A Night to Remember: Jim Corr and Liam Monagher in the Lisdoo, Dundalk

Just before Christmas, Dundalk was treated to a very special night of music in The Lisdoo in aid of the Louth Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The night was so lovely and enjoyable that it deserves further acknowledgement than just a handful of Instagram posts.

The bigger picture of the night was of course, raising awareness for mistreated animals and for raising funds for a worthy charity who work tirelessly to care for, treat, house, feed and rescue animals who need positive human intervention. A topic close to my own heart and indeed many hearts, as the venue was close to full. Such a positive and affirming act in itself!

Musically, the event was centred on Dundalk musicians, in particular those who are aligned with Irish traditional music- Jim Corr, Liam Monagher, Zoë Conway, John McIntyre and The Oriel Traditional Orchestra. If you were in any way interested in the music of our ancestry performed by professional, highly regarded and empathetic artists, you didn’t need a second invite to attend- for this was a once in a lifetime show.

Following a brief introduction from local broadcaster Harry Lee, The Oriel Traditional Orchestra opened the event. The orchestra performed pieces from the Oriel region which encompasses Louth, Meath, Monaghan and Armagh, arranged for orchestra. Their sound was as big as their number. They performed the sweetest melody on solo tin whistles to a hushed audience and they filled the room with the joyous sound of approximately sixty musicians in harmony. You couldn’t not be in awe of their collective passion and talent. At this point I will add that Zoë Conway and John McIntyre who played after Jim Corr and Liam Monagher, were fantastic. They’re a wonderful duo who compliment each other in a fantastic way, vocally and instrumentally. This blog is about Jim and Liam so I will not delay.

Succeeding the flurry of sixty-odd chairs getting packed away and guests’ tables getting pushed closer to the small-rise stage to fill the gap (no problem, I’m not shy! I very much would like to be closer to the artists I’m there to hear!), Jim Corr and violinist Liam Monagher sat on the edge of the stage very casually and chatted with Harry Lee. The friendship between Jim and Harry was obvious as Jim chatted about his sister Andrea’s newly published memoir and spoke about how much he enjoys the fact his son Brandon reads it to him in the evenings. Undoubtedly emotional and nostalgic for Jim, as his sister recounted stories and memories from her childhood right up until the time of publishing, many of which concerned their family while growing up. Harry turned to Liam and asked him to speak about his professional career as a violinist. Liam humbly revealed he has performed in prestigious venues including the Royal Albert Hall, London and Carneige Hall, New York. The pair have played together before, but this night was to be their debut public performance, one which Harry inquired, might be the beginning of a future project?

While Jim Corr needs little or no introduction due to the global success of The Corrs with his three sisters, he has always been a steady musician onstage, keeping an eye on each of his sisters in brotherly support and contributing to the formidable sound without drawing heaps of attention onto himself. I watched their performance in the O2 Dublin in 2016, each sister sibling cast adoring looks at their brother as they nervously returned to the Irish stage and I watched Jim acknowledge them and give a small and reassuring smile. Jim Corr is a pillar in terms of a live, performing musician and is a force of creative energy in the recording studio with an incredible wealth of knowledge concerning music production.

Liam Monagher also from Dundalk, began playing violin at the age of six and trained with the renowned violinist Ms. Patricia Treacy and also with Mr. Michael d’ Arcy at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, Dublin. As a solo violin performer, Liam has won many awards at Feis Ceol’s at Newry, Warrenpoint, Belfast and Sligo and also competed with success at Feis Ceol Dublin. As an orchestral musician, he has performed with numerous orchestra’s including the Orchestral Musicians of Northern Ireland, the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland (NYOI), the NYOI Camerata and the Cross Border Orchestra of Ireland (CBOI). Throughout the years, he has performed in many of the world’s most prestigious music venue’s including Boston Symphony Hall, Carnegie Hall, New York and Chicago Symphony Hall. Most notably, he was leader of the CBOI in performances at the World Expo Shanghai, China, the Lincoln Centre, New York and the Royal Albert Hall, London. In addition, he has played in all the major venues in Ireland including the Helix, the National Concert Hall, the RDS, Dublin, the SSE Arena and the Waterfront Hall, Belfast. Although principally a classical violinist, Liam who has been described as an “accomplished and stylish player” has won awards at Fleadh Ceol Na hÉireann at county, provincial and national level, including two gold medals, under the tutelage of respected Dundalk musician, Brendan Gaughran. Throughout his career to date, he has had the opportunity to perform for many dignitaries including President of Ireland Mary Mc Allesse, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip to name but a few. In recent times, Liam’s musical career has taken a diverse twist, seeing him record and perform with some of Ireland’s most outstanding musicians including Lisa Hannigan, Jim Corr, Miss Paula Flynn and Brian Kennedy.

Both musicians, with their incredible respective achievements, talent and musical training show no hint of pomposity, in fact they showed albeit only briefly, slight nervousness as they were playing to a home audience on home turf. They opened with the serene Irish traditional air Lough Erin Shore, more famously known as Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore (Paul Brady and Dolores Keane). Corrs fans know the air very well as two versions of the tune bookend the album Forgiven, Not Forgotten (1995), and was still part of their White Light Tour set in 2016. Of course, this wasn’t exactly a typical Corrs audience, it was an audience of friends and family which is a different level of support, and enthusiasm is expressed in more reserved ways (That means I didn’t bring my hotel pillowcase with “Jim, you’re looking well!!!!” colourfully drawn with twenty Sharpies- who let the fangirl in?!). By reserved, I mean you could have heard a pin drop in the room as Jim took to the keys and effortlessly danced over them, his right hand providing beautiful ornaments to the melody while his left hand supported with his signature rich bass notes and chords. All eyes and all ears were on the duo. Jim played one round of the tune before giving Liam the very same assuring smile he gave his sisters in Dublin as he lifted his violin bow to join him. Liam’s 1802 Perry violin sounded rich, full and warm, perhaps one might argue that’s not an overly traditional tone for an Irish performance but we’re not here to discuss authenticity, innovation or tradition. We’re here to listen to two fine musicians play the music of their heritage. And I for one quite appreciate a rounded and smooth violin tone, it’s kinder to my ears. Liam’s vibrato is graceful, measured and in my view, appropriate, as he draws a gentle sweetness out of his instrument. His execution of the pitch slide in the second part of the melody evokes the spirit of the first recording on Forgiven, Not Forgotten and he imparts his own signature by adding extra ornaments throughout. The pair arrive at the tune’s crescendo and Jim nods to Liam, taking over the melody in the upper octave, his delicate performance bringing to mind stars twinkling in the night sky with the fairies or siogs dancing beneath. One more round of the tune with Liam and with mutual smiles, signalling an silent agreement that this was to be the final phrase. Broad smiles to rapturous applause and cheers from the audience, their rendition was very much enjoyed.

Liam took the centre stage for the next tune, Brian Boru’s March. Liam led the way with Jim watching intently and adding beautifully accompaniment with occasionally jazzy chords and mirroring the melody as if the two players were one. Jim looked visibly at ease during this performance, perhaps any nerves of playing the first number dissipated and the two seemed to be feeding off each other musically. Indeed the two were so well rehearsed that they could relax, catching the briefest of staccato notes in perfect synchronisation, to snap you awake just in case you were floating off with the dancing siogs! And indeed to pre-empt what was coming next. The two started a new tune immediately, in classic Corrs style (think the unabridged version of The Carraroe Jig that was on the Love to Love You maxi-CD which pops a jaunty Trout in the Bath in unison violin and right hand piano). Certainly a joy of life of its own, the surge of energy from both musicians was lifting and playfully, Jim played the very last phrase in unison with both his left hand and his right hand for dramatic effect! Class!

At this point in their set, I’m delighting in the opportunity to listen to the keyboard musicianship of Jim Corr in such close proximately and liveliness. Yes, we get a sense of his incredible talent particularly on the Forgiven, Not Forgotten and Home albums, we know he’s a brilliant player but we don’t really get to appreciate it fully as there is so much more excellent music going on around him. United, The Corrs are genius, there’s no doubt about it, they have a synergy unique to them and they’re all fantastic (and I would argue, underrated) musicians. But here in the Lisdoo, it’s just Jim and Liam. No drums, guitars and more going on, this is very stripped back and very live. Jim is not a show off, he’s too gentle and grounded to be, but he definitely deserves celebration. The fluidity of his playing, his choice of chord arrangement, his choice of volume velocity and the perfect execution of his performance would leave you open-mouthed. He’s a totally different player, but he’s got that same midas touch Thomas Bartlett of The Gloaming has. My only wish at this point is that I could physically see his hands but I’m too shy to get up and move my chair, even for one song.

Speaking of The Joy of Life, Liam introduces the next tune as it. Jim starts the tune slightly slower than he normally would with The Corrs (it’s better to be too slow than too fast) and Liam picks up on this and pushes ahead, encouraging Jim to pick up the pace. The best tunes sound easy to play but are actually quite the handful (I’ve tried this particular favourite myself but alas, it’s definitely best left to the professionals). The Trout in the Bath rushes in, and some super-enthusiastic soul in the back of the room screams his lungs out in appreciation. Jim stomps on an endearing piece of wood with a boundary microphone attached to it, placed on the ground underneath his keyboard, emulating a kick drum or perhaps, emulating the stomping of the ground at a session in full swing (at this point in my own sessions, I’m rolling off as much low-end as possible on the mixer and have already requested the players to kindly remove their shoes!). But you can’t beat Jim’s energy, the audience are clapping in time with his stomping. We get a momentary rest with Jim’s jazzy sustained chords underneath Liam’s energetic playing and then in classic Corrs style, Jim yells “one two three four!” with support from the audience. They’re elated. Another few rounds of the tune before a flashy finish of violin tremolo’s and a sweep of all the keys, finalised by a synchronised final home note.

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Liam Monagher and Jim Corr. Photo by Stephanie Caffrey 2019.

Jim takes the microphone to introduce the next piece of music, the theme song from the 1988 film Cinema Paradiso. I had forgotten all about that film, we watched it in school during our Leaving Cert year. According to Andrea Corr in her memoir, Jim has perfect pitch and I well believe her, but Jim admitted difficulty in learning this particular piece of music solely by ear and said he only recently obtained the sheet music for it. Talented and humble. He had no sheet music in front of him that night and he grinned “I hope I play it ok now, I’m under pressure!”. The piece is distinctly classical, a far cry from his fusion/Irish sound he is known for. But let’s remember that Jim Corr has been playing piano since he could reach the keys. His father Gerry, taught him (and all the girls) and Jim studied at the Royal Irish Academy too. He could have pursued a career in classical music if he chose so. And evidently from this performance, Jim didn’t let the piano fade in the dust after his commercial zenith with The Corrs, nor did he stop playing classical altogether. His performance was flawless. Liam joined him with an equally flawless rendition of the melody, sliding effortlessly between left hand positions- one of the many hallmarks of an accomplished classically-trained player. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end at the beauty of their sound. Truly it was a sound to behold. And I’m not into classical music at all, bizarre I know (call myself a music lover?).

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Liam Monagher and Jim Corr performing Cinema Paradiso. Photograph by Stephanie Caffrey 2019.

Return to Fingall was performed next. Another one from The Corrs’ repertoire, Return to Fingall featured as a bonus track on the Japanese release of their fifth album, Home (2005). Why it wasn’t included on the Irish/UK releases baffles me as it’s a stunning tune. Originally a piping tune made famous by the great Séamus Ennis, it translates onto violin, tin whistle and piano beautifully. Delicate ornaments from Liam decorated the tune, putting his own stamp on it, he also emulated well through his choice of expression, how the tune might be played on the uilleann pipes. “Is that it?!” Jim yelled as Liam raised an eyebrow and shook his head mid-bow, “Oh yeah!” Jim grinned and seemed to remember by muscle memory the delicate piano solo that’s next. It was different to what we hear on Home, in fact there was a touch of Enya in Jim’s choice of harmony, perhaps a tip of the hat to the Donegal musical family that inspired his own. He ended the tune with another sweep of the keyboard but this time in key and with his foot on his sustain pedal. The audience were too polite to clap over the extended decay which made a beautiful and poignant chord, until it fully diminished.

The last tune to be performed was of course, Toss the Feathers. The Corrs’ staple. A big “aw” from the audience and an apology from Jim for “only” giving the crowd six songs (six perfect songs!). “Not too fast” said Jim as he launched in a mock high speed tempo, which made Liam laugh out loud and tease Jim. After a moment of inner contemplation, Jim decided on a tempo and Liam launched the reel with bells and whistles. Not wanting to slow down, Liam carried on and impressively executed the melody perfectly at that pace. Jim started stomping on the stomp box again and “yeeeeeow”s interspersed the audience clapping along. We’re used to hearing a massive production on this tune (drums, bass, tin whistle, guitars, the whole sheh-bang) but the momentum was carried by the two musicians. Jim varied up the accompaniment with his jazzy syncopated chords (I say “jazzy” but I don’t really mean stylistic jazz, I mean chords you might typically find in jazz), he showed groove is possible in Irish fusion with just two instruments. He smiled broadly as he executed his offbeats along with his constant floor stomping, music and groove just flows through him. And Liam kept up the whole way, never relenting or missing a note. The duo finished with a flamboyant ending, complete with a leg thrown up on the keyboard (!) and more rapid violin tremolos. Pure class. Sure I only lost my mind there and then.

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Go on ya good thing! Liam Monagher and Jim Corr performing Toss the Feathers. Photograph by Stephanie Caffrey 2019.

Myself and my mother highly enjoyed this wonderful night in the Lisdoo. We had such great craic, heard some truly stunning music and got to contribute to a wonderful local cause. If Jim and Liam were to perform again, we would be there in a heartbeat and we’d probably bring an army of fans with us too. The world could definitely do with a little more of Jim and Liam. Hup the lads! Love to love you both!

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