Bill Leslie's Carolina Conversations

Musical Hero

Posted July 10, 2006

My heart aches today. A legendary Irish musician with a huge following in North Carolina passed away unexpectedly over the weekend. Mícheál Ó'Domhnaill (pronounced MEE-hall oh-DON-uhl) was a close friend who had a profound impact on me musically. Flutist Brian Dunning who played with Mícheál in the Celtic super band Nightnoise called me from Ireland Saturday with the tragic news. Brian was nearly in tears when he said: “Mícheál still had a lot of music left to share with the world.” It was ironic that Brian and Mícheál first met not in their native Ireland but in Birmingham, Alabama in the 1980’s. Brian said an improvisational session he had with Mícheál was magical. This unusual meeting set the stage for a brilliant band. The two teamed up with Mícheál’s sister Triona on piano/vocals and Oregon violinist Billy Oskay to form Nightnoise. Their first album as a quartet “Something of Time” is my all-time favorite. It features many of Mícheál’s exquisite melodies. Brian and Mícheál also put together another acoustic album “Fair Play” with heavy jazz influence under the name Puck Fair. If you can find this album, buy it! You will absolutely love it.
I became somewhat of a Nightnoise groupie attending concerts in Charlotte, Maryland, Washington, DC, Asheville, Burlington, Durham, Clemson, Morganton and Raleigh. Mícheál always welcomed me backstage. He even helped teach me to play the penny whistle and coached me on guitar technique. He was always honest. Once he said: “Bill, you write some marvelous melodies but you need buckets of practice!” He was absolutely right.
He also encouraged me to give up broadcasting and pursue music full-time. Mícheál grew up in a family of musicians and that seemed the only way of life for him. His family spoke Gaelic and sang and played hundreds of old Celtic melodies handed down from their Irish ancestors. In addition to guitar and whistle Mícheál played piano and harmonium beautifully. Some have called him the greatest Irish guitarist of all time. His incredible sense of rhythm, unique strumming technique and meticulous finger picking set a standard in folk and Celtic music. I loved his whistle playing especially on “The Cricket’s Wicket,” his huge Windham Hill hit. The first time I heard that song was at Spirit Square in Charlotte. Tears streamed down my face. At that moment I knew there must be some Celtic music deep inside of me just waiting to be tapped. I now have four of my own CDs. My new one "I Am A River" to be released in October 1 , will be dedicated totally to Mícheál.
Mícheál’s career started with his two sisters Triona and Maighread in a group called Skara Brae. He then went on to co-found the legendary Bothy Band which played traditional Irish music with enough energy to power the planet. While working with Nightnoise Mícheál found time to play with another group called Relativity which had two superb albums. He also played frequently in Chapel Hill when his sister Triona lived there and played piano for the popular group "Touchstone." He also recorded two albums with fiddler Kevin Burke. After Nightnoise folded a few years ago Mícheál spent much of his musical energy working with Irish fiddler Paddy Glackin. They recorded the album “Reprise.”
I will miss my dear friend Mícheál Ó'Domhnaill whose life was cut way short by a heart attack at the age of 54. But his music lives on. Driving back from the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games yesterday after hearing the news I turned on the radio. The first song I heard on my favorite satellite channel was “Shuan” by Mícheál and Nightnoise. It reminded me of how fortunate I am to have known him and his glorious music.

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