Folk music has always been a huge part of my life from growing up in Coleraine, listening to LPs and tapes of The Fureys, The Dubliners, Planxty, De Dannan, Paul Brady, The Bothy Band…the list goes on. My mother and father always had music playing and my mum sang around the house constantly. Oddly enough, I grew to think that folk music was Irish music! Apart from the other bands i was into at a very young age like U2, Oasis and The Stone Roses, I had never heard anything else other than Irish music, at least none that I would have branded folk music – again I was young and naive.
The folk scene in the North of Ireland was (and still is) vibrant – but not only are people and religion segregated, unfortunately, in my opinion, so is the music. Through my experiences playing folk music, especially in Coleraine, it was very much frowned upon by the majority of the town. The old Irish ballads we were singing, like ‘The Rare Old Mountain Dew’ were fun and to us (we played as a 7-piece family band for many years – we were know as the ‘Von Trapps of Coleraine’!) and were part of our culture but to others they were offensive because they mentioned place names in the south of Ireland. Daft and upsetting, considering this specific song is about the intoxicating properties of poitin, something which I’ve experienced a few times and Its definitely a good thing! Our intention was by no means to offend but this was and still is the current political climate in parts of the North. However, on a positive note, the folk scene in the North is more spirited than ever at present with sessions, gigs and festivals cropping up all over. There are huge amounts of young, incredibly talented musicians coming through and the political climate is thankfully and will hopefully continue to improve. Some of the best musicians i have ever had the pleasure of sharing a stage with or meeting are from the North and learned their music there e.g. Cathal Hayden, the Beoga gang, Cara Dillon, Paul Brady and many more. There is a fabulous tradition and a wealth of traditional material in the North which i myself have only discovered over the past few years.
Now, moving to England was a huge learning experience for me. Boasting somewhere in the region of 150 folk festivals, the folk scene is huge and just gets bigger and better every year. Firstly, I discovered that folk music was a hell of a lot more than Irish music. I discovered English music, I learned that there were even regional scenes and traditions within it all, I learned about rapper dancing which at first, and I joke you not, I thought was some kind of dance accompanying somebody rapping a song!! Until I plucked up the courage to ask someone what it was – and a few months later I was doing it! I did Irish dancing when I was younger (in fact, I used to beat a chap with exactly the same name as me, Damien O’Kane, who now is one of the main dancers with Michael Flately!) and as the steps were very similar and I also like a drink every now and again I took to it pretty quickly!
On a more serious note, it seems to me that not only is there no segregation with the music in England, but everyone embraces each other’s traditions and joins in with one and others. The diversity was immediately evident. Now don’t get me wrong, this happens in N. Ireland as well but because of the separation in some communities, to a lesser extent.
My experiences of folk and traditional music in England have given me many skills and greatly expanded my knowledge. They have broadened my horizons ten-fold and taught me of the beauty and scope we have with our different traditions and also how privileged we are to be involved in such a genre which at present is vastly booming onto the commercial scene and becoming an equally respected genre as it should have been for years.
Anyway, these are my experiences, I’m not saying one tradition is better than the other, simply that it is clear to me that the music, song and dance of England is probably one of the more diverse traditions in Europe, if not the world.
Irish music is always where my roots and heart will be but i learned quickly that folk and traditional music encompasses much more.
Damien O’Kane is 32 and hails from Coleraine in Co. Derry, Northern Ireland. He moved to England in 2001 to complete a degree course at Newcastle University. He graduated in 2005 and has been performing ever since. He is probably best known for his work with Shona Kipling and Flook but has recently been a full-time member of Kate Rusby’s band.