I was very deeply saddened at the sudden passing on 16th November 2018 of my dear friend and lifelong musical collaborator Alec Finn of Oranmore Castle, Co. Galway, Ireland. His death, aged 74, leaves a huge hole in traditional music in Ireland, and there was a great outpouring of grief from all corners of the globe where his exquisite bouzouki accompaniment with De Danann was revered for over four decades. I had known him extremely well for 38 years, so it left myself and many others reeling.
My own first encounter with Alec’s mesmerizing musicianship was in 1978. His band De Danann broadcast a session on the legendary BBC Radio 1 John Peel Show. It literally stopped me in my tracks, and I was utterly captivated. I then tracked down the vinyl LP of the duet recording that Alec and his close ally, fiddler extraordinaire Frankie Gavin had made one afternoon in New York for Shannachie Records. Alec reminisced recently to me that all it took was a bottle of Jack Daniels and a series of blistering first takes and history was made. That interplay between fiddle and bouzouki was at the very core of the sound of their band De Danann. Subsequently, I made my way to the West of Ireland, with pals, and I tracked the band down to a gig in Kilkenny, where, literally, the direction of my life altered. The music was life affirming, joyous and infectious, and the place went completely daft, as we three did, for the “Star Spangled Molly” Irish/American themed music they were playing then. I met Alec afterwards in the bar, and, having a passionate curiosity about mandolins, exploring the bouzouki was high on my agenda, so who better to ask! He was hugely welcoming to us three visiting Scots that night, and he passed me his address to keep in touch. Thus began a lifetimes' friendship, with many trailblazing tours and gigs around America, Ireland and the UK undertaken. For the next 5 years I was the bands’ roadie, mainly because Alec reckoned the safest place for the evening’s gig fee was in my sporran, and they insisted that I wear the kilt on tour! Crazy and hilarious days! Later, Alec and Frankie came to Scotland to accompany me on "Springwell" my first solo cd, then on a very exciting string duet cd Alec and I made on Greentrax recordings, “Polbain to Oranmore”, and again on two other cds of mine "Dorney Rock" and Highland Strands". He asked me to create the artwork for, and play mandolin on his beautiful “Innisfree” cd as well, a huge honour for me. Another time Alec took me to Taos, New Mexico as his melody player at the 2003 Zoukfest, a real high for me. And so many other unforgettable instances where I got to sit on stage with my hero and his band. How lucky I felt every time.
But above all that, we met often over the years down in London, Dublin, or Galway to perhaps head west for a weekend’s hilarity on, say, Inis Oirr, with music, sessions, crab claws, craic, pints and really wonderful times! And Alec loved visiting Edinburgh, one of his most favourite places. He had a passion for all things Scottish, partly due to having a Scottish Granny, a MacDonald of course! He adored the music scene here in Scotland, the “malts of the moment” in Sandy Bells Bar, the Scots repertoires of fiddlers John Martin and Freddie Thomson, singer George Duff and the bagpipe music repertoire of ace pipers Allan MacDonald and Mike Katz, slagging our old muso-pal Ninian Fergus, and, of course, the whisky. A “Rube” – a “Ruby Murray” or curry would then end the proceedings to his complete satisfaction! He really revelled in it all, and the sessions were truly immense. Every meeting was also filled with rummages in charity shops, fleamarkets, garden centres, architectural salvage yards, antiquey places and junkyards, with his amazing artistic eagle-eye unearthing some colourful and exotic curiosity; baubles, ironwork, Mexican tiles, anything remotely bird related, exotic plants, bits of chandeliers, an eagle belt buckle, a glitter ball, an old Asian print, a colourful picture frame, a cast iron railing, a tiny apprentice piece mandolin, a skull ring, an exotic amaryllis bulb and on and on. These were crammed into his luggage and Alec would finally get these home to his beloved Oranmore Castle where they adorned the walls and orchid filled glasshouses in a dazzling concoction of colour. A beautiful home of a veritable bowerbirdman! The fabulous wedding of Alec and Leonie’s daughter Heather there at Oranmore Castle was a riot of colour and extremely special. Latterly, Alec and Leonie would create a colourful Mediterranean retreat in Vence, on the Cote D’Azur, and Alec’s 60th birthday there was a hugely memorable event too. Held outside in the lush garden in the heat, with his close pals there en masse, listening to Eleanor Shanley singing with Alec accompanying her was as special as it gets. Days to truly savour and reflect on with much warmth over the years to come.
But fundamentally, he had a unique way of making other musicians, singers and tune players sound so much better, and special, with a lightness of touch, a blues undercurrent and a sparkling, light sound. And it was spontaneous, little ever seemed to be rehearsed or practiced. He just played from the heart, he knew the songs, understood how to arrange them in a new way, wove fascinating lines under the tunes, held the pulse and lightning speed of the jigs and reels and made it all so utterly groovy and exciting. And the close coterie of musical collaborators that he chose to underpin included some of the very greatest musicians in Ireland; Mary Bergin, Frankie Gavin, Noel Hill, Dolores Keane, Mary Staunton, John Carty, Eleanor Shanley, Kathleen Loughnane, Sean Ryan, Tommy Peoples, Mike Scott and many others. He had the most superb ear for improvising something unique, complimentary and perfect for the moment. He himself was simply unforgettable, a large and charismatic physical presence, a loveable, unforgettable bohemian man, a "creative soul", as his talented son Cian Finn described him in the recent TG4 "Se Mo Laoch" documentary on Alec's life. Timely now in hindsight, this film captured the artistic essence of this great man, and I was deeply honoured to guide him through his recollections during the memorable recording in February 2018, the last time I saw him. Playing one last pipe march with him in the Great Hall of Oranmore Castle will remain the high point of my musical life.
I really will miss his fantastic musicianship, whacky wit and hilarious joke telling, his astute musical guidance, the scurrilous cartoons, his innate colour taste, idiosyncratic dress sense, his love of the music of Ry Cooder, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, the Hawaiian shirts, his total veneration of the singing of Dolores Keane, the mess he always left in his wake, his fascination with birds and wildlife, his pithy and acerbic observations on life, the fabulous ceramic birds and figures he created, his complete abhorrence of sports, his ability to render any modern technology to instant wreckage, his astounding ear for harmony and counterpoint, the collage artworks, falling about laughing watching Mel Brookes in "Dead and Loving it", his deep loyalty to his close coterie of musicians, his strong and personal concern for those same friends in times of great need, his love of old lutes, guittaras, bouzoukis, waldzithers and mandolins, the understated yet perfect guitar accompaniments, his deep love for his family, and his shock of shoulder length white hair. But more than anything, I’ll never forget the heavenly and unique music he made and the passionate artist’s life he led to the full with enormous zest. An extraordinary man.
Thanks a million Birdman, it was a real rock and roll ride! We will miss you more than you would ever believe!
BY KEVIN MACLEOD – EDINBURGH 6TH DECEMBER 2018 (copyright 2018 Kevin HJ Macleod)