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Renowned Irish musicians join forces for city’s first Organ Festival

17 October 2017

Neil Martin’s biography reads like an encyclopaedia of music, encompassing every possible element of the genre from opera to children’s TV, and there are several chapters more in the offing as the renowned Belfast musician continues on his musical journey.

While recording this interview he is driving to Dublin for a performance at the National Concert Hall, just a regular Wednesday night for the composer and musician, who counts Irish President and fellow Gaeilgeoir Michael D Higgins among his many followers.

No stranger to Derry, Neil Martin was one of the cultural champions who supported Derry’s City of Culture programme, featuring in a number of events during 2013, including The Conquest of Happiness and Field Day’s gripping production ‘A Particle of Dread – Oedipus Variations’.

He makes a welcome return to the city next weekend performing at the city’s first Guildhall Organ Festival, in what promises to be an exceptional Gala Evening Concert alongside renowned musicians Catherine Ennis and Paddy Glackin. And despite his extensive resumé it’s the first time Neil has played at an organ festival, as he explained on his journey.

“While I’ve been involved in so many projects this is my first organ festival, though I’ve performed with both Catherine Ennis and Paddy Glackin before,” he reveals. “Catherine’s father Seamus is one of the all-time heroes of Irish music, an uilleann piper and folklorist, as well as a collector of Irish music. He was also the first person to broadcast traditional Irish music on BBC radio.

“I’d met her dad on a number of occasions, and knew of Catherine’s background before I’d even met her, which was when I was asked to play at the Royal Albert Hall by Michael D Higgins. I said we couldn’t possibly use the Albert Hall without using the organ, which is amazing, and they asked who would be the best person to play. At the time Catherine Ennis was the President of the Royal College of Organists, very renowned in her field, so she was the obvious choice. It was a fantastic performance so I’m really looking forward to having the opportunity to work with Catherine again. Paddy Glackin, who is also performing on Saturday night, knew Catherine’s father well, so it will be a bit of a reunion for us.”

Featuring two of the country’s best traditional Irish musicians, it’s unsurprising that the gala performance on Saturday will have a distinctly Irish flavour, not something usually associated with the more demure tones of the organ. But the two instruments aren’t that disconnected as Neil explains. “Well the uilleann pipes were also known as the organ pipes. For example the bagpipes have drones but the uilleann pipes have both drones and regulators so it almost sounds like an organ when played. So although the instruments have disparate backgrounds in terms of culture they can work very well together in terms of sound.”

Returning to Derry is a bit of a homecoming for Neil, whose mother grew up in Barry Street, and he has never been allowed to forget about his Derry heritage. “My mother lived in Barry St in Pennyburn and I am very proud of my Derry roots – my mother never allowed us to forget them,” he laughs. “In fact during the concert I will be paying tribute to them, as I’m playing part of a large scale orchestral piece which I wrote for the uilleann pipes back in 2004. 

“The piece is titled ‘No Tongue Can Tell’ and it’s very much a celebration of my family and my home. I was asked to write something for the Belfast Festival with a nautical theme, so it was an opportunity to pay tribute to my grandfather who was a ship's engineer. He died at a very early age - he was only 36 - and my grandmother was pregnant with her 5th child – my mother – at the time. As kids we were very aware of this very sore theme, how my grandmother was sitting in hospital with her husband, him being given a lot of morphine to deal with the pain of his illness. With the effects of the drugs he didn't understand the severity of his condition and sang songs on his deathbed.

“In later years we discovered that my grandparents had sent love letters to each other – I had never thought about my grandparents in that way – but they were beautiful. So this movement of the larger piece I will be playing with Catherine remembers their journey through life together, it’s their love story and it’s titled ‘And They Loved’.”

Neil’s ties to the city are cultural as well as genealogical, and his long affiliation with the Field Day Theatre Company extends back to 1988, when he first wrote for the company, working with his close friend, celebrated local actor Stephen Rea. 

The pair returned to the city in 2013 when they played a key role in the City of Culture programme, working with Pulitzer prize winning playwright and actor Sam Shepard on a piece specially commissioned for the city during its culture year. After achieving major plaudits during its run here in the city ‘A Particle of Dread – Oedipus Variations’ went on to Broadway where it enjoyed a critically acclaimed three month run, and Neil recalls it was a real moment when they first say the Field Day name in Broadway lights. “That was a special moment. I remember standing on 42nd Street with Stephen outside the Signature Theatre and looking up at the lights - ‘A Signature Theatre and Field Day Production’ – that was really emotional. 

“It was almost a sold out run which was fantastic and a great legacy of the City of Culture. Sadly of course Sam Shepard passed away in recent months which we were all very upset about. He absolutely loved Derry, he loved the people and it was like a second home - the city really resonated with him when he stayed here.”

With the city gearing up for its bid for the European Capital of Culture 2023 alongside Belfast, Neil believes the region is nearing readiness for a new cultural challenge, and the many positives it will bring.

“The ECOC2023 bid is a terrific aspiration for Derry and Belfast. It’s a great reason for all of us to put our shoulder to the wheel. What we can do really well here is put together an incredible cultural programme and for a country of such a small population we really punch above our weight.

“This is all about engaging minds, and changing perceptions. I fully support the bid and hope to get involved in supporting it in whatever way I can. As Seamus Heaney said, people must be allowed to dream, it’s so important for us as artists and as humans to escape from the normal world and to be allowed to reinvent ourselves. To suspend belief for a little while – we can do that through music, through poetry and through the arts.”

You can hear Neil Martin perform his work on Saturday October 21 at the Guildhall where he will play alongside Catherine Ennis and Paddy Glackin at a special Gala Evening Concert. Derry’s first Organ Festival begins on October 19th and runs until October 21st with a full programme of workshops, master classes, lunchtime recitals and evening performances.

For more information and further details of the Organ Festival

Tel 028 71 376 510, Email [email protected] or follow the Guildhall on Facebook

Tickets can be purchased at the Guildhall, in person or by telephone.