Neil Martin: More than one string to his bow

Martin’s career has successfully married classical and traditional music

Hailing from a long line of traditional musicians and singers, Belfast born musician, composer and producer Neil Martin became the first uilleann piper to play at the closing night of the Proms in Hyde Park in 2003. And while he was ‘utterly diseased…completely obsessed’ by the pipes in his youth, Martin’s credits stretch far beyond traditional scope of Irish music.

Martin has composed and arranged music for local theatre, radio and television, including a longstanding partnership producing films with David Hammond’s company, Flying Fox. He has also played alongside such greats as Brian Kennedy, Sinnead O’Connor, Phil Coulter, Arty McGlynn, Altan and the Dubliners. In 2004 he secured a record deal with Universal, and hopes to release a second album with the West Ocean String Quartet in the forthcoming year.

Introduced to the cello at primary school and to the pipes by his uncle Tomás O Canainn, Martin is a classically trained musician whose musical genius and ingenuity has led to the successful marriage of the two traditions. Martin has recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, playing both the pipes and tin whistle, and performed in the Carnegie Hall and Royal Festival Hall, London, to name a few.

Neil Martin was educated at a Christian Brothers’ primary school on Belfast’s Antrim Road, where they ‘really encouraged music and the joy of music’. But he also benefited from the early tutorage of Francis McPeake and Liam O’Flynn, for whom his most recent composition, No Tongue Can Tell, commissioned by the 2004 Belfast Festival at Queen’s, was specially written.

‘I was in awe of this piper called Liam O’Flynn, you know, when I was 11, 12, 13, and then when I was 14 years old there was this thing called the Scol Eigse, which means in Irish “the school of learning”…

‘This year this information came up that Liam O’Flynn was going to be teaching pipes and well, my God, I tell you, it was incredible to be in the room with this man who really was your doyen, your god, you know. And I learned so much from Liam that week about technique and ideas about music, it took me almost a year to implement into my playing what I learned. Wonderful stuff.’

Martin left St Malachy’s College, Belfast, in 1979, embarking that same year on his first tour of America with the Belfast Youth Orchestra. Martin has since toured extensively throughout Europe and North America, hoping to add Albania to his passport this year. But the globetrotting composer has lived more than a few streets away from the house where he was born in north Belfast.

Indeed, family is of paramount importance to Martin; a fact reflected in No Tongue Can Tell. In memory of the short life his grandparents had together and the love they shared, the piece is dedicated to his own mother Margaret.

Nevertheless, Martin is critical of the arts scene in Northern Ireland, and the contortions traditional culture is made to perform in the name of politics:

‘You have to be so careful in this society of all the minuets and pirouettes of politics and definition and tradition and whose tradition. I find most of that a pile of bollocks…

‘I have heard, to give you an example, politicians on both sides say some outrageous things about the Irish language. I have heard politicians of one side call it ‘the leprechaun language’ and ‘a Fenian tongue’ and things like that. And I’ve heard politicians on a republican side claim it exclusively for themselves. Well, I’m afraid, that’s nonsense. It’s an artform way above religion and politics…

‘And it doesn’t belong, language and culture—they don’t belong to anybody…Traditional tunes grew up through people. Most of them now are anonymous because they are dead, but most of them, you know, the importance of the tune doesn’t depend on whether it was written by a Catholic fiddle player or a Protestant fiddle player…Its way above that, way above that.’

By Janice Smith