Timmy “The Brit” McCarthy

Timmy “the Brit” McCarthy (1945-2018) was born and grew up in London but his Irish parents maintained strong ties to their native Cork. Though he was enrolled in step dancing lessons as a youngster, he wasn’t especially inspired by the tradition. “My grandfather Timmy Roche, who I’m named after, was a champion All-Ireland step dancer, in 1922 I think, with a dance called The Blackbird,” recalled Timmy. “My mother insisted that I do step dancing, and to be honest I hated it because you used to have to wear [a kilt which] I thought was a dress.” After his parents’ death at a young age, he was raised in Catholic orphanages which he remembered with some fondness as an adult.

After a short stint in the R.A.F., he moved to Cork in the 1960s to work as a butcher (where his London accent earned him his life-long nickname). There he was surprised to find less traditional and folk music being played than there had been in London when he left. In Cork city, the scene was only just beginning to shift from the showbands playing American and British pop music to the folk revival that would soon sweep the nation, and Timmy was determined to urge the change along. He stumbled upon a folk club organized by Jimmy Crowley, and when that came to an end, Timmy organized a folk club of his own in the Cork city suburb of Douglas. Through his determination and enthusiasm this would eventually morph into the beginnings of the Cork Folk Festival, still going strong today. In the course of looking for folk acts to perform at the festival, he found himself one day hunting down Johnny O’Leary and Mikey Duggan at Dan O’Connell’s pub in Knocknagree. There, he later recalled, “a woman called Eily Buckley saw me sitting down and she took me up and threw me round the floor. I didn’t know what the hell had happened to me, but that was the Sliabh Luachra set, and it changed my life.” The scene at Knocknagree was worlds away from his dance lessons as a boy in London. “I thought it was gobsmackingly beautiful, because I’d never seen a set before that was so inclusive,” he later said. “There was no age left out. It was teenagers up to octogenarians.”

He soon became a regular at Dan O’Connell’s, and found himself assuming the role of pupil and disciple to the man of the house. O’Connell was a tireless cheerleader for the Sliabh Luachra traditions, and infected McCarthy with his enthusiasm. “Dan O’Connell’s philosophy, I’ve inherited. He had a very simple way: Stay behind the people in front of you; in front of the people behind you; opposite the people opposite you, and you do it on bloody time. That means that if you’ve an old couple in front of you and the book says you have to get back militarily to the geographical place you started off, you don’t push them out of the way, you dance according to their comfort zone. I think that philosophy was wonderful.”

Inspired to immerse himself in the tradition, he moved to Baile Mhúirne where the music and dancing was a large part of local life. There, in addition to the Sliabh Luachra set and the Ginnie Ling, Timmy sought out less widely known local set dances such as the Black Valley Square Jig, the Coolea Jig, the Borlin Valley Polka Set, the Tuosist Set, and the Mealagh Valley Jig Set. At that time some of these were not danced very often, and some not at all, having fallen out of fashion. In an effort to rescue them from obscurity, he took it upon himself to start teaching, and even picked up the accordion so that he would never lack for a musician (considering taped music unacceptable). “I never set out to teach set dancing but people asked me to teach. I had a passion for the music of Sliabh Luachra, Corca Dhuibhne, Múscraí, and the dances that went with it. I set out to connect and re-teach all those old sets that were dead in the villages where they were, and have people dancing their own sets. People would ask me to teach them sets, so I used to make a deal that each week they were to go to the people that had the local set, learn it, or bring the people up to teach it to me, and I’d teach it back into the local community. We saved an awful lot of sets that way.”

He was to take these local dances all over the world, traveling far and wide to teach the sets he loved so dearly. Soon before his passing in 2018 a concert was organized in his honor, with countless luminaries of the tradition attending to pay tribute to the man who had done so much to preserve and spread the culture of the Cork-Kerry border. Timmy exclaimed, “I’m just overwhelmed. I don’t deserve it, but what a compliment. I’ve had a fabulous life and this is an amazing, gobsmacking tribute… that’s all I can say. When I see the line-up for that concert… people know me as Timmy the Brit, but they were the people that made me feel I’m home, I’m Irish.”

A lovely program from Radio 1 called “Timmy the Brit Comes Home”:

Another profile of Timmy:

Denis “The Hat” McMahon

Denis “The Hat” McMahon (1941-2018) was a respected fiddle and accordion player, teacher, and an authority on Sliabh Luachra music. Originally from Churchtown, Castleisland, he settled in Ballyhar, between Killarney and Farranfore. As a youngster he learned fiddle from Jerry McCarthy, and continued with lessons on the accordion from Pádraig O’Keeffe. At some point his friends Nicky McAuliffe and Jack Regan convinced him to pick up the fiddle again. In the late 60s he spent two winters working and living in London where he often played with his fellow expats Con Curtin and Julia Clifford. Back in Kerry he was a member of the famed Brosna Ceili Band and the Desmond Ceili Band and had a fruitful musical partnership with Connie O’Connell. When Mike Kenny broached the idea of what was to become the Patrick O’Keeffe Traditional Music Festival, Denis was an early and enthusiastic supporter. He was quite often featured on radio and television, being a great exponent and historian of the local music, and had innumerable stories about his old teacher Pádraig O’Keeffe and others of his generation. At the 2010 Castleisland Festival, Peter Browne presented Denis with an award for his dedication to the music of Sliabh Luachra.

Billy Clifford

Billy Clifford (born 1943) is the son of John and Julia Clifford and one of the few Sliabh Luachra musicians whose primary instrument is the flute. He was born in London, surrounded by a large community of Irish musicians, and hearing the music at home as well as in the dance halls at which his parents performed, it was only natural he would pick it up himself.

He frequently visited Kerry on holidays with his mother as a young boy, and at the age of nine he was sent to his grandmother, Mainie Murphy in Lisheen, for an extended stay. It was at this time that he started to learn the tin whistle, and his grandmother gave him his first tune. He was also mentored by the Murphy’s neighbor Art O’Keeffe who played the whistle himself. In fact another local whistle player, who went by the colorful name of Dan Dave Dan Cronin, befriended him as well — it must have seemed to the impressionable boy that the whistle was the predominant instrument of the area! Near the end of Billy’s stay in Lisheen, his uncle Denis Murphy returned from America for a time, and furthered Billy’s musical education.

Not long after, the Cliffords sent for Billy to join them at their new home in Newcastlewest, Co. Limerick. Perhaps upon realizing Billy’s advanced musical ability, John Clifford was inspired to form the Star of Munster Ceili Band in 1955. The core of the group consisted of John, Julia, and Billy, together with Liam, Pats, and Biddy of the musical Moloney family from nearby Templeglantine. The band was soon in demand for dances all over, as far afield as Roscommon and even Dublin. Denis Murphy would sometimes join them for the more prestigious gigs. They even performed on Radio Éireann on a number of occasions, though to his chagrin Billy was disinvited by the producers as they felt the whistle was not a “real” instrument!

Despite the relative success of the band, times were hard, and in 1959 the Cliffords moved back to London to find work. Once more they became fixtures of the vibrant Irish music scene there, and it was around this time that Billy “graduated” from the whistle to the flute, learning from Sligoman Johnny Gorman, among others. His musical development continued with the opportunity to play with the likes of Bobby Casey, Kevin Burke, Raymond Roland, Roger Sherlock, Joe Ryan, and countless others.

In 1969 Billy struck out for himself and moved back to Ireland for good, eventually settling back in Tipperary where he married and began raising a family. He soon became well-known locally as a performer and music teacher. Having lived abroad and traveled so much, Billy’s style and repertoire reflect more influences than just the Sliabh Luachra tradition. Nevertheless, he’s a proud keeper of the flame and a living connection to the previous generation, and as such is rightly regarded as a major figure of Sliabh Luachra music.

Learned from: Art O’Keeffe, Denis Murphy, Julia Clifford, John Clifford

ITMA interviews with Billy regarding his time with the ceili band: http://www.itma.ie/digitallibrary/playlist/billy-clifford-brian-lawler

Billy’s My Life and Music essay

Recordings:

Julia and Billy Clifford Ceol as Sliabh Luachra 300The Star of Munster Trio 300 Flute Solos Echoes of Sliabh Luachra

 

Irish Traditional Flute Solos and Band Music from Kerry and Tipperary

Billy Clifford – flute
Matt Hayes – Accordion
Catherine Ryan – Drums

Topic – 12TS312 – 1977

Topic stretched the criteria somewhat in order to make this the fourth in the ‘Music from Sliabh Luachra’ series, but Billy Clifford’s lifetime of exposure to the music of that region is very much evident in the solo material on this album. The solo polkas here feature the best playing of these tricky tunes in the Sliabh Luachra style that I have heard on the flute, and as Sliabh Luachra polkas played on the fiddle mimic the ornaments of the melodeon or accordion, Billy Clifford in turn uses the flute to play the fiddle, incorporating the idiosyncratic and heavily accented legato bowing of his mother Julia’s fiddle playing into his own unique and really lovely style.

The other side to the album is the material recorded with Catherine Ryan and Matt Hayes, featuring the eponymous band music from Tipperary. There are a number of quite outstanding tunes, such as the dubiously titled ‘Michael Coleman’s’, as well as a number of other reasonably well-known but interesting, even slightly unusual tunes. Between the two styles of playing there is some really great music on this album. — Rob Ryan

Download this classic, out-of-print album here:
http://ceolalainn.breqwas.net/download/Irish%20Traditional%20Flute%20Solos%20and%20Band%20M.zip

Maida Sugrue

Maida Sugrue (born Mary McQuinn in ~1933) was raised in the townland of Fiddane, Ballyegan, Nohaval Parish, near Gortatlea, Ballymacelligott, Kerry, on the “Low Road” between Castleisland and Tralee. The McQuinns were a musical family: her father played the concertina and accordion, and her uncle John McQuinn was a well-considered flute, piccolo, and concertina player. Two neighbors, brothers Jim and Matty Sullivan of nearby Maglass, would sometimes visit their home in the evenings to play tunes. Jim saw Maida’s interest in the music and let her try a tune on his fiddle, and upon seeing that her desire to play was in earnest, gave her the loan of his fiddle on which to learn. She soon showed great promise, and when she was about twelve years old the renowned Pádraig O’Keeffe was enlisted to take her on as his pupil.

She recalls Pádraig’s sporadic visits with fondness. Whenever he happened to be travelling through the area he would stop in to the McQuinn home. She remembers him writing out tunes in his own tablature, but he encouraged her to learn standard notation as well. She recalls that he was easy-going and funny and a great teacher. Often he would come late at night when the children were already in bed, and while her mother made him a bite to eat he would play the fiddle. The family all loved his visits and could listen to him playing forever. Lessons with Pádraig continued for about three years.

In her teens, her musicianship was already highly regarded and she took part in many local music and singing competitions. She won the very first “Crock of Gold” competition put on by the Catholic Young Men’s Society (CYMS) in Tralee, and she was briefly a featured singer for the original lineup of the Brosna Ceili Band. However, subject to the economics of rural Ireland at that time, she emigrated Chicago in December, 1952. She was “sponsored out” by a cousin who happened to be a sister-in-law of Cuz Teahan. Neither were playing much music at that time, but upon meeting, they bonded over their shared tradition and both having been students of Pádraig. Cuz was delighted to hear stories of and new tunes from his old teacher. Inspired by this new connection, they struck up a musical partnership.

In Cuz’s book The Road to Glountane, he recalls:

Maida is an excellent musician and step dancer. She can sing anything in any style and she knows the Gaelic. You can really hear O’Keeffe’s style in Maida Sugrue’s playing. You might have four or five fiddles and most of them are carbon copies of each other, but when their bows are going down, hers is going up. O’Keeffe started most of his music with an up, and the way he taught was you had to keep your right hand very close to your side. You had to keep your right elbow almost on your hip, and bow with your wrist pressed firm. You press the strings firmly at right-angles with your left hand so there wouldn’t be any vibrations, and keep your thumb away from the finger-board. You hold the fiddle with your chin – not the wrist. If you were persistent in bowing widely, he’d tie a cord around you to hold your arm in close.

Maida also played and sang with the live band that performed on Jack Hegarty’s Irish Hour radio program each week. For a while, after marrying Denny Sugrue in 1957, she became less active in Irish music circles, but when her children were grown she started to perform publicly again. She and Cuz formed a group with two other fiddlers, Úna McGlew and Mary McDonagh, that played in the Chicago area for some time.

In 1985 she recorded Maida: An Irish Country Girl, an LP of songs, a number of which are her own compositions. Sadly, it was a limited run and nigh impossible to find now.

Though now retired from performing, Maida is currently still involved in the Chicago Irish music community, appearing at local events on occasion. She recently attended the Patrick O’Keeffe Festival in Castleisland, to great acclaim. She spoke and played at the Fiddle Meitheal where Paddy Jones, a fellow pupil of Pádraig’s, was delighted to meet her.

 

Two tracks from the album Traditional Irish Music In America: Chicago. She plays The Queen’s Polka (aka The Top of Maol) and sings Táimse im’ Chodladh (I Am Asleep).

Copley recordings

Ellen O’Byrne, born about 1875 in Co. Leitrim, emigrated to New York City at only 15 years of age. There she married Dutch immigrant Justus DeWitt and they opened a real estate and travel agent business together in 1900. Ellen was evidently an irrepressible fan of her native music, and the travel agency soon began to retail sheet music, instruments (including high-quality Italian-constructed accordions made by Paolo Soprani and Baldoni but rebranded under the O’Byrne DeWitt name,) and the few recordings of Irish music then available. In 1916, Ellen O’Byrne persuaded Columbia Records to start producing more authentic Irish recordings, starting with Eddie Herborn and John Wheeler, accordion and banjo. In doing so, she is considered to have essentially created the Irish-American recording industry. Soon, the O’Byrne DeWitt shop started offering Irish recordings on their own label.

After Ellen’s death in 1926, one son, James, inherited the New York store, and another son, Justus Jr., moved to Boston to open his own enterprise under the O’Byrne Dewitt name at 51 Warren Street, Roxbury. The O’Byrne DeWitt business flourished in Boston as it had in New York: an unlikely hybrid of travel agent/music shop. Under a new label, Copley, he soon began recording some of the local talent, and in the early 1950s, Paddy Cronin recorded a number of sides (solo fiddle with piano except for a few duets with flute player Frank Neylon) that became very popular and were essential in creating his worldwide reputation as a musician of note.

Note: A number of these discs are labeled with names other than the ones in common use today, and others are entirely mislabeled. I’ve tried to use the correct names on the mp3 files, but can’t make any guarantees!

 

 

Download the complete Paddy Cronin Copley recordings here.

Thanks to the members of the Irish Traditional Music at 78 RPM Facebook group for info and resources!

Radio Éireann, 1949

In 1949 Séamus Ennis was working for Radio Éireann making field recordings of traditional musicians and singers. He recorded Paddy Cronin in a farmer’s house in nearby Ballyvourney. It’s said that Paddy never heard these recordings broadcast as he emigrated to America soon after. These tracks document his playing in his “purest” Sliabh Luachra style. He sounds very much like his neighbor Denis Murphy here, especially in the reel playing. Contrast with his recordings made after he arrived in America and began to incorporate the Sligo style which was prevalent among his peers there.

Note: It’s possible that not all of the tracks linked here are from the Ballyvourney session in 1949, but some of them were unlabeled when I received them and as they all have a similar sound and style, I’ve lumped them together. If they are mis-attributed, I apologize.

Download the Paddy Cronin 1949 recordings here.