Curly Wee and The Pooka

‘The Pooka and the Fiddler’ is a story told in verse and incorporating traditional Irish music. We recorded it almost ten years ago; here’s how it came about. I was on the ‘phone looking for gigs to add to some dates that we were to play in California. I ended up speaking with Curtis Pendleton from the San Luis Obispo Mozart Festival, whom I’d met at a Western Arts Alliance conference. She had explained that they had a “generous definition of chamber music” at their festival, so I called and I was glad I did. We agreed that Colcannon would do a regular concert, give a talk on some aspect of Irish music and … do a family show. Well, that’s where Aughrim was nearly lost, as they say in Ireland. We’d never had a ‘family show’ per se, even though most of material is family-friendly enough; but nothing designed to appeal to a family audience particularly. But in short order, I agreed to all the conditions, then got off the ‘phone and wondered what to do. For some time the band had been mulling the thought of producing a story/orchestra/Colcannon piece. Well, it was short notice for an orchestration but I had been toying with the idea of a story concerning a pooka. The pooka is a type of supernatural Irish creature that is found in animal form — usually goat; sometimes eagle, dog or other rarer forms. Traditionally, it’s a rather forbidding, even violent creature and prone to being misleading — rather like Trickster in Native American stories. (Not all pookas are that way, though. A well-known pooka in County Westmeath was a donkey that went into people’s houses at night and did housework.) Puck, in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is a pooka type, and in Ireland a male goat is known as a puck. The medieval characterization of the Devil, with horns and cloven hooves, is based on the old pagan pooka image. 

So, I thought why not write a pooka story and use music that we already played to fill in the story. I decided that the story should be in verse to make it ‘special’ and then I thought that if the story itself were about music — and the different kinds of Irish music — we’d have something to work with. And so, The Pooka and the Fiddler was born. 

 

Writing the verse was actually pretty easy for me. From my very earliest days I’ve had a love of verse and poetry. I owe this fondness to my father, who was a man possessed of a seemingly infinite store of doggerel, quotations, excerpts from speeches, stanzas of verse, snatches of songs and well-wrought aphorisms. He was likely on any and all occasions to have the mot juste or the wry quotation. From an early age he encouraged me to memorize verse and, when visitors came, would have me recite short poems from Hilaire Belloc’s A Bad Child’s Book of Beasts. One particular piece, The Whale, was my party piece. Another Belloc volume, Cautionary Tales for Children was also a favourite and contained such classics as Matilda Who Told Lies And Was Burned To Death.

 

And I, like many children of my generation, was a great fan of the comic strip, Curly Wee and Gussie Goose. Indeed, our daily newspaper for many years was the Irish Independent mainly because it ran the daily adventures of that dignified pig and his loyal friend. I have no doubt that my attempts in The Pooka and the Fiddler as well as in Happy as Larry and O’Toole and the Goose, owe a great debt to Belloc and to Maud Budden, who wrote the Curly Wee verse. Roland Clibborn’s illustrations were also hugely charming. I’ve searched for many years to find a Curly Wee anthology but they’re very rare — even though the strip was syndicated in newspapers all over the world — and expensive. 

 

We often perform The Pooka  live, and are actually going to get a chance to perform it again next summer at the festival where it all got started (now renamed the Mozaic Festival).  After last year's performance at the Durango Celtic Festival our friend Kevin Dawson, of the band Giant's Dance, surprised us with a great illustration of his imagining of one of the scenes in the story. That's it there on the right.

 

We recorded the Pooka and the Fiddler along with a second story, Happy as Larry. We would love for you to buy the album, of course, but as as special treat for you all this month we're providing a link to a free listen. Enjoy!

 

 

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