Ian Smith may have entered the world stage in the East Ayrshire town of Kilmarnock in Scotland but it’s the North West of Ireland he maintains, that should really have produced him. “Donegal is the place where I should have been born,” he asserts.
Content is a word he uses - in a soft Scottish brogue he hasn’t let go of - when it comes to describing the quality of life he enjoys since relocating here close to thirty years ago.
Somewhere lurking with intent in his background is indeed an Irish link through his mother, a link that brings Carrigart into the family equation but primarily on a second generation basis.
On Thursday night, he played in Letterkenny as part of the Earagail Arts Festival, a gig he thoroughly enjoyed.
In those early years in his native country, his musical leanings veered between The Beatles and the Clancy Brothers, a true reflection of his own varied tastes.
Ayrshire represented a hot bed, he says, of genuine talent and Ian shared the local entertainment scene with the likes of Gerry Rafferty, Billy Connolly, Gallagher & Lyle, and Barbara Dixon. “I met Eddie and Finbar Furey before they became the Furey Brothers. They all became famous before I became a Donegal man,” he laughs.
He played lead guitar with a number of local rock bands including a group called Nessie. No monster recognition for them but the original songs and cover versions of material from the likes of Steely Dan and The Eagles drew a loyal fan base.
Smith’s solo career took him on the folk circuits of Scotland and England - he played at festivals in Cambridge and Leeds - and a tour of Scandinavia. It was when he met his future spouse, Breda Ward, whose family had moved from Keadue to England, that Donegal began to feature heavily on his schedule and ultimately, twenty-seven years ago, as his home.
His passion for the area is reflected in the song ‘Keadue Strand’ which he penned. “We live between Burtonport and Kincasslagh about 300 yards from the football pitch where Packie Bonner first made his name,” he says. Ian and Breda have reared two sons - Donegal natives - Daniel (26) and Matthew (25).
The traditional genre
The move to Donegal also saw him induced into the world of the traditional genre - visits to Hudie Beag’s pub and meetings with Mairead Mooney and the late Francie Mooney opening up, as he says, a whole new world of music for him. He has also been involved with Tionscnamh Lugh promoting traditional music in Dunlewey and the Gaeltacht. Apart from his own solo performances,
Ian savours his role in a local band, Vintage - “like a good wine!” - who play regularly in various venues and also feature well known Letterkenny musician, Ted Ponsonby on slide guitar, Englishman, Dave Wintour and Gary Porter from Lifford. “It’s great fun and we all get a kick out of it.”
Regular sessions, too, in the kitchen of his home where friends and neighbours often gather for an hour or so of instrumental and vocal outpourings. “Music brings me stuff like that. I just love it even if my poor wife wishes I could just fix the kettle!
“Music has been good to me though I’m still very poor!,” Ian insists.
He uproots every so often to undertake overseas tours through the U.K., Europe and the United States - sharing song writing duties with some of America’s finest components in, for instance, the musical heartland of Nashville.
Ian Smith is not one who sings his own praises but the story goes that the great Garth Brooks had one of his CD’s on constant play in his automobile.
He has toured with illustrious musicians and singers such as Paul Brady, Mary Black, Christy Moore, Altan, Dolores Keane, Maura O’Connell and Liam O’Maonlai.
The latter featured on the stage of the Regional Cultural Centre on Monday night in the company of Ronan O Snodaigh as part of the Earagail Arts Festival and Ian Smith is wholly appreciative of the opportunities opened up by the organisers of the annual event. And for someone who relishes performing in his adopted county, he’ll take to the stage of the Letterkenny venue tonight, Thursday, with added verve, not just because of the local venue and local audience but also when he reflects on the quality of musician who will be accompanying him.
“Manus Lunny is, in my book, the best producer around,” Smith maintains without hesitation. Lunny has produced all three of his albums to date including ‘Reckless Heart’, ‘Keadue Bar’, and ‘Celtic Connection’, the latter being labelled by ‘Irish Music Magazine’ as the recommended album of the year in 2011. “I’m very lucky to have a world renowned musician like him working on my C.D.’s. And equally fortunate to have a line-up of outstanding musicians on stage with me.”
There, too, will be Donald Shaw, Karen Matheson (of Capercaillie), Ted Ponsonby, Martin Crossan, Nina Solo, Eddie Lee and Jacqui Sharkey with further well known names also likely on the evening.
Ian remains in awe of them all for their talents and musical expertise. But there are huge numbers of performers on the circuit and many more in the audience line-ups who know that the singer-songwriter who believes that Donegal should have been his birthplace is the ultimate man of music.