Handed Down

How Irish music gets passed on from one (biker) to another
Episode Trailer

How does Irish music get handed down? Host Shannon Heaton travels to New York, County Galway, and Boston to talk with musicians about how they learned their music, and how this has led them to pass it on. Hear stories about from Rose Flanagan, Margie Mulvahill, Patty Furlong, Séan Clohessy, Seamus Connolly, and Josie and her dad John Coyne.


Special thanks to the Massachusetts Cultural Council for supporting this episode. And thank you to Matt Heaton for script editing and production music.

Episode 05-Handed Down
How Irish music gets passed on from one (biker) to another
This Irish Music Stories episode aired June 13, 2017

– this episode transcribed by Tom Frederick –


Speakers, in order of appearance
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> Séan Clohessy: Limerick-born fiddle player and teacher, who spent time learning music in London before relocating to New York and Boston 
>> John Coyne: Limerick-born singer and bouzouki player, now making his home in Melrose, Massachusetts.
>> Patty Furlong: Bronx-born button accordion player and teacher
>> Rose Flanagan: Bronx-born fiddle player and teacher and exponent of the Sligo style, who has taught many fine fiddle players
>> Margie Mulvahill: Bronx-born flute and whistle player and teacher who performed with the band Morning Star 
>> Josie Coyne: Melrose-born fiddle player who has spent ample time playing music in Clare, and in her father’s native Limerick 
>> Louis dePaor: Cork-born Irish language poet and Director of the Centre for Irish Studies at NUI Galway
>> Séamus Connolly: Master fiddle player, educator, and festival organizer with ten All-Ireland solo fiddle championships, National Heritage Fellowship, and Boston College Faculty Award
>> Elizabeth (Beth) Sweeney: Piano and fiddle player who works as Irish Music Librarian and Boston College’s Burns Library


>> Shannon:  I’m Shannon Heaton, and this is Irish Music Stories. The show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it. 

[ Music: “The Tap Room, Mountain Road, Galway Rambler (reels),” from Rehearsal, c. 2009

Artists: Dan Gurney (accordion), Shannon Heaton (flute), Matt Heaton (guitar) ]

.. Like how fiddle player Séan Clohessy feels in a group setting:

>> Séan: When you’ve got a lot of people playing together, you can feel the energy. You can feel the buzz. You can feel that intensity of all of these people playing together. It’s addictive in lots of respects.

>> Shannon: There’s a reason why traditional musicians share their secrets and their best tunes. 

Irish music is a SOCIAL tradition. And as bouzouki player John Coyne explains, musicians can reach deeper heights when they play together:

>> John: When you have a group of people around a table—it could be anywhere, in a house, a kitchen, or in a pub. But when it really hits that moment, when the musicians are having that conversation, and they kind of read each other, literally the music moves to another plain. 

>> Shannon: Feeling the rhythmic sway of the music; hearing and seeing people lock in together— this is what lured me to learn Irish flute. And I learned from lots and lots of other players. In person. And via recordings. 

Now I started learning pre-Internet, but post tape recorder. In Chicago, Clare and later in Boston, I’d go to music sessions and record tunes I didn’t know. I spent hours trying to drop the needle on the LP or rewind the cassette… to hear that one part of the tune, to figure it out.

Of course, the modes of transmission have changed. But the path to learning Irish music remains pretty straightforward: you hear the tunes; you learn the tunes; you play the tunes. And then ultimately, hopefully, probably… you SHARE the tunes. Because the more that you can play tunes with other people, the better it gets—for you, and for everybody else. 

Or something like that. 

[ Music ends ]

For this episode I collected stories from other musicians about how they learned and how this has led them to hand it down.

[ Music: “Travel Theme,” from Production music made for Irish Music Stories

Composer/Artist: Matt Heaton (guitar) ]

First stop- Pearl River, NY to visit fiddle player Rose Flanagan, accordion player Patty Furlong, and flute player Margie Mulvahill. They run the Pearl River School of Irish music. 

When I arrived at Rose’s home, quiche was just coming out of the oven. 

[kitchen noises, cups, spoons, teas being poured ]

The mugs were already out on the counter, waiting to be filled with strong tea. It was instant warmth and welcome as I sat down with Rose, Patty, and Margie. The three of them met in grammar school, and they’ve been playing music together since.

Rose’s brother Brian Conway talked about his students in the “Every Tuesday at Nine” episode. I was really eager to learn how Patty, Rose and Margie have also come to teach generations of New York players.

>> Shannon: Can we talk about how you each got into music? Patty, do you want to start?

>> Patty: Yeah, so my parents- you’re doing Irish dancing, you’re doing Irish music. That’s the end of it. It was a different generation. But it was the social network, so it was kind of fun to be going to music classes. Every Saturday, Sunday you go to an Irish dancing feis, you compete, you hang out with all the other Irish kids in the Bronx. And then you’d come home scorched after being sunburned.

>> Shannon: What about you Rose?

>> Rose: Let’s see, um. My mother came out from Ireland and moved into a house in the Bronx. And her friend, she had her nephews over the house, her nephews and nieces over the house one day. And they were playing Irish music. And my mother was like, that’s it, I’m getting them lessons. 

I started on the piano accordion because my mom thought it was the ladylike instrument. Like really? Do you know how heavy that was carrying that?

>> Shannon: What about you, Margie? What’s your background with the music?

>> Margie: Um, like the girls, Patty and Rose, I started on the piano accordion. Myself and Patty were in the same little ceili band. And the way life has gone, it’s just, if you sit down and think of it, it’s kind of unbelievable that we would have done this as kids and now we’re doing this as adults for other children. So, life hasn’t really changed much. The circle is unbroken… haha, kind of. Yeah, it’s really, it’s really hard to believe because I never would have expected so much from it.

[ Music: “After Hours Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: Indeed, that cycle is strong in Pearl River and there are players who came out of the Pearl River School who now perform and teach professionally. Rose’s daughters Maeve and Bernadette, and Margie’s daughter Blaithín, all play with the band Girsa. 

Here’s a set from Girsa. It starts with a tune called the Broken Clock, which Maeve wrote and plays on fiddle. 

[ Music: Tune: “Broken Clock,” from A Sweeter Place
Composer: Maeve Flanagan
Artist: Girsa ]

Like their peers, the Girsa girls got their tunes from lessons, group classes, sessions, recordings. And they use apps like TunePal that can pull up a tune with just a few starter notes or a title. It’s kind of like Shazam for trad music. It’s way easier than cassettes and LPs. And those were more convenient than the way Maeve’s grandpa (Rose’s dad) learned tunes.

[ Music fades]

>> Rose: My mom told me a story about my father about how he learned tunes. Now my father, God rest him, would be 100 this past January. When he was learning music—and he taught himself how to play the fiddle—he and a friend used to go to the dances on their bikes. And they would meet musicians from other towns, like 10 miles away. To try and learn the tunes, like, my father would learn one part of the tune, and his buddy would learn the second part of the tune. And all the way home they would hum their parts so they wouldn’t forget it. And then they’d get together the next day and teach each other the other part. 

>> Patty: That’s awesome.

>> Rose: Isn’t that so cool?

>> Shannon: Portable, affordable cassette recorders did make it easier, but still… 

>> Rose: You know, we had to put it on the cassette recorder. And then we had the slow down thing that made it so–ou–nd like this, you know, which really didn’t help. And then, you know, yeah, it was stop, click, go back. Stop, click, go back. Or even worse, that was a tape recorder. The record? Trying to learn something from a record?

>> Shannon: But at least you could see where the start of the track was on the record.

>> Rose: True, true. But if you wanted to go back to just that one little phrase—uhhhh!

>> Margie: These kids are so lucky, the opportunities they have to learn, and the camps. Like, the camps everywhere, and taking them… I do, um, miss, I guess, as you go back to Ireland and see the older generation die off I feel sorry for them that they won’t have that connection to the people that were really raw and, and could tell the old stories and weren’t worried about, you know, their country accents and things like that.

[ Music: “Heartstrings Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton (guitar) ]

You know, they’ll miss that innocence, too, that was part of the whole thing. It’s a real commercial thing now… and it wasn’t like that when we were young. 

>> Rose: I know, we don’t want it to be that way.

>> Margie: It’s very commercial. In one way it’s good, in another way…I don’t know.

>> Shannon: Rose, Patty, and Margie have their own commercial venture, as teachers. But it’s grown organically. It’s a natural extension of the community they’ve helped to build. 

And for this community, the regional and all Ireland Fleadh competitions are a big deal.

[ “Grupai Ceol Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Patty: We do kind of focus on competitions, because it’s a goal and makes them practice. 

>> Rose: Yeah. When you get to a certain point of playing that you’re good, it becomes  A) so much easier, more pleasant to listen to. And then you desire to go even further, you know? 

>> Rose: The more you practice, the better you get. The better you get, the more you practice. It’s true.

>> Margie: And the more you like it.

>> Rose: The problem is getting them to that stage. Haha.

>> Shannon: Rose and Patty admit that while preparing tunes for a competition can be a good way of getting students to the next level, it doesn’t offer a big picture of Irish music.

>> Patty: It also takes away that they’re very proficient in one or two tunes and not the whole genre of session playing. 

>> Rose: Absolutely. 

>> Patty: So it’s kind of like how do you want to teach them? Do you teach for the goodness of the music, or do you teach them for the competition? It’s a double-edged sword.

>> Margie: I hope, too, that they, um… that they’re all good people at the end of the day, too, which is far more important than any of the rest of it. You know, that they have good big hearts at the end of the day.  Like, if this person is in need, then everybody gets together and does something for that family, and these kids grew up that way.

>> Shannon: Okay, when you’re trying to inspire kids musically and personally, you take responsibility and share wisdom. I asked Rose about a moment from the night before, when she’d offered advice to these college-age players who came into a session.

>> Shannon: Last night we were playing tunes at Lilly’s and we had set this nice pace, and then there was one moment where a couple of the younger players started a set, and it was dramatically faster than we’d been playing. After we finished the set, Rose let the music sort of settle. And then, what did you say?

>> Rose: Hahaha. So, I was, I was very diplomatic. I said, “that was lovely playing,” I said. “But it was way too fast.” And I said, “Look, I’m giving you a piece of advice that was given to me. And you can take it or leave it. But the way that’s played right now, not only it’s too fast, you’re losing so much when you play it at that speed. And you’re beautiful players. And there’s no, you know… speed kills.

>> Patty: Speed kills. That’s my line.

>> Rose: Speed kills. I always say. And there was no reason in this session to play at that speed. They thanked me, they listened and then, you know, so. 

>> Shannon: It’s like deciding to tell somebody that she has spinach in her teeth. You know, it’s better, it’s better to just get it over with, than to have her go through the whole day with the spinach between the teeth. 

>> Shannon: So, handing it down means sharing tips with other players. And teaching them tunes, until they can learn them and teach them, like Rose has done with her daughter Maeve.

>> Rose: I will never forget this, when Maeve was playing the fiddle and she was maybe, like, 9 or 10, and  I took her over to Brian’s session. And she was sitting there playing next to me. They played a tune, and I’m like, “She doesn’t know this tune.” She’s sitting there playing it next to me. And I realized that totally by ear she picked up that tune. It was a simple hornpipe. I said, “Where did you learn that?” She goes, “I don’t know, I think I heard it at the feis.” You know?

>> Shannon: Which one?

[ Everybody lilts the tune ]

>> Patty: The Fort of Kincora?

>> Rose: The Fort of Kincora, exactly.

[ Music: “Fort of Kincora,” from Outside the Box

Artists: Billy McComiskey ]

>> Shannon: The Pearl River posse has built a life around playing and teaching together. The friendships, and the love of Irish music, runs deep for these players. They are rooted in Irish music and in New York.

[ Music: Grupai Ceol reprise ]

Limerick-born Sean Clohessy has carried his music with him, from tunes with his three siblings and bodhran-playing grandpa… to Fleadhs and competitions throughout Ireland with his peers…. to Boston, where he has established group ensembles for kids at the local Comhaltas music school. That’s the same school I featured in the “Trip to Sligo” episode. For Sean, finding the heart of the music is best done with a group.

We met after dinner one night. Sean served us fresh apple tart and he began hand grinding coffee beans.

[ sounds of hand grinding beans]

>> Shannon: How many years have you been here, Sean?

>> Séan: Almost ten, longer than anyplace else, apart from Ireland. So far! Hahaha! Like, really.

>> Shannon: We started with Sean’s story on how he began playing:

>> Séan: I grew up in a place called Fennimore, which is outside Limerick City in the Southwest. I have two sisters and a brother. And so we started playing tin whistle. 

My parents are not… um they don’t play music. And I think that they played a very important role in the fact that we all still play music. You know? Because to take the time to practice with you and play, you know, not that they could play themselves, but do that and play that, let’s do it again. To help you make the time and help you be a little bit disciplined about how you do it also. You know,  that stands to you for sure.

>> Shannon: Do this. Try again. It’s simple encouragement. Whether or not you’re able to play music alongside your kids—or your grandkids:

>> Séan: My grandfather, my mother’s dad, was from Glin in West Limerick. He was very interested in music. And he used to come and stay and visit, and he would bring the bodhran. He had a bodhran and every night or every day we’d come home from school, and he’d want to play something. A march, whatever, he didn’t care, like really.  

You know, we started to go to Comhaltas classes. I meanm we certainly made a lot of friends playing music through that. And, you know, we used to play in Grupai Ceols and go to the Fleadhs. And you come back and everybody’s playing music, and you come back thinking I know nothing. So for maybe three weeks after the Fleadh, you decide you have to learn everything. You learn a couple tunes, maybe… Hahahaha. And then you fall back into the same kind of patterns again. But that was important. And probably more important, you were going off all over the country with 40 other kids and there’s a lot of motivation in that also, to keep you at it and see you through those kind of teen years when maybe you’re kind of thinking this is not so cool.

>> Shannon: Yeah.

[ Music: Grupai Ceou reprise ]

>> Shannon: I asked Sean how he shares Irish music with students, especially with newer players who haven’t grown up around Irish music.

 >> Séan: In the beginning, you know, for students like this you don’t know what you’re supposed to feel. You don’t know what it’s about. So, you know, you have to get to know people so that they are comfortable and you are easy with them, they are easy with you. And you have to go through the motions, go through the motions. 

The more that you can sit down with people and play with people who do it very well, the much better chance you have of being able to, you know, get that going, get those juices flowing. You get the sense and the feeling for the pulse and the rhythm quite easily in that live setting.

>> Shannon: And playing along with a YouTube video and a metronome probably doesn’t impart that as directly? As playing with other people probably.

>> Séan: No, not at all.

>> Shannon: And there’s a social component to it, too.

>> Séan: Absolutely, yeah. Absolutely. I think that you have to experience it in the flesh, in that live setting for example.

>> Shannon: As we wrapped up our chat, Sean talked about the elemental experience of Irish music. And how playing and hearing the music together elevates people and connects us on a very basic level.

>> Séan:  We have rhythm all around us in ways that we’re not conscious of, whether it’s breathing, or heartbeat or blinking. You know, walking, seasons: everything. There’s rhythm in everything.  

And I think that one of the things Irish music, it’s an easy way to connect in, and to feel and  perceive these rhythms. This practice is a way to awaken a lot of these things, and experience things, and touch things, and see things in a way that we can’t see with our eyes. 

>> Shannon: Across town from Sean Clohessy, in Melrose, Massachusetts, fiddle player and recent high school grad Josie Coyne has connected with the practice. She plays Irish music—with her family, her peers, and with mentors like Sean, who’s helped her prepare for competitions.

Josie’s brother Rory plays accordion. Her dad John plays bouzouki. And her mom Lisa plays flute. And they bring the local Irish music community together frequently, with house concerts and music parties.

Like Sean, Josie’s parents have played an essential role in her musical development. And so has the community that has surrounded her—and will continue to, even as she heads to college in the Fall.

>> Shannon: So, how did you start?

>> Josie: Well,  it’s not really inspirational or anything. My older Aunt, so she started playing fiddle and she was like, I idolized her. So, I copied her and started playing fiddle and here I am.

>> Shannon: Aw, now may I ask? How old are you now?

>> Josie: I’m seventeen now.

>> Shannon: Okay. So that was a while ago.

>> Josie: It was.

>> Shannon: And you still remember that feeling of seeing her play the fiddle and wanting to do it yourself?

>> Josie: Yeah, I guess so and I remember hearing my parents both play kind of made me want to be a part of it. Like seeing them play at sessions. All the people they were meeting. It just seemed kind of cool. 

>> Shannon: Did you have a lot of encouragement from your family to play?

>> Josie: Um, yeah, I’d say so. They’re always making, not making me; but they’re always asking me to practice at least 15 minutes a day. I remember that very well. Um.

>> Shannon: Was that strife free?

>> Josie: No, not always. Sometimes…I feel like when I was younger I wanted to do it more. But as I got older, I kind of like, didn’t want to practice. But I always realize every time I go back to Ireland for the summer or something, I always play a lot more.

>> Shannon: Josie has had some inspiring summers of tunes in Ireland—with trips to visit her Dad’s family in Limerick, and the Meithal summer music camp, and the trad Youth Exchange with musicians in County Clare.

In Ireland and at home around Boston, Josie knows a lot of kids who play tunes:

>> Josie: A lot more kids seem to be becoming more interested in it.

>> Shannon: So why do you think that kids are playing this music?

>> Josie: I honestly couldn’t tell you. It’s really fun! It’s really fun to get together. Like I did this summer camp Meithal in Limerick these past couple years. It’s really great to meet all these people my age, and they’re great musicians. And meet up with them and play a few tunes.

 It kind of inspires you more, it makes you want to be better, when you hear other musicians that are better, when you’re first starting out. I think.

>> Shannon: And what about you, John? Um, when did you start playing?

>> John: Uh, I’m a bit older than Josie (laughs). So actually I started playing music, not really traditional Irish music. I grew up in Limerick. So, I started playing when I was about 12 or 13, playing guitar. And I remember it was myself and my best friend Brian O’Neill. And we both went to the Crescent College Comprehensive in Limerick for secondary school. And there was a Father McGuckian, he was a teacher there, and a priest. And he had a folk group. The deal was he would teach us how to play guitar, the initial- just the chords and stuff, if we’d agree to play in the folk masses. So we got our start there, just kind of learning the basic chords, playing a lot of Jesus songs.

And as we got older we started being exposed a little bit to the more traditional stuff. To be honest I had no idea how to play it. I just knew I liked it and I was kind of drawn to it. I think I probably killed a fair few sessions early in my career.

>> Shannon: I think we all did.

>> John: I think we all did. But I definitely did. But it really wasn’t until I came over to the States—I came over when I was 18 for college. I was very fortunate to come over here.

And that’s kind of how I really, really got into it. It’s a little ironic that I started playing Irish music over in the States.

I was just thinking back to what Josie was saying about what we do to make her play and how do we keep at it. Because it’s the same with any instrument. A lot of people start playing an instrument and they work really hard at it and get to a point, and then it doesn’t actually move very far. You know, with both Josie and even Rory doing so well on music—and they’re actually 10x the musician I could ever be, even at that early age—and how do you make that happen, you know? I actually, I don’t have a full answer to it but I think some of it is just creating an environment where there’s always music around the house, whether it’s you’re playing the music, or you have parties or house concerts or whatever. And then they’re constantly there. What?

>> Josie: It’s just parties and the house concerts are a big aspect of it all, (laughs) a big part of it!

>> Shannon: Always really good snacks, too!

>> Josie: Yeah, that’s true.

>> Shannon: Fiddle players George and Emily Keith had been doing house concerts in the next town over. I asked John how he and Lisa started hosting them.

>> Shannon: Now your family is instrumental (no pun intended!) in bringing great traditional instrumental music here. And presenting it here in Melrose.

>> John: Yeah, it’s interesting. We kind of fell into it. Because the Keiths, as you know, are known for putting on the house concerts. And they had been doing it for a number of years, actually, when we moved to Melrose. But I think it was when Sammy, their first child was being born, and there was someone coming to town. They were coming through to do a house concert, and George just couldn’t do it. And they were looking around. Lisa and I just kind of said, “Jeez, you know, I wonder if we could put one on here?” We tried it. It was awesome, it was a fantastic night of music. We loved doing it. It was actually easy to do. It wasn’t a burden to do it. It was a great social event and so we continued to do them. 

So we’ve had some great, fantastic musicians come through here and you get to, kind of, see it in this kind of rare form. 

For us then, the other added benefit I think, it really contributed to both Josie and Rory ever since they were really small, Rory was two or three when we started out. And he would be on the stairs like, looking down, and there’d be David Munnelly, he would be playing in the corner. And like, you can’t help but absorb all that in. You know?

>> Shannon: Especially when Dave Munnelly is playing in the corner. You absorb it physically!

>> John: You absorb it physically. But like Rory would be up in bed, and the music would be coming up through the floorboards. I love that.

>> Josie: It’s pretty great. Honestly. It’s amazing to meet all these, like, amazing musicians that I’ve heard so much about, like, listened to their CDs. Again, like, falling asleep to the music. Just going to bed and falling asleep to amazing music. Ever since I was really young. I remember going to sleep, an at first I’d be like, “stop playing!” But then as I got slightly older, it’s just so nice to fall asleep to. It’s great because I go over, like, for example, at Meithal Dave Munnelly was one of the tutors there. And I met him and he remembered me from when he did a  house concert here. It was just like, it was a great connection and we were just chatting away. And it’s really sweet.

[ Music: “Tom Ashe’s March,” from Rehearsal
Artist: Dan Gurney (accordion), Shannon Heaton (flute), Matt Heaton (guitar) ]

>> Shannon: Music in the home is really sweet. But it’s not all community music schools and independent home study. Irish music has hit higher education as well. 

Séamus Connolly and Louis de Paor have both brought Irish music to university students. Connolly is a fiddle player with a penchant for preserving, collecting, and sharing Irish music. De Paor is a poet, and directs the Irish Studies program at the National University of Ireland at Galway. I met with Louis during his semester at Boston College, and again a few months later on the sprawling Galway campus.

>> Louis: I’m the Director of the Center for Irish Studies, where over the last 10 years in particular, but perhaps 15 years in all, we’ve gradually introduced Irish music studies. Not from an ethnomusicological or music department perspective, but as a part of culture studies. So that in the same way that we read literary texts in a particular way within the interdisciplinary project of cultural studies, the idea is that you can present traditional music and dance from an Irish culture studies perspective. And this has proved to be a very popular initiative with students. They’re among the most popular courses we have, particularly for visiting students.

>> Shannon: And what about learning this traditional culture, this aurally transmitted and preserved for many centuries culture in a university context?

>> Louis: Well, we also have a sean nós singer in residence and a sean nós dancer in residence every second year, because the traditions of sean nós singing and dancing are particularly strong in the Connemara Gaeltacht. There is this idea that the practitioners, the best practitioners of those art forms are the masters of that tradition. Uh, the professors of that tradition. 

So, every other year, we offer workshops in sean nós singing and dancing. And again it is really, really interesting those workshops have been running for maybe 16 or 17 years now. When we started off, very small numbers of people attended those classes. Now the numbers are extraordinarily high. I mean maybe 70 or 80 people will turn up to the dance class, which is a little bit of an easier challenge because it’s not linguistically determined. But even for the sean nós singing classes, there might be 20-25 people attending in the worst weather of the Irish winter. Coming along every evening, one evening a week to listen to the singers who will teach them the songs, teach them the acoustic patterns. But also try and give them some sense of the larger context for the songs. 

>> Shannon: Irish music is traditionally handed down from one person to the next—and often within families, And though I didn’t learn it in my family, the process of getting tunes FROM other players is still essential to my trad music experience. I wondered about studying fiddle tunes (or big ballads, or dialects of the Irish language, or sean nós dance steps) in a formal university setting. 

Well, maybe studying how people learn is another way in. And maybe learning about the structure is a way to consider the creative possibilities of Irish music. 

>> Louis: The transmission from one generation to the next has been aural, rather than through written forms. And that still seems to be very important for the relationship between the tradition and each new generation. It seems that the very intense and generous relationship between the person who passes on the song and the person who acquires the song—and that the musicians themselves and the singers themselves are acutely conscious of how they acquired the song. 

It’s nice that you’d often hear the singer saying, “Well, I got this song from the singing of such and such a person.” It’s an easily parodied form of deference in the tradition, but I think there’s something very heartfelt about that. And it’s also a way of keeping the dead alive somehow, that singers sing a song in a particular way:  so that those who are trained in the language of those songs would pick up the clues that in a particular context they are going to change a line to remember somebody that they all know used to sing it in that way. You know, in an act of deference to the person who sang in that particular way.

>> Shannon: Now you use this term “the tradition” what do you mean by that?

>> Louis: Well, it’s a very interesting one, isn’t it? And people now prefer to use it in the plural, ‘traditions’ and so on. And I think that is perfectly fine. It’s not entirely semantic to insist on plurality. But, nonetheless, when we talk about tradition, we’re talking about something that is given. Which is not to say that it is static, rather  than dynamic. There will always be brawling elements in a tradition. We can call them conservatives and progressives, even though very often the conservatives are the real radicals in holding on to something against prevailing fashions. 

So, if we leave that to one side, there still is, it seems to me, a residue of something in the word tradition that is hugely important, which is that there is an act of deference required from each generation to something that is a given. And when we say given, is a gift. And in the same way that it is rude to return a gift, there is an act of deference required before you make your own of the given. 

All too often, the word tradition is associated with something that is dated, outdated, tyrannical and all of the rest of it. We’re at the tail end of a couple of hundred years where originality was the key to creativity. And it’s only, perhaps, more recently people are beginning to have a better understanding of the creative element of what we call traditional. That it’s a kind of scaffolding, if you like, rather than a structure that remains impermeable to the weathers of time.

[ Grupai Ceol theme reprise ]

>> Shannon: A few months before my meeting with Louis de Paor, I spent a warm Spring afternoon at Boston College with fiddle player and National Heritage fellow Séamus Connolly. We strolled across campus and settled in a cozy room with these upholstered chairs and fancy lamps.  Elizabeth Sweeney joined us—she’s the librarian for the Irish Music Archives at Boston College. She shared her perspective on tradition and preservation too, and also a few bottles of cool water.

[ Shannon, Séamus, and Beth take seats ]

I congratulated Séamus on his recently completed tenure at Boston College, after 11 years as Sullivan Artist-in-Residence:

>> Séamus: Yes, I was very honored to have had that position for 11 years. I got the Ellis Island medal of honor for my contribution to the arts in America as well, yeah. I think it was Dionne Warwick got it the same year as I did, yeah.

>> Shannon: I’d like to hear that duet! You and Dionne Warwick together.

>> Séamus: Yeah, me too!

>> Shannon: When Séamus once asked me to guess his age, I guessed much younger than he is. He’s full of sparkle for Irish music, and he seems to get an energy surge when he’s dreaming up ways to share it. Maybe this springs from his early days, when he wasn’t surrounded by tunes.

>> Séamus: When I grew up in Ireland there wasn’t very much music around where I came from. The only way I could get to hear music was in my home with my father or my mother playing. My father collected the old 78 records. And one of the, probably the first, fiddle record that I ever heard in my house was I think was recorded in 1937 by the great fiddle master from Donegal, Neilidh Boyle.

[ Music: “Seán Sa Cheo,” from one of the 78 rpm recordings made for Regal Zonophone
Artist: Neilidh Boyle (fiddle) ]

>> Séamus: When I first started to play first, my fiddle was tuned in fourths instead of fifths.

>> Shannon: Wow!

>> Séamus: And I didn’t use the little finger at all because I didn’t think you had to do it. So I used to kind of slide up with my third finger to get the full finger position.

>> Shannon: How long did you go like that?

>> Séamus: I was playing for about, maybe 10 months. And, uh, Dinny O’Brien, Paddy O’Brien’s father came to see me playing and he was puzzled by it all. And then, um, my uncle, he was the local barber. And a man came in to him one day. And that man was from Feakle, in County Clare. His name was Tom Touhey. Of course my uncle was very proud that I was playing the fiddle. And Tom said, “Well, I play the fiddle too. I’d love to hear him.” 

And I went that night with my uncle and Mr. Touhey was sort of fascinated, too. And he asked me to give him the fiddle. And of course he couldn’t play. So he tuned it up and played away. He was a very good fiddle player, East Clare fiddle style. And he gave me back the fiddle and I couldn’t play a note. I had to start all over again. 

And so I went home, my mother was in bed. And I went up to her and said goodnight to her. She says, “How did you make out with the man?” I said, “I didn’t, I’m playing wrong.”

“Ah,” she said, “never mind him! Just keep going,” she said. “You’re doing fine,” she said.

>> Séamus: Like I said, my father collected the records.  And then with the advent of the reel to reel machine, I started going around to the Fleadh na Ceol and the various concerts. I went on from ther. And then, of course, the advent of the cassette machine, that was easy. You’d be bringing around a big Grundig tape recorder, sticking it in the plug in the wall. And then we had the battery cassettes. And so, it went on from there. So I started collecting. So I’ve been recording music for almost 60 years.

>> Shannon: Irish traditional music has had some great caretakers. Like Dr. Ciaran Mac Mathúna, he traveled around Ireland recording musicians. And then he’d broadcast them on Irish Radio every Sunday, for 35 years. 

Greatly inspired by Mac Mathúna, Séamus began collecting songs and stories. During the ten years that Séamus directed the Gaelic Roots festival and during his Artist in Residence tenure at B.C, Séamus continued to record musicians. When he and his wife, Sandy, were on holidays in Italy, she suggested he share his collection with the world:

>> Séamus: Where it all began, Shannon, was when Sandy and I were in Rome 15 years ago.We were walking on the Appia Antiqua, which is the old stone road where the chariots rode. And you could see the marks of the wheels of the chariots. 

So we were talking and then we took a little escapade. We went off to see the Stradivari violins. And we talked about, here we have the Stradivari violins and we can hear them play today. And they’re preserved, for posterity, if you like. And then we happened to come across the home of Giuseppi Verdi. And we talked about how Verdi’s music is still alive today, although there is nobody around that ever even heard his music. But because it was documented it’s there for the world to hear.  

So Sandy came up with the idea, “Why don’t you do a book or something like that. What are you going to do with all your recordings?” You know? It came out of that.

>> Shannon: So Séamus chose his earliest, most treasured recordings. And then he enlisted friends to record NEW versions of the tunes, alongside the archival versions.

>> Séamus: With the recordings that I made over the years, I chose tunes that meant much to me, you know? And so I used those as a source recording. And then I asked various people, including yourself, to interpret particular tunes, these particular tunes in their own way, in your way. We will have a few 30 seconds of the old ones and the newer ones side by side. Because it’s hard to comprehend it. And it might not mean as much if the people don’t hear it, the sources.

>> Shannon: OK, so Séamus pulls together all these recordings and stories. But then what?

>> Séamus:  I have it written down; I’ve all the recordings made, all the stories told. What do I do with it? And then the libraries came to the rescue.

>> Shannon: The Boston College Libraries published The Séamus Connolly Collection of Irish Music in October 2016. It’s a digital collection, featuring almost 340 tracks with stories and notation. I asked Beth Sweeney how the digital format compliments the wealth of music already out there on, say, YouTube.

>> Beth: Sometimes things on YouTube, which has so much great material, but it’s all kind of chopped up — sometimes you just kind of, I don’t know, I just feel like you can get lost. A little bit.

>> Shannon: And who do you think that this serves? Who do you think really benefits from these collections?

>> Beth: Scholars obviously, people who are writing, researching, or putting together recordings, documentaries, that sort of thing, of course they can benefit. And students who are just learning an instrument or learning about the tradition can have access, and discover a collection and how it might open up a whole field of learning that maybe they didn’t know was there. And putting things in context. Let’s say you come in as a history person, you might learn more about the music. And, there is… it’s so rich. I think it surprises people.

I can’t put myself in everyone’s shoes but I’ve certainly felt it myself over the years, like “what have I stumbled across? This is just amazing!”

>> Shannon: Séamus first heard Irish music on old 78s and from neighbors back in Clare. Today he’s more comfortable than I am with innovation and with presenting traditional music in university and online settings. I asked him why he’s moved to share this collection, and what it has to do with traditional music today: 

>> Séamus: Why? Because I think it’s important to remember the past, but we can’t stay locked in the past either. We have to move forward. And particularly with traditional  music, wherever it may be from. If it’s kept locked up it doesn’t advance or it doesn’t move on. It’s a living tradition. And the younger people that are playing the music have to add to the music how they feel. It should be interpreted and give us something new. 

At the same time we shouldn’t forget what the older people did, too; what they put down. But that was in their time. Now it’s 21st century and there’s new people coming along. And it keeps it vibrant, it keeps it alive by the new and exciting things that people do. And when I’m gone, and you know, and when the young people that are there now playing it, when they become older, they will hear something different as well, the new people.  So, again,  it’s very much a living tradition, and it should be that way.

>> Shannon: Just a few generations ago, if your family or your neighbor didn’t play Irish music, you weren’t going to learn it. And then 78s came along… and portable recorders… and online forums. And now fiddle players in Tokyo can pull up YouTube videos of Sligo fiddle players on their mobile devices. Everyday people come to Irish music who didn’t grow up with it. Still, most players end up as part of a community of musicians, because the tradition is still about  one person sharing a tune—and another person trying to grab that tune… and play it back…and play along…and tap into the rhythm and the pulse of the music.

Whether you’re an adult learner taking Comhaltas classes, or a university student, or a kid playing marches on the tin whistle after school with his grandpa, it’s STILL about people passing it on. It’s still about people keeping it going. And from people, friendships grow and trad music communities, like the one in Pearl River, New York emerge:

>> Patty: I know I’m really lucky that I’m teaching with two friends from grammar school. From grammar school! I mean, I’ve known Rose since we were 10. We were duet partners!

>> Rose: Yeah!

>> Patty: Duet partners. And I was a trio partner with Margie. I was in bands with Rose, I was in bands with Margie. 

>> Rose: My rolltop desk.

>> Patty: Desk! Bottle of chianti, what was it?

>> Rose: No, it was Canei wine!!

>> Patty: Canei wine!

>> Margie: Bronx!

>> Patty: Bronx! Lotta memories, all for the music, it’s pretty wild.

>> Shannon: It was pretty wild, and inspiring, to talk with these great musicians and share their stories.

[ Music: “Katie’s Fancy” (jig), live in Rose’s Kitchen, 2016
Artists: Rose Flanagan (fiddle), Patty Furlong (accordion), Margie Mulvahill (flute) ]

Thank you, dear listener, for tuning in.

This episode of Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton. 

If you’d like to learn more about the people and the music in this episode, please head to IrishMusicStories.org. There’s a donate button there, if you’d like to support the show and help with travel and production costs. I appreciate every little bit. 

>> Shannon: John, since you have, you notice lovely details about things sometimes… SOMETIMES! Hahaha! Sometimes. Sometimes you’re completely oblivious.

Bonus Content

Related videos

Companion Chapters

Related essays

Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Limerick-born fiddle player and teacher, who spent time learning music in London before relocating to New York and Boston

John Coyne


Limerick-born singer and bouzouki player, now making his home in Melrose, Massachusetts

Patty Furlong


Bronx-born button accordion player and teacher

San Francisco-born mandolin player and teacher who performs with husband guitarist as the duo Noctambule 

Margie Mulvahill


Bronx-born flute and whistle player and teacher who performed with the band Morning Star

Josie Coyne


Melrose-born fiddle player who has spent ample time playing music in Clare, and in her father’s native Limerick 

Louis de Paor


Cork-born Irish language poet and Director of the Centre for Irish Studies at NUI Galway

The Heaton List