blog 2021 Maguires Set By Barry Kerr
Maguire's Set / Barry Kerr, artist

The Gentleman Piper / composed by Barry Kerr

Interactive Score: The Gentleman Piper / Barry Kerr, composer

The Holy Trinity Reels

As a piper, for me the names of Willie Clancy, Seamus Ennis and Leo Rowsome always evoke strong emotions and really have a special place in my heart. I composed these three reels in honour of this Holy trinity of pipers. Their legacy is legend in the world of piping and cannot be overstated. While pouring through Liam’s collection it was lovely to find his thoughts on these great men. One note in particular stands out where he speaks of hearing Willie Clancy’s music for the first time: 

… it gave me feelings I have never experienced before … and I think I then realised that music is not something you listen to but something you experience … feelings that stir the soul - music making that reflects the soul.
Liam O'Flynn

Clancy from Clare / composed by Barry Kerr

Interactive Score: Clancy from Clare / Barry Kerr, composer

The Rambles of Ennis / composed by Barry Kerr

Interactive Score: The Rambles of Ennis / Barry Kerr, composer

Master Rowsome's / composed by Barry Kerr

Interactive Score: Master Rowsome's / Barry Kerr, composer

Itma Blog 2021 An Bailitheoir Ceoil By Barry Kerr
An Bailitheoir Ceoil / Barry Kerr, artist

Songs in both English and Gaeilge were of profound importance to Liam’s musical life. He spoke of the sophistication of sean-nós singing and his renditions of songs on the pipes such as 'Táimse im’ Chodladh' are the stuff of legend. 

I included one of my own songs named 'Of Sportsmen Bold' on the recording, a nod to Liam’s interest in country life. It tells a tale about some friends of mine who would hunt the fields around home when I was a youth. The song is written in the vein of the great Ulster hunting songs, and you will be glad to hear the hare in question gets to run another day! 

I found a note among the collection where Liam relates that: 

composers are drawn back to their childhoods, it is a source of their first experiences. Nostalgia is a rich playground of the emotions.
Liam O'Flynn

His words certainly ring true for me in my writing of this song.

Of Sportsmen Bold / written & composed by Barry Kerr

I’ll sing a song of days long gone, when I roamed so wild and free,

No river wide, nor mountain side did e’er put a hold on me,

I’d swim and climb in lake and brine, over heather, bog and briar,

From early light, ’til the dark of night, no hound could quell my fire.


’Til one morning came, whilst on the plain, near Lough Neagh’s verdant shores,

A band of men from Castle Lane, Kilwilkie, and the shore,

Their lurchers wild and hounds did cry and raised the sound of hell,

I was frightened then and I sighted Ben, Gentle from the lane.


Of sportsmen bold, I have been told, of Doran and McStay,

With dog and gun for sport and fun, they’d leave a hare to play,

But like thunder clouds his dogs aloud came Gentle from the lane,

His pride and joy a dog named Fly was the one to give me chase.


I turned his dog through field and bog, for mile on aching mile,

No place to hide, though how I tried, to lose him in my style,

But as darkness fell I heard the bells from St. Peter’s on the hill,

I went to ground and homeward bound went Gentle from the lane.


I remember days when as I’d stray and meet these Lurgan men,

But those times are gone, I’m free to roam the countryside all around,

But if on the air a sound I fear, haunting in the wind,

I mind the time I outran fly and Gentle from the lane.

Interactive Score: Of Sportsmen Bold / Barry Kerr, composer

Itma Blog 2021 The Poacher At Dusk By Barry Kerr
The Poacher at Dusk / Barry Kerr, artist

I found it fascinating to see that Liam had kept all of his correspondence with festivals and promoters for gigs down through the years. It is a unique insight into the life of a travelling musician before the advent of the internet. These days we take for granted the simplicity of organising a concert by text or email and it is difficult to imagine the amount of work that was involved in organising a tour abroad in those times. I wrote this tune in honour of all the pipers who have travelled the roads to earn a living.

The Travelling Piper / composed by Barry Kerr

Interactive Score: The Travelling Piper/ Barry Kerr, composer

Itma Blog 2021 The Travelling Piper By Barry Kerr
The Travelling Piper / Barry Kerr, artist

For good measure I wanted to include a tune I composed for flute on the recording. This is a tune I wrote on the occasion of the birth of my youngest nephew Dara which is named ‘The Dawn of Dara’. I included it on the Cairn recording along with my composition ‘Beatha óna Bhás’.

The Dawn of Dara / composed by Barry Kerr

Interactive Score: The Dawn of Dara / Barry Kerr, composer

All of the above compositions can be heard on my recent release Cairn.  For more details and to purchase Cairn https://barrykerr1.bandcamp.com/album/cairn

Itma Blog 2021 Barry Kerr Cairn Artwork
Cairn / Barry Kerr

ITMA would like to thank Barry Kerr for permission to present his composed work as interactive scores. 

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