Irish traditional music legend Cathal McConnell, who brings his trio to Celtic Connections on Tuesday 21st January, has earned the description “inimitable” many times over since he began touring with the popular folk band Boys of the Lough in 1968.
In addition to a natural musical ability that saw him achieve the rare distinction of winning the All-Ireland Championship on both flute and whistle as an eighteen-year-old in 1962, McConnell has an onstage manner that can have even his fellow musicians in stitches.
His apparently absent-minded between-song commentaries have endeared McConnell to audiences across Europe, the UK and especially in America, where Boys of the Lough have toured some seventy or eighty times.
“Originally there were three boys,” says the septuagenarian who is also widely respected as a singer with a vast knowledge of the Irish tradition. “Just after we got together, we played a gig in Belfast supporting Peggy Seeger & Ewan MacColl. They were big stars at that time, and they liked what we were doing so much that they invited us to tour England as their support act.”
Early in the tour McConnell and his bandmates, fiddler Tommy Gunn and singer and bodhran player Robin Morton were asked to do a television broadcast. Before the cameras rolled, the presenter asked what they were called and when Morton rattled off their individual names, the presenter said, “No, no, you need a band name.” Gunn came up with Boys of the Lough on the spur of the moment and it stuck.
Within a few years, with Shetland fiddler Aly Bain having replaced Gunn and singer-guitarist Dick Gaughan having appeared on their first album before moving on, the Boys were selling out venues including the Usher Hall in Edinburgh and the Royal Festival Hall in London as well as making the first of those American tours.
Surviving a series of personnel changes that saw Aly Bain leave in 2002 after thirty-two years, they went on to release twenty-four albums and they still perform occasionally despite living in four or five different countries.
The Edinburgh-based McConnell is not ready to retire, however, and having won a Herald Angel award for his Cathal McConnell & Friends concerts at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015, he is enthusiastic about continuing to play with the trio that’s called, unofficially, Boy of the Lough and the Girls.
“Kathryn (Nicoll, fiddle) and Karen (Marshalsay, harp) are great players and I’m really enjoying working with them,” he says. “I don’t like to play it safe. I like to change the repertoire around and keep things fresh but the main thing when you get up onto a stage is you have to communicate with the people who have come out to hear you.”
As the audience at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Tuesday will discover very quickly, Cathal McConnell certainly communicates and once seen, he’s unlikely to be forgotten.
* Cathal McConnell Trio, Celtic Connections, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, January 21. Tickets here.