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Thirty years on, Estonian-Irish relations continue to flower

Irish musicians performing at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds on Sunday. From left (click to enlarge): Néillidh Ó Maolagáin, Tom Ó Maolagáin, Fiachra Ó Maolagáin, Seán Gilrane, Seán Garvey, Séan Ó Broin, Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich.
Irish musicians performing at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds on Sunday. From left (click to enlarge): Néillidh Ó Maolagáin, Tom Ó Maolagáin, Fiachra Ó Maolagáin, Seán Gilrane, Seán Garvey, Séan Ó Broin, Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich. Source: Leo O'Neill

It was thirty years ago this year that a small group of Irish musicians made their way to Estonia to take part in one of the most extraordinary, not to mention one of the first, albeit unofficial recognitions of Estonia as a (potentially) independent nation.

1988 was a signal year in the history of independent Estonia, as the Singing Revolution got its name, courtesy of artist Heinz Valk, and continued to gather pace with major concerts and gatherings through the summer of that year of a scale and openness which had been unknown in Soviet Estonia up until that point (just to give an example, public displays of the Estonian flag, along with many other things, were forbidden in the Soviet Union). In September of that year, Estonian athletes competed at the Seoul Olympics, not quite under their own flag, but with the blue, black and white now being waved openly upon their return to Estonia.

I am lucky enough to catch up with some of those who'd made the historic trip from Ireland then and were now back in Tallinn again as guests of the Estonia 100 events, performing several concerts whilst here and being interviewed plenty of times and generally having what would've looked like an exhausting schedule for men half their age. Indeed their Estonian assistant Kristiina is on hand to remind the guys they were being picked up just a couple of hours or so later, at nine o'clock sharp from outside their hotel, for the next engagement.

Not just music, but sport

It is perhaps because of this unrelenting itinerary that the guys need to take time out in the congenial surroundings of Mad Murphys' pub, a landmark watering hole in the Old Town's Raekoja Plats (Town Hall Square). Paramount, however, is the fact that the All Ireland Hurling final is taking place that very day as Galway face Limerick at Croke Park in Dublin, with pictures, if not sound, being beamed on to the screens of that establishment.

Well we have at least as long as the game lasts to chat. Being from the adjacent isle and having visited Ireland several times, I am likely to at least find some common ground, but the differences between those two countries are still marked. ''Have you seen hurling before?'' asks Seán Garvey, clocking my English accent. Seán is a singer, guitarist, tin whistle and even bouzouki* player from Cahersiveen in Co. Kerry, and was one of those who'd been here thirty years ago. I explain that I'd seen hurling on TV a couple of times though not enough to fully grasp its nuances. ''It's a fine game, elegant, refined and skillful'' Seán says, in a voice as soft and mellifluous as his singing and playing; ah but to be thirty years younger and in Tallinn again, Seán...

Flute, uilleann pipes, tin whistle, tenor banjo, bouzouki, balaclavas and more

Keen to establish my credentials I mention that I dabble with the Irish tenor banjo but still can't seem to get any speed into my fingerwork. ''That'll come with time,'' explains Tom Mulligan (correctly in Irish, Tom Ó Maolagáin), flute player and host of music sessions at the Cobblestone Pub in Dublin. ''Here's the link to our site, there's plenty of resources,'' he tells me, before kindly giving me a CD recorded at the pub, which is quite close by to the Brazen Head, another famous traditional music hotspot.

''They have a group at the Cobblestone called the 'balaclavas', so called because a lot of beginners are so shy to go along to sessions that we tell them we'll give them a balaclava to help them get the courage to play along,'' Seán Gilrane, flute player, from Bornacoola, Co. Leitrim, jokes.

There aren't, to my knowledge, any regular Irish music sessions here in Tallinn, but with the numbers of younger Irish, and those from other countries, attracted by Tallinn's hip and happening startup and tech scene nowadays, it can only be a matter of time before that changes and I do indeed need to go and purchase a new balaclava.

Steeped in tradition

''Didn't you play with [another legendary Irish band] the Chieftains?'' I ask. ''He did,'' says Neil (Néillidh) Ó Maolagáin, uilleann (pronounced 'ilen') pipes player, and brother of Tom pointing to, I think, Seán Garvey. But all the band are equally suffused with Irish music and culture and have plenty of anecdotes without any name-dropping needed from me. Like the time that Barney McKenna (the Lord have mercy on him), tenor banjo man with the legendary Dubliners, had received some sort of award and returned, beaming from the stage, to announce that ''would you believe it, they gave me a standing ovulation!'' [sic].

Other musicians present included top accordion player Brendan Begley (Breanndán Ó Beaglaoich) and the fiddle player, another from the Maolagáin family, Fiachra, son of Néillidh, as well as another flute player, Dubliner Séan Byrne (Séan Ó Broin). By this time, however, the All Ireland final was holding most people's attention, and there were quite a few fans of both teams, or neutrals backing one or the other, in the bar, both amongst our group and independent of it.

The world famous Irish pub culture is of course such that nobody stays a stranger for very long, regardless of where they're from, and the banter is flowing fairly freely for a saturday afternoon in Tallinn (''this is Andrew, from the County Warwick'', announces Seán Gilrane of me to some visting Limerick fans).

The match commentary is inaudible, so one of our number puts it on his phone. The only slight issue with that is it was ahead of the pictures so we were hearing the scores ahead of seeing them. Hurling is an incredibly fast-paced game, and which attracts vast crowds particularly to the All Ireland final, though that made little difference to the enjoyment, with the exception of the Galway fans present (their team came very close to closing the scoreline gap but Limerick seemed to always be a couple of points ahead of them throughout the whole match).

Looking back three decades

But back to Estonia, Tallinn, and the Singing Revolution. What was it like then, and what has changed now?

''I actually lived here in Tallinn for a while,'' says Dave Murphy, the band's chaperone and companion, something I can identify with, having initially only intended to spend six months to a year here, and that was coming up to nine years ago now.

''Everything has changed of course,'' says Néillidh one of those who made the first trip thirty years ago, in May 1988.

''To be honest before we came we could hardly have pointed to Estonia on a map,'' he goes on. ''We played in Moscow before Tallinn and got the train up here, and it was like another world''.

The winds of change brought by Glasnost' and Perestroika had been fair to the company however, and very soon passengers of all nationalities were being regaled with some of Ireland's finest jigs, reels, ballads and more.

''Practically every compartment on the train ended up having its own music session and party,'' says Néillidh.

Seán Garvey surveys the huge turnout at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds on Sunday. Source: Leo O'Neill

Something which comes across very strongly in the documentary from the time, shown the following evening at the Town Hall Square, is that if this was something completely new for the Irish in the group, then how much that was also the case for the Estonians. Still not a sovereign nation and with the morning star of independence only really rising fully that year as we have seen, this would have been the first chance the majority of people would have got to see Irish music and culture at first hand.

How it started

The project was set up by an organisation called Cooperation North which as its name suggests was an initiative in the north of Ireland, with broadcasting facilities provided by UTV (Ulster TV) rather than the national broadcaster RTÉ. A return trip was made later on in the year to Belfast, with Estonian musicians including Jaak Johanson, whose tune 'Lähtilükkamine' which he performed with his brothers, was really the anthem of the Estonian-Irish initiative and indeed one of the most well known songs from the whole of the Singing Revolution, appearing on the ensuing talk show, 'Kelly's People'. Estonian poet and writer Jaan Kaplinski was another notable on the show, which is available here, together with footage of the Estonian trip.

''One thing that struck us was just how clean and tidy everything was in Tallinn,'' reminisces Néillidh Maolagáin

''At the same time, consumer goods were in pretty short supply – at one point we went to get some chocolate and were told there would be none until next week,'' he goes on. ''Even getting steel strings for those musicians in the group who played stringed instruments proved almost impossible.''

''There wasn't even a pub as such, at least that we were able to find, at that time,'' he adds, pointing out a definite key deficiency in Soviet-era Estonia – something which is easy to forget if you're used to the Tallinn and Estonia of today, where we have a lot of them.

Special relationship between the two nations

''As I say the changes since then have been widespread,'' Néillidh goes on ''and everyone speaks such amazing English,'' – another thing I personally am reminded of all too often as it leads me to be lazy in learning Estonian. Indeed I think most Estonians today would get the 'standing ovulation' wordplay, and more than a few would have back then.

The 1988 trip also took the musicians over to the island of Hiiumaa which again was something completely unknown to them hitherto (''like Tír na nÓg,'' says Tom Ó Maolagáin, referring to the paradise 'land of youth' of Irish mythology).

I ask the guys whether they thought the initiative, so unique (inasmuch as you can have gradations of uniqueness) not only for Ireland but further afield, would have only been possible coming from a smaller, more traditionally neutral country like Ireland and wouldn't have been possible with a group from the US or UK at that time, even though we were well into the era of Glasnost' and Perestroika and the Reagan/Gorbachev summits.

''Yes I think that'd be the case,'' says Néillidh. ''We do have some things in common with history and culture after all,'' he goes on.

''I think someone from Ireland would find a lot more similarities with Estonia, than would someone from Britain,'' adds Dave.

The band giving one of many performances whilst in Tallinn. Source: Leo O'Neill


Independence first declared around the same time, subsequent paths different

Estonia first became independent in 1918, then later lost its freedom due to the machinations of the two vast, neighbouring totalitarian empires. Ireland first struck for independence in the modern era at Easter 1916, from the largely non-totalitarian, non-ideological British Empire, which nonetheless could be in its own idiosyncratic and quirky way, oppressive (particularly in Ireland) and at its peak was larger and a more powerful force in the world than either, arguably, the Soviet Union, or for that matter Nazi Germany, subsequently became.

Independence in Ireland became an actuality in 1921, and notwithstanding partition in the north and civil war in the south, that remained the case through to the present, so there is no equivalent to the Restoration of Independence day we were celebrating in Estonia that weekend. But still the parallels seem fairly apparent to an outsider like me; could we join the dots between Estonian songs of the singing revolution, and the Irish 'rebel song', for instance?

''No I don't think so,'' opines Seán Garvey. ''I like to keep politics out of music as far as possible; a lot of the rebel songs come from after 1916 whereas if you listen to Irish music from before that, [which he obviously does more than most] there is a much broader spectrum of themes and approaches to the music than simply the black and tans** and so forth, '' the Kerryman goes on.

Néillidh Ó Maolagáin: ''I think since the Good Friday agreement [the central event which built peace in the north of Ireland, involving the governments there and in Dublin and London and put an end to the troubles-ed.] there has been a blossoming of Irish culture in the world, including Estonia,'' somewhere the musicians have been back to multiple times since the first pioneering visit 30 years ago.

Onward and upward

Another development which Néillidh would have taken note of is that in instrument making. The Estonian equivalent of the uilleann pipes have evolved for one thing. The uilleann pipes are an incredibly complex instrument which students have to learn in three stages, starting with the basic model for getting the arm/playing coordination right (the uilleann pipes are not blown, but make use of a bellows which sits somewhere under the elbow) before progressing to the full-blown model replete with a chanter for playing most of the notes, a regulator which provides more playing possibilities, and three drones which provide harmony.

''The Estonian pipes back then, some of which are blown by the mouth [as with the Scottish great highland pipes-ed.] were quite crude in their construction, but nowadays there are some amazing instruments made by craftsmen,'' he says, showing me a photo of a local instrument maker and his wares.

By now the guys are getting fatigued with their non-stop schedule. The hurling final comes to an end with Limerick bagging their first win since 1973. Jaak Johanson pops his head round the door to say hello, but it's time to get back to the hotel to rest ahead of the evening's appearance at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds where they perform, amongst others, traditional song Slán Le Máigh, and even joining Estonian folk group Curly Strings on stage to play their most well-known tune, the eminently Singing Revolution-worthy Kauges Külas (see video below).

Significance of the trip

The next day, Monday, Restoration of Independence day itself, sees the group take to the stage once more, this time in Town Hall Square just opposite Mad Murphy's; 30 years ago when they played on Hiiumaa it had rained and so it is fittingly drizzly on the Monday too, and all the more invigorating for that.

I enjoyed my time with the guys and am grateful to them for taking time out to chat. Thanks are also due to Leo O'Neill of the Irish-Estonian Business Network for facilitating the interview, and to the IEBN themselves and the Irish Embassy, including recently-departed (from Estonia) former Ambassador Frank Flood, as well as of course the Estonia 100 singing event organisers, for making the event happen.

It is a rare honour for a music troupe from outside Estonia to perform on Restoration of Independence day and, (this is just my opinion) Ireland is the only country whence a group would have the sufficient balance of charm, diplomacy, wit, a shared history – and of course musicianship – to ever really be up to par on that. Long may that relationship continue.

A video of the group performing at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds on Sunday is here:


*A stringed instrument of Greek origin, more reminiscent of the mandolin, than the banjo.

** The nickname, which derived from the colour of their uniforms, of special reserve constables drafted in by Britain and including a large number of Scots in their ranks, during the Irish War of Independence of 1919-1921. The 'tans' quickly became, and continue to be, notorious in Ireland for their fearsome atrocities and ill discipline.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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