Donal Hickey, Stone Mad for Music: The Sliabh Luachra Story (Marino Press, 1999)

Subtitled "The Sliabh Luachra story," this book attempts to demythologize the heartland of Sliabh Luachra, a legendary area where Irish traditional music is concerned. To fans of Irish music, Sliabh Luachra will need no introduction. Something of a mini republic in Irish music terms, Sliabh Luachra, translated from the Gaelic as 'the mountain of the rushes,' is an area that has written its own rule book within the Irish traditional lexicon and produced its share of masterful exponents. The music is characterized by a wild reckless energy, which somehow symbolizes the rugged nature of the area.

However, what of the place itself? Its geographical boundaries and its associated myth and folklore? Situated along the borders of Counties Cork and Kerry, Sliabh Luachra is full of small townslands, villages and hamlets, including Ballydesmond, Gneevguilla and Scarataglen. Much of the music played and taught here has been absorbed into the local tradition. Producing such famous names as Denis Murphy, Julia Clifford, Tim Billy Murphy and Johnny O’Leary, Sliabh Luachra music is a law and legend unto itself. Its musical repertoire is characterized by a predominance of dance tunes such as polkas and slides over the more obvious jigs, reels and hornpipes. While its slow airs are in the minority when compared with other parts of the country, the tunes resonate with a shrill sadness and poignant humanity.

Stone Mad for Music not only aims to put down an accurate account of Sliabh Luachra’s musical history, but also to place its geographical and socio-economic story in context. A map of the Sliabh Luachra area shows places like Kishkeam, Ballydesmond, Gneevguilla, Scarataglen, and Knocknaboul, names which are mentioned in tune titles and played in sessions from Kenmare to Kingston Jamaica.

For those who have never encountered the place of origin of this music, a publication such as this is welcome both as a source book and as the lowering of a musical mask. Also welcome in this instance is the fact that the writer, Donal Hickey, is a local man. Raised in Gneevguilla, he is a founding member of local history society 'Cuman Luachra,' founded in 1981. For a publication that is neither academic study nor coffee table production, the choice of a local person to act as both historian and guide is a wise one. Donal Hickey’s personal experience of the local area, combined with his knowledge of the music and its exponents, adds to the intimate, almost parochial nature of the book itself. While it was written to wrestle with and describe what is in many ways a local phenomenon, Hickey’s clear, lucid and easily accessible writing style makes for a rewarding description of an area and musical style that is clearly unique in its own right. A comparison would be the American Appalachian folk tradition -- if someone locally wrote a book that effortlessly explained the nature of the music performed therein, and recounted tales of great names from the area in a clear uncluttered fashion to make a prospective outsider feel as though they knew the place... Well, Hickey’s book reaches for and taps that jugular vein.

Donal Hickey has in this collection endeavored to put some flesh on the idea that is Slaibh Luachra and arouse an appreciation for the place and its people. There is a simple fact that screams recognition: Sliabh Luachra has demanded a musical discourse and a social history. The fact that Stone Mad for Music covers both angles, being historically interesting and an enjoyable read, is equally pleasurable.

[John O'Regan]