Opera North Blog

Gerry Diver on how growing up in the Irish community in Manchester shaped his musical identity


The second part of Gerry Diver’s blog on the inspiration behind The Speech Project, a unique journey into the musical soul of Ireland featuring recorded interviews with great Irish singers. The Speech Project is at the Howard Assembly Room on Saturday 24 March.

“I have very fond memories of visiting Leeds as a child (I had family there!) and I played there on a few occasions when the Irish music festivals (Fleadh Ceoil's) were hosted in Leeds.  I grew up not a million miles away from Leeds in a strong Irish community in Manchester in the late 70s and early 80s and music was a very important part of that culture.

“I went to Irish music classes three times a week and everything about that experience felt right.  My earliest memories are of an incredible sense of community and warmth, and of being part of something that was perhaps different from what was going on at school.  I started off playing the fiddle and then quickly moved on to mandolin, banjo, accordion, whistle, bodhran and various other traditional instruments.  My brother and two sisters all played instruments too (each different from what I was learning) and so I ended up inheriting their instruments as well.

“By the time I was 11 I was playing in the local ceilidh band alongside other local musicians (including Michael McGoldrick and Dezi Donnelly).  It was a fantastic, vibrant time and I have very fond memories of noisy pub sessions, ceilidhs in Irish clubs and the incredible warmth of the older Irish people - there was a real sense of belonging.

“For me, growing up in northern England in the early 80s Irish music was about something more than just the music.  It was about identity.  Like lots of second-generation kids growing up, I felt incredibly Irish when I was in England and incredibly English when I went to Ireland on holidays.  Who knows - perhaps music early on was a way of affirming identity.

“It was a real blessing in my mind, learning music the way I did in the early years. Everything relied upon being able to 'play by ear'.  Irish music can be quite fast and certain key ingredients are improvised. Having to do so much by ear so early on, opened up ways of hearing music which I am grateful for to this day. When I studied music at University I was reading dots very well and all of that, but it seemed like such a left brain way of going about things.  In my mind all creativity starts as a right brain thing.  I think the early days of being immersed in traditional music sessions and having to rely on one's own internal map when playing helped to nurture an intuitive approach to music.  It possibly taught me to trust my own internal world and to go with those often faint (musical) impulses which the sub-conscious (or collective unconscious!) throws up from time to time.  To quote Damien Dempsey on The Speech Project album, ‘you go into the spirit world’ when you create music.  I LOVE that idea and it resonates with me deeply.  Christy Moore told me something similar.  He talked about having 'white light' experiences on stage.  I think my early days playing traditional music were the start of a fascination in the spiritual and non-tangible aspects of making music.

“I moved back to Ireland with my family at the age of fourteen and by this time I had nabbed my brother's electric guitar - this became an all-consuming obsession right throughout my teens.  I remember practising guitar for hours and hours - pretty much every day.  I also started playing keyboards and messing around with synthesisers and electronics.  When I was in my teens I was asked by a local singer to play fiddle at a recording session at a real proper recording studio… that was a key moment for me.  I loved everything about being in a studio (and still mostly do) - that perhaps started a passion for the whole world of recording and production - something of which I’ve never tired!

“I'm excited to be playing Leeds and I'm very aware of the strong Irish community in Leeds and also the way in which the Irish community has made its mark on Leeds in general - It will be interesting evening – I hope The Speech Project resonates with both traditional music fans and also lovers of new contemporary works!”

Gerry Diver

Read Part 1 of Gerry’s blog here. For more information on The Speech Project and ticket booking, click here.

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