On July 9th, one of the greatest of Irish traditional musicians, Mícheál Ó’Domhnaill, died in Dublin at age 54. Ó’Domhnaill, a guitarist, was one of the founding members of the Bothy Band and recorded four albums with the group in the 1970s. He then moved to the U.S. where he collaborated with Kevin Burke on Open House. With the Cunningham brothers, he formed the Scots-Irish band, Relativity. One of his last musical gigs, and one of his longest, was Nightnoise, an ensemble composed of him and his sisters, Maighread and Triona.
The Ó’Domhnaills hailed from Kells, County Meath, the home of the famed Book of Kells, one of the most important of all Irish manuscripts. From a very early age, Micheal displayed great admiration for Irish traditions. He was a native Gaelic speaker and his grandparents came from Donegal known as a cradle of traditional Irish culture, especially music. Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, founder of the internionally renowned Altan, also grew up there among many other distinguished Irish musicians.
Here is his biography from Rynne.org:
His grandparents were from Rann na Feirste (in English “Rannafast”), a village in an Irish-speaking region (a “Gaeltacht”) in County Donegal. They received a land grant in County Meath as part of an Irish government initiative to set up a Gaeltacht near Dublin by transplanting native Irish speakers to the area (Irish was, and still is, only spoken as their daily language by a minority of the people of Ireland, concentrated mainly in certain western areas of the country).
Mícheál’s grandparents returned to their native Donegal after 15 years. However, in the meantime their son Hugh…had married a Dublin woman, Brid Comber, and settled as a teacher in Kells, Co. Meath. His children, Mícheál, Tríona and Maighread grew up in Kells, spending their school holidays in Rann na Feirste. Hugh was also a musician, singer and collector of songs, and Brid was a choir singer, so the children grew up in a very rich musical environment. They received music lessons from an early age (Mícheál recalls receiving piano lessons from the age of six until he was sixteen – when he was able to focus on the guitar – his preferred instrument).
Summers in Donegal brought the siblings into contact with their aunt, Neilí, a renowned singer who had a vast reportoire of songs in Irish and English. Other acquaintances made in Donegal were Pól and Ciarán Brennan (members of Clannad), and Dáithi Sproule (long a member of Altan).
Micheal’s guitar style was gracious and understated and never impeded or interfered with the melody. It wasn’t complicated or overly technical but, as a commenter wrote at Thesession.org,:
What’s wonderful about his style to me are several things: his voicings (“forms”), his cross-picking/arpeggios, and his substitutions…
…His technical skill…is fearsome. But the true genius to me–and what has bent my mind and my ears ever since–is his substitutions, the almost jazz piano-like way he plays certain chords against [Kevin] Burke’s fiddle melodies. Micheal O’Domhnaill is not flashy or a rock ‘n roller…more like Bill Evans than Little Richard
Another commenter wrote this about his musicianship:
One of the wonders of the man was how much impact his backing had, but without ever over-powering, never out of balance–so much so that you’d find yourself taking it for granted–but as much of what made you want to dance or sing as any single element of a track. It just seemed right, moss under trees in a forest…
Besides his guitar work, Micheal possessed a profoundly soulful voice which he used to great effect on such magnificent ballads as The Death of Queen Jane (hear it) and Lord Franklin. After he recorded his version each one became a classic and a touchstone for the lyrical beauty that Irish music could achieve. Queen Jane is one of more heart-rending English ballads describing Queen Jane Seymour’s tortuous and ultimately fatal child birth.
Micheal apparently died of a fall in his home. RTE produced an audio tribute to him. He was apparently a fanatical golfer and bent the ear of many an interviewer on the subject.