Shaun Davey is recognised as one of Ireland's leading composers of music that combines popular appeal with genuine cultural significance. His work, The Pilgrim (sequel to The Brendan Voyage, 1980) with Ben Kingsley as narrator, was described by one critic as a splendidly executed performance." Shaun talks to Aidan O'Hara about his music. Full Interview
Siobhan Long talks to Shaun Davey for the Irish Times on the launch of Béal Tuinne's Live in St James Church Dingle CD in 2009 Full Interview
I learned to play music by ear even though I was given some formal music lessons at school, which made me very lazy in terms of learning to read." It wasn't exactly the answer I was expecting when I asked successful composer, Shaun Davey, to tell me about his musical background. He added: "I broke my music teacher's heart." Hardly surprising, and his poor teacher, recognising young Davey's latent talents, must have been driven to distraction by his refusal to practice his scales and sight reading. Anyway, this candid confession of Shaun's will come as a great surprise, and indeed as a bit of a shock, to the many who admire his brilliance as a composer of acclaimed concert works like The Brendan Voyage, The Pilgrim, and Granuaile. And while it may well scandalise music teachers, it will encourage others, who refuse to travel the usual hard road of discipline required of most musicians. But Shaun Davey would be the first to sound the warning that his route to musical success isn't necessarily the easy route to follow. Talent is one thing; the will and the drive to succeed is another; and he has both, in strong combination.

Shaun Davey was brought up on the southern shore of Belfast Lough near Cultra on the outskirts of Belfast. "An interesting place, and I watched the ships go up and down every day. My father worked in a bank and was transferred to Dublin. I finished school in Belfast and then joined the family in Dublin. And I've been here more or less ever since. What sort of music did he hear growing up?" There was a record collection which was the key. I mean, there was a mixture of classical music, Chopin and Beethoven, and Gershwin, and some dance music. So I listened to that as a boy. And then I grew up in the sixties when there was a revolution in pop music. I enjoyed listening to a lot of the rhythm and blues that came in and was playing on the radio and was quiet accessible in Belfast. And Van Morrison was about a year or two older than me, so I witnessed the development of his band called 'Them' at the time.

When he came to Dublin he was taken to hear traditional music for the first time. "Finbar Furey was the first person I heard playing the uilleann pipes, and I remember sitting in this room at the top of the building in Trinity where I was studying, and Finbar and his brother were playing. And I just remember being so incredibly moved by something that I knew I didn't understand. I didn't know anything about this traditional music. The sound was new, and yet the actual notes I felt I understood, and the form, too, very strongly, and in an intuitive way"

What had he planned to do after his secondary education? "Well, I thought I was going to be a painter for two years, so I held off going to university, but I eventually crept in and came out six years later with an MA in history of Art," A subject he taught in Trinity and at the College of Art for a couple of years before finding a way of earning a living through music.

The seventies were an exciting time in traditional music and Shaun began meeting more and more of the people in the front line of its development. "By the time I woke up (to traditional music), Sean O'Riada had died. The Chieftains were carrying on. I even remember meeting with Sean O'Se and working with him on one occasion. Planxty were going strong, traditional music was becoming popular, and I suppose glamorous in many ways. But it was glamorous because it was becoming a very powerful voice indeed."

The route he traveled towards this goal of becoming a composer of a unique form of Irish concert works was as unorthodox as that of his early years. "The reason I was able to leave teaching and work in music was simply because I was able to work at providing music for advertisements. So I spent years doing that. And during the course of that, the goals I set myself were to develop as much musically as I could within that framework, and to learn as much as I could and part of that was to learn notation. And one other thing there was a great need to be tuneful; and even within thirty seconds, a tune can have a beginning, middle, and an end. And if ever the history of jingles comes to be written, the best jingles will be found to have exactly that, a beginning, middle, and an end. Just like any piece of music."

Shaun Davey photoAnd how did Shaun come to write The Brendan Voyage, his first concert work? It came about, he said, because he wanted to write a piece of music based on real experience, specifically Tim Severin's crossing the Atlantic in a leather-skin boat. "I wanted in that piece to explore my understanding of the uilleann pipes, and my understanding of the orchestra, and put the two together in a way that had not been done before. And I also wanted to write a piece of music that was performable… I was trying to make it up as I went along, and the fundamental difficulty was how to carry a whole tract of music in my head and write it all down before I either became totally exhausted or forgot it. That was the discipline.

It was during these years that Shaun developed a musical relationship with Rita Connolly and Liam O'Flynn. "Liam is the lynch pin of my career in the sense that when I want to write music for the uilleann pipes I went to him, because I knew him from Planxty, and admired his playing a lot. And if he said no, he didn't want to pursue the idea, I probably would never have tried to write The Brendan Voyage. The fact is he said yes, and we've remained collaborators ever since. I met Rita as a session singer back in 1977, I think, and she first sang songs for me in The Pilgrim which was written and performed for the first time in 1983. She had three songs in that, so many people said to me, why aren't you writing more songs for Rita Connolly? So, two years later I wrote the music for Granuaile for her".

Two other musicians Shaun admires are Liam O Maonlai and Carlos Nunez, both of whom appeared in the recent performance of his revised working of The Pilgrim, in Blanchardstown . I admire Liam O Maonlai because, apart from the fact that he is a great singer, he is in my view one of the greatest singers of songs in the Irish language. He produces something unique through the language when he sings. And again, as with my reaction on hearing the uilleann pipes for the first time, alas and unfortunately, I am not an Irish speaker because it wasn't provided in the education I received. But I recognise it intuitively as being a great and an astonishingly fine language. And I admire it and love the sound of it."

I was surprised to hear Shaun say that far from being a relatively recent arrival on the Irish music scene, Carlos Nunez, the great Spanish piper, played in the first performance of The Pilgrim when he was a boy of eleven. "He's now a superstar in Spain, and of course the world." Shaun points out. But lest there be any doubts about who he admires most of all, he adds with emphasis: "Rita Connolly, now my wife, is my favourite singer." Shaun Davey has written the music for many successful films and TV series, and towards the end of our conversation, when I asked how that part of his work was progressing, he responded with startling candour: "Film and television offers have dried up." But then he added that his work for the theatre continues to thrive. "I wrote the music for a show running on Broadway, James Joyce's, The Dead. That play won't run forever, so I am open to offers!"

Shaun Davey has received a People of the Year award for his contribution to Irish culture, an Ivor Novello Award for his score for The Hanging Gale, an Ivor nomination for his music for Twelfth Night, two BAFTA nominations (The Hanging Gale and Ballykissangel) and, recently, a Tric Award for Best UK TV Theme (Ballykissangel), Is there anybody out there listening.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Irish Music magazine

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IMRAM'S FOCUS ON west Kerry this year is striking. It will host a performance of Béal Tuinne , a song suite composed by Shaun Davey, based on Fothar Na Manach , a book of poems by the late Ballydavid teacher and poet, Caoimhín Ó Cinnéide. A swathe of west Kerry musicians and singers will accompany Shaun Davey and Rita Connolly to the Unitarian Church on St Stephen's Green on Sunday night after the All-Ireland football final, where it's likely that tears will be shed - whether of triumph or defeat remains to be determined.

Seamus and Eoin Begley, Lawrence Courtney and Caoimhín Ó Cinnéide's daughter, Éilís, will air this song cycle, which Davey has composed with characteristic sensitivity to its origins. For Éilís Ní Chinnéide, Béal Tuinne is a magical excuse to revisit her father's poetry.

"The first reaction I had was absolute joy that someone like Shaun could actually 'get' the poems," she says, "as someone who didn't have the language first-hand. It's a testament to how good the poetry is and how good a musician Shaun is. My father didn't consider himself a poet first and foremost at all, but he was a keen observer and he had a wonderful way with words. The music gave the poems a shape that I hadn't seen before either. It was like looking at something in relief. The music gave them a different dimension altogether."

Shaun Davey was transfixed by Ó Cinnéide's poetry when it was read to him by Mary and the accordion player and singer, Seamus Begley. Having lived (at least for part of each year) in west Kerry for a number of years now, Davey felt compelled to give something back to the community which had welcomed him so openly.

"Once we had demonstrated to our neighbours that we would be there for a lot of the year," Davey recalls with his customary modesty, "they accepted us as neighbours, and with being neighbours come responsibilities, and a desire to enter into the community. I actually felt that we had to make a musical contribution because they value music so highly in that area."

Davey didn't speak Irish and so wasn't privy to the nuances of the language. It was a barrier he surmounted with spectacular success, despite his own misgivings.

"The language was - and remains - a barrier," he says. "It's very difficult to cross because I find it a very difficult language to learn, but I was propped up on both sides by Mary and Seamus, who sat with me in my house one evening, quietly reading and rereading the poems, talking about them and translating them. I recorded them, and from that I understood the cadences and where the accents fall. The key is to understand where the accents are, because they should end up as musical stresses."

The possibility that Davey has now augmented the traditional song repertoire is one he's unwilling to take too seriously, given the relative youth of his compositions, not to mention the nature of the oral tradition to which he is a relative newcomer.

"I wouldn't presume or set out to write a piece of music with that in mind," he insists. "That would be far too self-conscious, and ultimately it's up to other people as to whether that happens or not. Frankly, that's not my concern. I think, though, that my melodies haven't achieved what the great traditional airs have, which is an air that, within its arc, contains the harmony that would support the tune. My tunes need an accompaniment, whereas traditional airs are often performable without accompaniment."

This exercise in working with local musicians and source material couldn't have been more different from the formal orchestral projects which define Davey's musical identity: The Brendan Voyage, Granuaile, The Pilgrim and The Relief of Derry Suite. The sense of community bolstered him immeasurably, as a musician and composer, he admits. "There's that dreadful feeling of walking the plank as a composer when you have an orchestra of highly skilled musicians sitting down playing it. It isn't necessarily a pleasant experience, whereas, by contrast, the music written for Béal Tuinne is designed to be performed in a truly companionable setting where nobody's under undue pressure. It's easy music to play and it's not too intense."

THE Ó CINNÉIDE connection at Imram continues with the involvement of Irish-language poet, Dairena Ní Chinnéide (sister of Éilís and daughter of Caoimhín), who will be collaborating with The Gaelic Jazz Project for the second time at Imram this year. Does the act of writing poetry differ when she knows that her words will be accompanied by music?

"I would, by instinct, write a poem that would stand alone anyway," Ní Chinnéide says. "It tends to be quiet lyrical, but my background is in traditional music so my inclination in relation to the 'music' of the poem would have more of a traditional buzz. This jazz collaboration is quiet different for me, but I really enjoy that chance to space out the words, to deal with different rhythms and create a space around the words that the jazz fuses with really well."

Ní Chinnéide finds that the work of her father, Caoimhín, ignites her own writing.

"His influence was huge, immense," she states unequivocally. "He was an extraordinary man, and you couldn't help but be infected by his love for song. He expressed himself so well in song, and had one for every single occasion. He really enjoyed the fun of putting a situation and a song together and doing it so beautifully. With Shaun Davey's work, he's married the two aspects of dad's life that he loved: poetry and song. Caoimhín's poetry had an incredibly melodic nature to it in Irish, and it lent itself well to composition, and Shaun's talent was to pick up on the nuances of daddy's writing. It's a gift, really."
SIOBHÁN LONG - Irish Times 2009

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