Hill’s music brought him back to life... “It is through the slow airs that you will hear all that pain and tragedy.”
The image grabs you right at the start when a lone vehicle plows down a Connemara road underneath a clear blue sky dotted with white clouds, opening up a new documentary film about an iconic Irish traditional musician seeking solace while staying true to his art.
Driving the car is Noel Hill, the Co. Clare concertina player supreme who the soundtrack tells us is listening to an aria by Maria Callas, the famed but tragically afflicted opera star from the last century.
Hill opines that the great singer suffered in life but that infused her tremendous vocal talent and added another dimension to her craft in the operatic world where life struggles, tragedy and even death are staples on the libretto.
As the next hour unfolds we see the intensely driven artist cope in a highly personal drama dealing with challenges that shaped his life, including a major one which could have been the final scene.
The Boston Irish Film Festival served as the U.S. debut for a new film documentary, Aisling Ghear: Broken Dreams, directed by Paddy Hayes and produced by Edel Fox at the Somerville Theater, taking us through a long and winding road traveled by one of Ireland’s most creative and talented musicians.
It is beautifully filmed and edited with a well-crafted storyline that serves as both a biography and a cathartic and candid narrative by the Clareman as he relives the highs and lows that have accompanied his journey from a small farm in Caherea in West Clare.
For one hour and four minutes we are enthralled in the film as we weave in and out of a fateful decision he made to move to the wilds of Connemara to immerse his two children in their native culture and heritage and most importantly their native language, Irish in the Gaeltacht.
Hill grew up in a West Clare farmhouse where the music was revered and enhanced by his Uncle Paddy’s visits from the capital loaded down with recordings and recording devices and even a concertina to indoctrinate the young Noel.
The youngster was beguiled by watching local legend Paddy Murphy playing concertina for house dances, or being lulled to sleep by the sound of piper Willie Clancy from Miltown Malbay playing “Rakish Paddy” in his most definitive style in their kitchen. The early death of his father was a setback for a family with young children who had to grow up faster as a result, and Hill turned increasingly to the music as a healing mechanism.
At the age of 14, Hill made his television debut alongside broadcaster and musician Seamus Ennis who would impact him greatly later on when he moved to Dublin himself. His 1978 duet recording with Tony Linnane, a young fiddler the same age from Corofin, Co. Clare was an instant classic – and remains one today -- that sent the signal that Hill was destined to play Irish music professionally and to raise the profile of the concertina forever as a major instrument in the tradition.
From 1979 and for two decades he surely did that as one of the most in demand musicians plying the traditional scene who also was learning a lot about broadcasting and performing from the likes of Ennis and Tony McMahon, his fellow Bannerman and box player who tastefully teamed up with Hill for a couple of albums that conveyed the spirit of the dance music as played around Clare.
In 1992, he married a partner who had her own issues coping with life, and while they had two children together, Aisling and Sean, it broke apart within three years leading to a very complex and hard-fought case where Hill battled for custody, a rather significant victory back in Ireland of the 1990s where mothers usually got the nod.
Hill then decided that Dublin was not the place to rear his children and despite his prominent place in the Dublin music scene, he set off for the Conamara Gaeltacht where they would be surrounded by the Irish language, its heritage and cultural connections to the idyllic life that Hill wanted to provide for them now as both mother and father.
Part of that dream was to firmly put down roots and build a new house there, signaling that an outsider of the Connemara community was willing to embrace it on a permanent basis and home for his children.
Something went terribly wrong with the plan and the new house and its builder, a man from the area, fell into dispute with Hill. It came to a disastrous head on St. Stephen’s night in 2008 when that builder accosted Hill inside a men’s room stall, slammed him in the head knocking him to the ground. He went on to savagely beat and kick him in uncontrolled anger leaving Hill senseless and within an inch of his life.
He was taken to the hospital and operated on for 10 hours trying to minimize the damage, in particular to his head and eye socket which were gruesome as we are told in the documentary and from news reports at the time.
The physical damage was massive and the psychological impact and thoughts of never having a normal life nor being able to play music sadly led to depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
At home, his children grew up even faster but watched their parent hole up in his dark room for a year before they coaxed him downstairs to play some music with them. But there was a prolonged legal case, in part, because of complications owing to being carried out in the Irish language before the assailant was criminally charged and sentenced in 2015 to seven years in jail for the crime.
In the beautifully edited interview scenes, Hill quotes a Chinese proverb that says, “If you fall down seven times, you must rise up eight times” which he revealed helped him realize that his life was spared and literally put back piece by piece with a lot of plastic surgery and reconstruction, and now it was time for him to get on with life.
The essential component to that was taking up music again which had been the center of his life and where his true gifts lay. And once again he turned to the healing power of music and as his body healed, it was helping his mind heal as well and changing his outlook on life and appreciating the gifts that he was blessed with.
“When I play music, it is like a prayer to God…the story of my life is told through music and whatever suffering I endured is reflected in my music. It lifts whatever burdens you are carrying. Without music I think I would have lost my mind,” Hill reveals thoughtfully in the film interview.
He was able to return to teaching which he does regularly with children and adults through classes that he organizes himself or through other hosts at weekends or camps, including an annual three-week stint in the U.S. There he teaches not only technique but also encouraging personal expression in the music giving the music his students play individual heart and soul.
His rationale is that while he learned from so many masters, the most important observation he took away was to make the music your own when playing while remaining authentic in the tradition.
Those lessons were well-learned, in particular, by one of his proteges, Edel Fox, a multi-talented West Clare concertina player herself from Miltown Malbay who produced the film for Magamedia and the esteemed director Paddy Hayes from Galway. She was instrumental in getting Hill to share his story of triumph and tragedy in such a personal and dramatic way in Aisling Ghear: Broken Dreams.
Hill’s music brought him back to life, but he admits that the suffering he endured lives on in his music just as it did with Maria Callas reaching her high notes. Hill added, “It is through the slow airs that you will hear all that pain and tragedy.”
While that is certainly true, the triumphant return of Noel Hill, the musician, is visually told in the closing scene of the film with just Hill on the concertina and Raymond O’Donnell playing the slow air, “Lament for Limerick,” in a majestic fade-away shot in an empty but inspiring Galway City Cathedral where O’Donnell is the organist.
I’ve witnessed that on a number of occasions marveling at his skills and forceful yet sensitive playing since the brutal attack. But his life in Connemara was shattered that night literally and figuratively, and the idyllic home he once envisioned no longer seems viable “like a flower in a dark corner of an infertile garden” his therapist suggested.
That dream looks like it is coming to an end but there are more chapters in Noel Hill’s life to explore ahead.
The documentary film will air on TG4 on April 18 at 9:30 p.m. (Irish time) with a repeat on April 29 (10 p.m.). Don’t miss it!