HOME is where the heart is and for traditional flute and whistle player Kevin Ryan, that place has always been Clare. This Saturday he brings his band, Eitre, to the county he has made his home, to play their first Glór gig.
Born in Crewe, Cheshire, close to the Welsh border, Kevin grew up in the company of Irish musicians who came to play at Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann sessions, organised by his father, Paul, a Kilkenny man.
Every summer was spent in Ireland on the family farm in Kilkenny and from the age of 10, Kevin came over to participate in competitions and sessions, winning two All-Ireland titles on the flute by the time he was 12.
“I was literally stomped and steeped in traditional Irish culture. Almost every weekend we had musicians over with us. Then I got a flute when I was 10. And from then on, I came over for Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. Within five months of getting a flute, I could play pretty well and was winning competitions. I took part in the Fleadh Nua too, in Dublin first and then in Ennis when it moved there. So I came to Ennis for the first time when I was 10,” Kevin said.
From then on, the young Kevin travelled all over the country for competitions. “At competitions, I would have seen the likes of John Carty, banjo player, who was about the one age with me, taking part. I went to Buncrana, Letterkenny and over the border to Belfast. That was at the time of the Troubles. My dad had a van, which he used to transport us all around in to competitions and sessions and he painted it with the tricolour. So we travelled the length and breadth of the country, including through the north, in our tricolour van,” he recalled.
Initially, Kevin worked as a therapist in the mental health sector in Cheshire. In 1994, he went on a walking holiday to Nepal, an event which led him to make life-changing decisions. “I got very sick over there with dysentery and nearly died. I got stuck out in the jungle whitewater rafting. I went from 10 and a half stone to six and a quarter stone in a short space of time.”
Kevin recalls that during his recuperation, he was pondering how he had never been at the Willie Clancy week and how much he really wanted to go. “I can remember I was with my doctor about three months after and the doctor said I was ready to go back to work and I asked him to extend my time off for another week so I could go to the Willie Clancy Week. The doctor said to me I’d be grand drinking Guinness and that it would help me to put a bit of weight on. So the doctor wrote me off sick for another three weeks and I came over. After the first morning of finishing playing tunes at 8.30am, I was sitting in the thatched cottage in Spanish Point and I decided quietly to myself that I was going to come over here to live. So within a month, I packed in my job and decided I was coming back home. To me, here was always home,” Kevin said.
He continued, “I was offered part of the family home in Kilkenny but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. Clare just felt more like home to me than anywhere else. I can make myself feel at home anywhere in the world but Clare was always just different. I felt I belonged here. A lot of it revolved around the love of sharing music – me learning music and me sharing my music.”
Kevin recalled that it took less then three months to move his life over here. “I got rid of job, house, car and brought my life over to Ireland. I was very lucky with my friends. I stayed with friends for a while in Dublin. And we played some of the first trad sessions in the new Temple Bar. I gigged in Dublin for about four or five months. Then I moved down to Dingle at the foot of Mount Brandon for about a year – loving it – going up and down the mountain three or four times a week. I was playing in pubs to earn a living. I was listening to that part of myself that it’s hard to listen to and just doing what I really wanted to do and needed to do.”
He then went on a 10-week tour of the United States with some other musician friends. “When I came back I just decided I wanted to come to Clare and not to Kerry. So I got a car and put all my things in it and came up over the Conor Pass. I rented a house in Skehanagh belonging to Haulie Mahony. I lived there for a year and then found the Gate Lodge at Knappogue Castle, which belongs to Shannon Development, and I’ve been living there for 16 years now,” Kevin explained.
He started teaching music from his home about 12 years ago. “I teach mandolin, whistle and banjo. I’m self-taught, so I teach by ear. The ability to remember something by ear is innate in all of us but we lose that ability as we start to clog our heads up with other things. What makes the difference is how much someone gets the time to nurture that innate ability. I’ve never met anyone who is tone deaf but there are people who just don’t know how to use that ability.”
Kevin teaches five-year-olds upwards. “I generally start teaching someone the whistle, unless someone specifically wants to learn one of the other instruments. People can learn to play an instrument at any age if they really want to. So it’s never too late to learn music, especially for someone who just wants to learn for the love of it. I will teach someone what they want to learn, so if someone comes to me with a particular tune that they’ve heard and love, I will teach it to them. 90% of learning music is about listening,” Kevin commented.
Recently Kevin and fiddle player, Siobhán Peoples, were teaching at a festival in Le Bono, Brittany, and he is hoping to teach at more festivals internationally.
As it is, he’s getting plenty of travel and exposure on the European scene lately with his band, Eitre. He has been a member of the band for about 10 years. The band came about from a chance meeting with Swedish musician Esbjörn Hazelius at a session in Sweden almost 11 years ago. “He’s a singer and fiddle player. He came up to me after a session and said he’d met me at another session in Oslo a few years before that. So just out of the blue he asked me if I’d like to start a band. I knew him very little. He asked me to get another melody player. Esbjörn is top of his game in Sweden and was nominated for a Grammy this year,” Kevin said.
So Kevin contacted his friend, accomplished piper Marco Pollier. “He’s a French man who is a piper and happened to be living in Ennis at the time. We put some tunes on a tape and sent them over to Esbjörn. He played with Dag Westling in a band called Quilty. He’d also played with a bass player called Fredrik Bengtsson in a progressive Swedish trad band. A few weeks later, Marco and myself landed in Sweden. Marco had never met any of these people. I’d met Esbjörn but had never met the other two. We rehearsed for an afternoon and then we went on a 10-day tour. The first gig was radio live. We clicked and got on well and a few years later we made our first album The Coming of Spring.”
Asked to describe Eitre’s music, Kevin paused and said, “It’s kind of indescribable. But somebody else described us as having a unique interpretation of traditional music. What we do is not too far outside the box. It’s half songs and half jigs, reels and hornpipes. It’s not just one style of music. Basically, it’s tunes we love playing and played how we think they sound good. We play them fairly straight but there’s something a bit different in how we connect them or finish them off. It’s like the Bothy Band on acid. It’s fiddle, pipes, flute, guitar, bass and a bouzouki and sometimes a zithern.”
The band have been touring a lot in the past six months, mainly in Germany, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Belgium. “We do from small restaurants to bigger festivals. In Sweden, we also play in schools – they’ve got a great programme running where music, crafts, dance and so are brought right into the schools for the children to experience first hand. So we’ve done concerts for 600 kids in schools.”
Eitre played in Clare four years ago for the Guinness Music Festival, but this Saturday is their first Glór gig. “I’m looking forward to showing friends, family, neighbours and the people I teach, what I do, when I go away on tour. We are five very different personalities but that’s what makes it work. We have a lot of craic and I feel we perform really well together. All of us are doing our own thing in the music scene together and play at sessions, or in different bands too. The local support is Catherine Liddy – she plays the whistle and the flute and Kate Moloney, she plays the box, the flute and fiddle. I’ve taught both of them since they were children. Both of them are studying in UL now, on the traditional performance course. They are both very talented and they don’t even know it,” Kevin said.