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About the Irish Fiddle


Fiddle - the Irish experience

As with Scotland, Irish fiddle music was largely sustained through the
greater part of the 20th century by dance bands, the ceili bands whose Sunday
night gatherings in village halls were the highlight of the week in the rural
areas of the Western counties.

There were also pockets of dedicated traditional music enthusiasts who would
meet, often outside at rural crossroads, particularly in Donegal, Galway and
Clare. But perhaps most significantly, a thriving business had sprung up
among America's Irish population in New York, Boston, Chicago and
Philadelphia which meant that people back home could hear, on 78 rpm records,
the fiddle playing of Paddy Killoran, Hugh Gillespie, James Morrison, and the
most influential of them all, Michael Coleman from Sligo.

Coleman's importance can not be overstated. His records, issued in America
between 1921 and 1936 and eagerly greeted and gingerly unpacked by grateful
relatives in Ireland, brought Irish fiddle playing to new levels of

The dash, invention and excitement central to his recordings also made him
one of the most electrifying live performers on America's Eastern Seaboard.
Yet for all that he was feted and cited as a source of repertoire and playing
style - and still is, he was always quick to credit his own influences,
fiddlers Peter McDermott and James Gannon and the travelling piper from
County Roscommon, Johnny Gorman, whose ornamentation Coleman integrated into
his own playing early on.

By the late 1950s, however, except for strongholds such as Donegal,
traditional music was in danger of being buried under the combined onslaught
of rock 'n' roll, cinema and palais de danse. Then along came record
collector and broadcaster Ciaran Mac Mathuna, whose weekly radio programmes
became essential listening for seekers of authentic Irish music - as did
uilleann piper Seamus Ennis's As I Roved Out.

In the early 1960s, Sean O Riada's Ceoltoiri gave birth to the Chieftains,
run by a piper but with fiddlers Sean Keane and Martin Fay to the fore. The
Dubliners, with John Sheahan aboard, then took their raucous Irishness to
popular acclaim. But working away in the background and about to come up on
the outside respectively were two players whose vitality and virtuosity have
made them arguably the closest challengers to Michael Coleman's supremacy,
Sean Maguire and Tommy Peoples.

Maguire's ruggedly exciting, intense playing and creative interpretations
have caused many to regard him as the Stephane Grappelli of Irish music. An
all-round musician - he also plays piano, guitar, flute and the uilleann
pipes, he made his first broadcast at the age of fifteen and seven years
later, in 1949, he won the All-Ireland Championships with an unheard of - and
unequalled - 100% score.

A huge influence on fiddlers, particularly in the north of Ireland, he has
overcome cancer of the throat to continue playing with fantastic verve (his
arrangement of Coleman's Bonny Kate is regarded as one of fiddling's no-go
areas) and pass on his skills and love of melody to his pupils.

Tommy Peoples came to wider notice through his breathtaking playing on the
Bothy Band's first album in 1975. Quickly tiring of the group's touring
schedule, however, he promptly retired (he allegedly became a policeman who
didn't so much as issue a parking ticket) and yet remains by some distance
the most often cited influence among Ireland's young generation of fiddlers.
Although he has recorded since leaving the Bothy Band, he prefers to play in
local sessions in Clare where visitors are regularly astonished that he isn't
playing on major stages world-wide.

The Bothy Band, and Planxty before them, opened the floodgates for Irish
music and musicians, particularly fiddlers, to pour through. De Dannan, under
Frankie Gavin's astute and determined leadership, joined the Bothies and
Planxty in the upper echelons, to be joined presently by Altan, whose Mairead
NI Mhaonaigh and Ciaran Tourish's twin fiddle sparring combines energy,
excitement and concert hall panache without ever losing touch with the
group's steely, melodic Donegal roots.

Other former Bothy Band members are deservedly mentioned with awe: Paddy
Glackin, one of a great fiddling family of brothers, whose tremendously
spirited, expert musicality reinforces the apt titling of his In Full Spate
album; and Kevin Burke, whose rich, melodious playing with his American-based
Full House band and the marvellous Patrick Street is always a joy to hear.

Gerry O'Connor, with la Lugh, Cathal Hayden, with Four Men & A Dog, Maurice
Lennon, a great composer with Stockton's Wing, Matt Cranitch first with the
brilliant but often overlooked Na Fili and later with Any Old Time, Manus
McGuire, Nollaig Casey, with Donal Lunny's Coolfin and on duo with her
husband, Arty McGlynn, Mary Custy, Marie Breathnach, and Donegal's go-for-it
Liz Doherty, with Nomos and her own groups, are all players to be admired and

Over in the USA, there are fiddlers who carry on the Michael Coleman
tradition for thriving thousands of miles from the source. Winifred Horan,
with Solas, Eileen Ivers, of Riverdance fame, and the Chicago-born Liz
Carroll, whom no-one could accuse of being over-recorded - she's averaged
barely one solo album per decade since the 1970s, but when she does go into
the studio magic such as her 2000 CD Caught in the Loop always emerges.

Perhaps the best example of thriving many miles distant from the source is
Martin Hayes, son of the late PJ Hayes of Clare's long-running Tulla Ceili
Band. While living in Chicago and Seattle, Hayes found a way of going back to
the bare essentials of a tune, slowing it down and celebrating the sheer joy
of a melody with a creativity and sense of expression that recall the great
jazz pianist, Keith Jarrett. His live performances with guitarist Dennis
Cahill have incited raptures and recordings such as The Lonesome Touch, with
its extended set culminating with Toss the Feathers, are their own form of

c. Liz More November 2001

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