Trad on Canvas

How visual artists portray Irish music and dance
Episode Trailer

How do visual artists paint trad? And how do they capture the sounds and feelings—and the bigger stories behind Irish music and dance—in two dimensions?

In conversations with Brian Vallely, James Gurney, Vincent Crotty, and Catharine Kingcome, host Shannon Heaton explores Travelling pipers, a dilapidated hotel in the Hudson Valley, Dudley Street dance hall in post WWII America, and a country home in County Clare.


Thank you to everybody for listening. And a special thank you to this month’s underwriters: Robert McOwen, Lance Ramshaw, Chris Murphy, Richard Kuhwarth, Mark Haynes, John Kerr, Will Coleman, David Vaughan, Brian Benscoter, Joe Garrett, and Gerry Corr

Episode 29 – Trad on Canvas: how visual artists portray Irish music and dance
This Irish Music Stories episode aired May 14, 2019

Speakers, in order of appearance:

>> Shannon Heaton:  flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> Brian Vallely: Armagh-based painter and uilleann piper who founded the Armagh Pipers’ Club
>> Nigel Heaton: young announcer for Irish Music Stories
>> James Gurney: New York-based artist, author, and lecturer best known for his illustrated book series Dinotopia
>> Vincent Crotty: Cork-born, Boston-based artist regarded for land and seascapes, nocturnes, and Irish music portraits 
>> Catharine Kingcome: Bristol England-born painter and fiddle player deeply influenced by Irish traditional music
>> Anne Marie Kennedy: Galway based writer, journalist, and playwright who has presented numerous Irish music events


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

[ Music: Tune: “Free the Heel,” from Kitchen Session
Artist/Composer: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

…like how paintings of Irish music and dance can make history come alive;

and how visual art can unwrap mysteries and stories about keepers of the tradition.

>> Brian: I’d like to think that the paintings have a mystery that people would be interested in discovering exactly what’s happening, what’s going on here.

>> Shannon: That’s painter Brian Vallely. He’s based in the North of Ireland, in County Armagh. 

[ Music: Tune: “Dear Irish Boy,” from Swimming Against The Falls
Artist: Joey Abarta ]

For this episode I’ll explore Brian’s portraits of musicians. In particular, his painting of uilleann piper Felix Doran, the one that appears on the cover of the first edition of The Companion to Irish Traditional Music. 

The Companion is an encyclopedia, first published by Brian’s cousin Fintan Vallely in 1999. The book’s sitting right here on our upright piano. The cover painting of Felix Doran is all chewy brushstrokes, and long fingers, and arms working the bellows. There’s some silver in the piper’s hair. It matches the silver pipes. And he’s just slightly bent over the instrument, as if he’s completely focused on the music and the moment—even if Ireland wasn’t focused on him, or on other ethnic Irish Travellers who helped shape uilleann piping and traditional Irish music.

If you’ve never heard the term ‘Irish Traveller’ or ‘Irish Travelling people,’ I’ll explain more about that in a bit.

For me, that painting of this great piper—of this Traveller—on the cover of the Companion, it’s like an invitation to all the details and history inside the book.

[ Music: Tune: “The Bull’s March,” from The Raven’s Rock
Artist: Cillian Vallely ]

For this episode, I’ll go deep into that Felix Doran painting. And I’ll share music from great pipers like Brian’s son Cillian Vallely, playing the Bull’s March here. I’ll also talk to Cork-born, Boston-based painter Vincent Crotty about his portraits of music sessions and his theatrical backdrops. And I’ll speak to artists Catharine Kingcome in Birmingham, England and James Gurney in Rhinebeck, NY about how they capture the sounds and feelings of trad in two dimensions. I’m curious about how they paint movement and vitality and musical emotion. And how music affects them as visual artists.

Before I tuck into this art episode, my son Nigel and I want to thank our sponsors.

>> Nigel: Thank you to Robert McOwen, Lance Ramshaw, Chris Murphy, Richard Kuhwarth, Mark Haynes, John Kerr, Will Coleman, David Vaughan, Brian Benscoter, Joe Garrett, and Gerry Corr.

>> Shannon: Thank you for donating this month, and helping me build the show. To support future editions, please head to IrishMusicStories dot org. And thank you.

So here we go, an Irish Music Stories exploration of how visual art captures pipers, singers, dancers, fiddlers…. and piano players.

[ Music; Tune: “Silver,” from Silver
Artist/Composer: Hanneke Cassel ]

Pianos are beautiful. They can sound great. They are helpful for composing and teaching music. They’re handy for displaying framed photos, and holding a stack of books. And they’re fun to play. 

There’s a painting from around 1868 by Cezanne called Girl at the Piano. A young woman is playing, and her maybe Mom is knitting beside her. It shows music as a way to while away the day, to color the hours at home. And because of old paintings like these, we see how people lived, and played, and gathered.

18th Century Scottish painter David Allan gives a detailed picture of a marriage gathering, of a celebration in his famous “Highland Wedding” painting. In the center, the famous Scottish musician Niel Gow is playing the fiddle. His brother Donald is playing the cello. Two couples are dancing on the dirt, chairs and tables set up underneath the trees. People are smiling, chatting, cuddling. There’s a piper taking a drink break.

“Highland Wedding” tells a story. It captures a jovial mood. And though it was painted in 1780, it’s not unlike an outdoor wedding today—except for the tartan stockings and jerkins and plaid cloaks.

Armagh-based artist Brian Vallely’s paintings of musicians tell different types of stories. His canvases are thickly layered with heavy oils. There’s a lot of motion, and some abstract qualities going on in his session scenes. 

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

But even with chunky stripes of activity, there’s beautiful detailed feeling in the flute, fiddle, and pipes. And the communication between the musicians is palpable. And powerful.

There’s real power in the portrait of uilleann piper Felix Doran, the one on the cover of the first edition of the Companion to Irish Traditional Music. The volume contains descriptions of instruments, musicians, playing styles, repertoires, social politics. There are over 200 contributors. Really great stuff in there. 

But it is an encyclopedia—478 pages of A-Z entries. It’s not a screenplay. So the choice to use that visceral painting of Felix Doran on the cover, that really sets the stage for me for an exploration of Irish music.

That painting is a story. Even if you don’t know that Doran was a Traveller. and even if you don’t know much about this indigenous, ethnic minority in Ireland.

>> Various members of the English Traveller C:ommunity, from The Travelling People Produced by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger & Charles Parker

They call us the wild ones
The Pilgrims of the mist
Romanies gypsies Didekais mumpers travellers
Nomads of the road
Black-faced diddies
Cause we’re gypsies, we’re dark, they call us kier boshas, black people. Gangrel bodies. Some said it more polite than others.
In Carlisle they call you potters, dirty potters this, dirty potters that 

>> Shannon: That’s from a 1968 radio project called “The Travelling People,” made for the BBC by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger & Charles Parker. It focused on Britain’s nomadic people. But a lot of those same derogatory terms have also been used for Irish Travellers. Still are. Even though they’ve been part of Irish culture for hundreds of years. 

[ Music: Tune: “Dark Low Jig” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

Traditionally, members of this community would roam around Ireland in wooden wagons. Many still live nomadically, though others live in houses and apartments today. Or they park caravans and mobile homes in government-designated halting sites.

There’s a load of issues and animosity that Travellers have faced from the settled community — and still face. It’s a little like the discrimination that the Roma face in mainland Europe.

But even if you didn’t already know about the strife between the Settled Community, the Irish government, and the Travellers, there’s a lonesomeness and a story in Brian Vallely’s painting of Felix Doran.

It’s a story about a nice, handsome guy, born in County Wicklow around 1915. So here’s Joey Abarta playing just a bit of the Wicklow Hornpipe

[ Music:  Tune: “Wicklow Hornpipe,” from Swimming Against The Falls
Artist: Joey Abarta ]

Felix Doran lived in a horse drawn caravan with his family. And he learned to play the pipes from his older brother Johnny. And then he carried his music to fairs, markets and dances all over Ireland. He was a Traveller.

Though during his 57 years, the Irish government didn’t acknowledge his ethnicity. The Irish Travelling community wasn’t legally recognized as a minority until 2017. 

The Felix Doran painting also tells a story about the painter who created it. Someone who was so moved and inspired by the pipes—and by the music of the Travelling pipers and their connections to his home in County Armagh—that he began playing the pipes himself. And he eventually founded the Armagh Piper’s Club, which has provided support for people learning the uilleann people for decades.

>> Brian: One of the great experiences of my life was meeting Felix Doran in around 1962 at a Fleadh Cheol in Cleonis.  I remember just been absolutely bowled over by his playing. And then sort of, uh, had t an interest in where he came from and his music. You know, the whole story of the music surviving through the Travelling pipers and musicians, who had been absolutely driven out of the country, you know, as soon as the free state government was set up the. Their first job was to do away with music, and do away with the traveling musicians, and do away with the house dances, and everything that made life worth living. Heh..

>> Shannon: So, the Irish Free State. Just in case a brief history is helpful, in the early 1920s, the island of Ireland was partitioned. Northern Ireland was created in the northeastern part of the island, consisting of six counties. And one year later, the 26 Southern counties signed the Anglo-Irish Treaty,. This brought the Irish war of independence to an end, and the South became the Irish Free State. 

Once Ireland was divided, the border made it tougher for Travellers like Doran to roam freely. And then 15 years later, in 1937, the south severed ties with Britain and became the Republic of Ireland. 

Now, as it relates to our story of this painting, during this time the Irish government targeted their way of life through social, economic and legal policies. There were requirements for citizens to have fixed abodes in order to receive health care and education. There were trespass acts and evictions. Terrifying evictions, even in winter. 

Here’s Connemara singer Joe Heaney, singing a few verses from Ewan MacColl’s song “Terror Time.”

[ Music: Song: “Terror Time,” from The Travelling People
Composer: Ewan MacColl
Artists: Joe Heaney (voice) ]

The heather will fade and the bracken will die

Stream will run cold and clear.

And the small birds will be going,

And it’s then you will be knowing

That the Terror Time is near.

Needing the warmth of your own human kind,

You move near a town, but then

Well, the sight of you’s offending,

And the police they soon are sending

And you’re on the road again.

>> Shannon: So back to Felix Doran. Through the 1940s, 50s, and 60s he continued to travel, passing on his music as he went from town to town. But Ireland didn’t make life easy for him. He moved his family over to Manchester, England and set up a successful transport business there. But he’d travel back to Ireland to play with ceili bands, and participate in the Fleadh Ceol annual summer music competitions. In fact, he was awarded Uilleann Pipes All Ireland winner in 1963; and Senior Pipes Winner in 1964. His music touched a nerve.

And it ignited a passion for pipes in painter Brian Vallely. It inspired Brian to travel in search of great music, from his home in Armagh all the way to County Clare. That’s a 250 mile bike trip!

>> Brian: I traveled all over Ireland, anywhere I heard there was a good musician that I needed to hear. You know, so, Willie Clancy. Me and my brother, my younger brother Darren and myself, we cycled from Armagh to Miltown Malbay to listen to Willie playing.

[ Music: Tune: “Chimes,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: And were you playing the pipes by then?

>> Brian: No. I discovered the pipes, certainly. But I was playing the flute. That’s what I started with. But I had an aspiration to play pipes. But it was very difficult. The pipes were nearly invisible in the traditional music scene. 

[ Music: Tune: “Mutey Big Build,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

Well, not actually invisible. But not actively encouraged. For all sorts of reasons. I’ve often tried to analyze why the pipes were held in such low esteem in traditional music circles. And I think it might have been to the fact that the great exponents of the pipes were largely Travellers. And it was just part of an anti-Traveller culture that prevailed in Irish Society, yoy know? They were contemptuously referred to as a tinker’s instrument. 

So here’s this painter up in the North of Ireland, who’d been inspired by the piping of Felix Doran, and who’d ridden his bike on a 500 mile round trip to hear the famed piper Willie Clancy. 

Turns out, Brian had already had practice painting the pipes, while he was in art school:

>> Brian: My first painting of a piper was in Belfast College of Art in 1959, the first year that I was there. And there was a class that we had called Character Study. On this day, this old man was brought in for us to paint. 

>> Shannon: Okay.

>> Brian: And it was old Francie McPeake with his fairly battered looking set of pipes and all, which I’d never seen before. So we spent a couple of day. He was paid to come in and pose with his pipes. And we painted and drew him. And then a long, long time later, I discovered who he was and what he was and all the rest of it, you know. And I got a few prints made and gave them to the McPeake family.  

>> Shannon: The McPeake family combined piping and harmony singing. Old Francie McPeake played with his son and grandson until he died in 1971. He was the guy who turned a Robert Tannahill poem into this trad anthem:

[ Music: Song: “Will Ye Go Lassie, Go,” from Wild Mountain Thyme
Artist: The McPeake Family ]

Old Francie McPeake was born in 1885. So he would have been 74 when he posed with the pipes for Brian’s art class. When Brian painted Felix Doran, he didn’t have a couple of days with a posing piper.

>> Brian: That was done from memory. You know, where’s no way that Felix would have sat still for me to paint him, or anything like that. But I studied him very carefully.  I’m told that it is a good likeness of him.

>> Shannon: Brian not painted uilleann pipers. He also began playing the pipes. And he became a real advocate of the instrument. Here’s Brian playing the Gold Ring.

[ Music: Tune: “A Chailleach Do Mharais Me/The Gold Ring,” from The Celtic Uilleann Pipes Collection – Volume 1
Artist: Brian Vallely ]

>> Brian: I got deeply involved. I started the Piper’s club in ’76. And then in ’78 I was involved with the formation of na Pibori Uilleann. 

>> Shannon:  I imagine because you play the pipes and you really know what it sounds like and it feels like to be in there playing music with other people, um, you know, you would have a sense of that in your imagination as you’re painting.

>> Brian: Well you see that the reason I can paint musicians is that I play a lot of instruments. And I’ve sort of a feel for how they’re held. You know, even banjos, and guitars, and fiddles.  I can play most instruments. Most of them badly, mind you. But I can pick them up and do something. But I mean, the pipes is obviously my favorite instrument.

If I’m painting, I like to imagine I can hear the music coming out. And for other people to get the same feeling, you know? So that’s success for me, you know, creating the spirit of the music. That’s what I tried to do.

[ Music: Tune: “Meaning of Life” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: So does it work the other way around? Like when you play music, do you think visually? 

>> Brian: I’m very conscious of what’s going on around me, you know.  And I observe all the time. You know, like that’s one of the things in old art schools—not anymore, but in the old art schools—you’d spend a lot of time looking, and honing your memories of things. And noticing things that other people mightn’t notice, you know? For example, one of our teachers in Edinburgh one time came in one day and said could anybody in this painting class tell him how many windows were on the side of the bus that they came to art school in that morning.  Nobody could. But he then said how many there were. And he said that’s what observation is about. That you notice without noticing, and you can do that, you know? So a valuable lesson was learnt.

>> Shannon: Noticing and paying attention to the mechanics, the details, but also the heartbeat of the culture that surrounds you—that’s what seems to drive Brian as an artist. And as a musician. And for him, Irish music is an essential expression of Irish culture. And worth painting about.

>> Brian: It’s a very distinctive part of Irish life for those who want it to be. You know, a lot of people could take it or leave it, you know. But really if you go outside of Ireland, people are very interested. And they see it as being quintessentially part of the Irish psyche. But at times you wonder, was that a universally accepted thing inside Ireland? That’s a question you always have. 

But certainly it doesn’t matter what country you go to — from Japan to Alaska to South America, — Irish music is what people aspire to play

>> Shannon: Irish music is what Felix Doran aspired to play, even while he was carving out a life for his family in England. Doran continued to celebrate Irish culture, right up to his death in 1972. And his family ferried his body from Manchester back to Ireland, so he could be buried on Irish soil. 

[ Music:  “Meaning of Life” reprise ]

But after the funeral, his widow and children weren’t allowed to board the ferry going back to England. Brian said it was because Travellers just weren’t wanted in Ireland. And they weren’t wanted on the Irish ferry either.

Another pal told me it was because the group had been rowdy and disruptive on their boat ride over to Ireland. Now, I’ve been around big groups: on boats, in airports, at soccer games, at weddings, and funerals. And big groups can be loud and obnoxious, especially if you’re not in on the fun.

There was a big funeral just last month (in 2019) for Felix’s son-in-law and nephew John Rooney. Pipers, friends, and family assembled to honor John and his fine piping. And I’m sure it was loud and festive. Just like the crowd at my Uncle Tom’s funeral a few months ago. And at John Rooney’s Uncle’s funeral. Uncle Felix had a lot of well-wishers. But his wife finished off her weekend by standing on the quayside, with a child in her arms, after being refused passage on the ferry. 

In 2004 Brian published Rakish Paddy Blues, a book with Belfast poet Gearoid MacLochlainn, There are paintings of Traveller musicians and poems and songs, and they’re working on a new edition. The reel Rakish Paddy was Felix’s signature tune.

[ Music:  “Rakish Paddy,” from The Last of the Travelling Pipers
Artist: Felix Doran ]

>> Brian: Felix was very, very special, you know. And you think that he should have been honored in his lifetime and he wasn’t really. And he was dishonored and his death, the way the authorities, and the guards, and the shipping people treated him and his family.

>> Shannon: Well this painting elevates him in a very special way. I think.

>> Brian: Yeah.

* * * * * 

>> Shannon: From the Travellers and the pipes, back to the piano, where my son Nigel is practicing.

[ Music: Tune: “Drifting Clouds,” from The Joy of First Year Piano
Composer: Denes Agay
Artist: Nigel Heaton ]

I love hearing and seeing him play. And I’m trying to memorize the way the light hits his little hands. It takes me back to my own early experiences with music. But it also feels shockingly present to sit with this little boy as he finds his music now.

I imagine artist James Gurney feeling the same impulse, at home in the Hudson Valley, watching and hearing his son Dan learn to play the accordion

>> James: For me, sketching was the way I would pass the time while Dan was taking this interest in Irish music. 

[ Music: Tune: “Song of Dinotopia,” AKA Lift up your heads, Ye mighty Gates (Hymn #436) AKA Truro, from Episcopal Hymnal
Composer: Lowell Mason (1792-1872), words Georg Weissel (1590-1635)
Artist: Shannon Heaton ]

>> Shannon: Now, James had drawn and painted many other kinds of musicians before that time: classical, Sacred Harp, performers at outdoor music festivals. And there are also fantastical instruments in Dinotopia—that’s his incredible series of books about an island where shipwrecked humans and dinosaurs live harmoniously together. No animosity. No discrimination.

There’s plenty of dancing and dragon-horn playing from the first book in that series. But there are even more musical scenes and songs in the later books. I wondered if the traditional music sketches that James started doing with his son Dan, fed into Dinotopia. (I mean, sometimes accordion players can look a little prehistoric…)

>> James: These sketches didn’t directly influence my studio work. But, um, I suppose I put some of the musicians in a few of the books that were inspired by the music sessions.

>> Shannon: Haha. I will definitely look over the musicians in the books for trad music sightings!

[ Music: Tune: “Jimmy Neary’s / Walls of Liscarroll,” from Ignorance Is Bliss

Artist: Dan Gurney ]

So, when James wasn’t doing his day job of painting dinosaurs, he was parenting. And sketching his kids as they practiced and put on home concerts. And they practiced. This is his son Dan playing.

And then the family started going to Father Charlie Coen’s afternoons of Irish music at the Rhinecliff Hotel.

>> James: This was a dilapidated hotel along the Hudson River right along the railroad tracks. You’d walk in on a Sunday afternoon and go past the pinball machine and the pool table, give Mister Titus 5 dollars and you’d be treated to music by some of the very best Irish musicians who were friends of Father Coen. And Father Coen himself on the flute and the concertina was a quite an amazing musician and encouraged all the young players.

The Rhinecliff hotel was a strange environment, because over on the right were some rotten floorboards. We always put a couple of chairs there because we didn’t want any of the guests to fall through the floor. There was a hole in the acoustic tiles. And every once in a while, if you listened for a while and the music got good, something would stick its head through that hole in the tiles. We didn’t know whether it was a rat or a squirrel or what it was. There was some debate about that.

And once in a while a train would go by and honk its horn in the middle of a tune.

[ Music: “Pound the Floor” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

 And there used to be… in the early days there was a payphone. And they took out the payphone, cause it would always ring in the middle of the concerts. But the weird thing was that even when the phone was removed, the ringer of the phone was still there, apparently, inside the wall. I remember Joanie Madden was playing one time. And the phone went off right at the end of one of her tunes during a real beautiful quiet, sort of a deep feeling, sort of slow air.

So that was a great place to sketch. There was just one light bulb lighting the scene. I liked that from an artist’s point of view because it lit the subject with a good strong, simple light source.

>> Shannon: Low lights in Irish pubs, and tin whistle players who don’t sit still—this must all be really tricky to draw. But the challenges are part of what makes it fun for James.

>> James: I like the fact that people are moving and changing their poses a little bit, as people will when they’re playing an instrument. It makes it a lot more challenging as an artist, compared to sketching from a posed model. But I never really wanted to finish up the sketches at home. I just wanted to do it on location and get as much done as I can in the hour, hour and a half of the concert of the session afterwards. 

[ Music:  Jackie Coleman’s” reel from Music at Matt Molloy’s
Artists: Matt Molloy & Friends ]

Because there’s something about the magic of that moment, that environment, when people are playing the music. As anyone knows who’s been to a mighty session, there’s such energy, such a kind of a trance that everyone gets into. Both the performers and the audience. And that translates to the sketching. You can almost see it in the kind of the rhythmic strokes that you put down when you’re drawing. Um, my wife who knits says that her knitting as much more even when she’s listening to music.

>> Shannon: These days it’s not just sketches of Irish music. James has also done some live painting with gouache. That’s an opaque version of watercolor.

>> James: It’s a nice kind of paint because you can work fairly quickly and it dries as you go. Also you can fix mistakes with the opaque paint. It would be much harder to do in watercolor.

>> Shannon: James has videos and articles about painting and sketching musicians. He shares his experiences and strategies, which is instructive for visual artists. But it’s also another window into the Irish tradition. Into moving parts of the music, and details of live trad events. Whether he’s sketching in the practice room; or painting a live show; or creating dinosaur and fantasy scenes in the studio, James shares his process. And part of his creative process is music.

>> James: this kind of acoustic music tradition. … it inspires all the arts. I don’t know if the musicians realize that. But a lot of people who do different things besides music get inspiration from the music directly. And I play the music often when I’m painting in the studio. And I have a lot of cassette tapes in one of the drawers of various sessions.

>> Shannon: Informal Irish music sessions, and performances, and ceili dances—they’ve lured a lot of people in who’ve made this a big part of their lives. Some play instruments. Some sing. Some dance. And for some, sketching and painting is their way of sharing the tradition, and being part of it.

[Music: Dinotopia reprise ]

>> James: I’m very grateful for the opportunity to meet so many interesting people and to, uh, be a part of the scene, even if on the fringes and kind of in the background.

* * * * * * *

>> Shannon:  In Irish music, the piano has been on the fringes, in a background, accompanying role for decades. The 1999 edition of The Companion to Irish Traditional Music admits that it’s still a newer voice in the tradition. Sure, notable Irish pianist composers like Ed Reavy, Josephine Keegan, and Charlie Lennon have all put the instrument on the Irish music map. And piano is a big voice in ceili dance bands. But some people are still wary of piano accompaniment in Irish music.

Now, there were early 20th century piano players like Kathleen Brennan who didn’t do wonders for the instrument’s reputation. On the Michael Coleman fiddle recordings, it sounds like she’s accompanying a different track entirely.

But there were also great players who lifted the tunes for nights of music and dance. Like Frank Storer and Gene Frain who played for the Dudley Street dance halls in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. That’s where Irish immigrants and Irish Americans flocked from the 1920s until 1967. 

[ Tune: “Siege of Ennis,” from Copley Records release
Artist: Johnny Powell and his Band ]

Those weekend dances shaped people’s lives.

Thanks to the banjos, accordions, and pianos, generations of people escaped the loneliness and the rigors of daily life. They danced their cares away on Dudley Street.

And when the big halls closed, smaller dances, and sessions, and concerts came along. And Celtic Music Festivals started up. Like the Boston Celtic Music Fest.

More on BCMFest (where piano players are welcome) and more about the visual art that has illuminated the festival after this short message.

>> Nigel: It takes a lot of time and a lot of traveling to create this show. If you can kick in, just go to Any amount helps. Thank you.


>> Shannon: Ok, Boston’s Celtic Music Fest. My friend Laura Cortese and I started this winter weekend festival in 2003. We wanted to bring the local Irish, Scottish, and Cape Breton communities together, to get people playing and dancing and collaborating. So we booked five venues and over 100 performers with just a few months lead time.

It was crazy ambitious. And it was awesome. And it continues to be awesome. For the 15 years I sat on the board, I watched newer performers develop into strong players. I’ve seen amazing projects with more seasoned players like TradBOT, which fused uilleann pipes with breakdancing. And I’ve been inspired by super young, super new players who have taken the stage.

From year to year, from the avant TradBOT to the stalwart Boston Scottish Fiddle Club, BCMFest has always been great. 

And it’s always been about Boston. 

[ Music: Tune: “Leaving JP” from Silver
Artist/Composer: Hanneke Cassel ]

Every BCMFest musician and dancer is either based in Massachusetts, or has a strong personal and musical connection to the local community. The most heartwarming moment for me is the Finale concert. It’s where you feel the local pride and considerable talent all come together. Everyone in that room—whether onstage or in the audience—(and maybe even if you’re not from Boston, and you don’t know the full story), I like to think that we all in that moment share this connection. This history. Boston history.

For the 14th Annual BCMFest Finale Concert, we told the story of the dance halls, and of the generations of Irish people, Americans, Canadians, and music fans who built the Boston trad community. 

To tell that story, painter Vincent Crotty designed a scene that took us from that finale stage in 2017 back to Dudley Street, circa 1952. 

Vincent and I spoke about the scenes that he’d painted on enormous, wooden panels. We’d mounted these behind the performers.

>> Vincent:  What was it, like 16 feet wide by 18 feet tall?

>> Shannon: Yeah. They were big panels. And you remember the idea was that one half would be like a parlor and one half would be like a dance hall?

>> Vincent: Oh, yeah. I literally opened up my Rembrandt books and stole directly from Rembrandt. One of my favorite heroes. And I just depopulated his interiors. I took the people out but kept the space.

>> Shannon: And you remember getting the panels to the church and all of this? Haha!

>> Vincent: Oh yeah. Haha! I borrowed my neighbor Bill’s pickup truck, which had a very kind of wobbly steer steering wheel. It was stressful. And it was winter. So it was a long journey.

>> Shannon: Yeah, and then mounting those panels on the stage took some creativity and hard labor. But in the end, the lights went on it. And it just had this amazing mood. And then when we all played music that night, it was like we were in that painting, you know? A really cool experience.

>> Vincent: Oh, that’s nice to hear.

>> Shannon: Vincent’s theatrical backdrops feel like his paintings of Irish musicians and dancers. You can walk right into them. Like his painting “Set Dancing in the Burren”—the warmth of the pub radiates from the table tops, down to the circle of musicians in the far corner, to the half set near the bar. It’s dance, music, chat, community. The sun is still shining on the world outside the bar, but it could be any hour inside.

And this is what an Irish session can feel like. To capture this, I think you’d have to have some first-hand experience with Irish music. Vincent’s wife Kieran is an Irish dancer, so he’s logged a lot of hours at trad events. 

Also, he plays guitar. But playing in Irish sessions isn’t his power spot. Like James Gurney, his way of participating in sessions has been to paint the music, at events like the Catskills Irish Arts Week. Vincent and Kieran have been involved with this immersive summer teaching event in New York state many times.

>> Vincent: You know the Shamrock House in the Catskills? 

>> Shannon: Mmm hmmm.

>> Vincent: I remember sitting there maybe eight years ago. I was sitting in the car nervously for about 45 minutes. I was afraid to go in because I knew I was going to be, you know, everyone would see me if I was painting. And it was kind of a strange place to be painting as it was so crowded and hot. But I really wanted to do it. And I finally mustered up the courage to go in. And I started. 

[ Music: Tune: “Liam O’ Súilleabhaín & Brístí Breaca” AKA Bill Sullivan’s & Britches Full of Stitches from Jackie Daly Agus Séamus Creagh
Artist: Jackie Daly & Séamus Creagh ]

And once I was painting it was fine. And then some kids came up, and they were delighted. Sometimes the reaction of kids can make you start to see it through their eyes. The next year I did this and it was a little bit less nerve wracking. 

A few years later, Donna Long the piano player from Baltimore—Donna’s a great painter—I talked to her into painting alongside me for moral support. That! It really felt like I had arrived into a comfort zone that made me want to do it for the rest of my life. I felt like it was doing what it was supposed to be doing.

>> Shannon: After that, Vincent painted at loads of live trad music and dance events. And his wife Kieran encouraged him to learn more about dancing: 

>> Vincent: At that stage I still was not able to set dance. I’m still not much of a set dancer. But I took the eight week course. Kieran asked me to. 

[ Music: Tune: “Job of Journeywork,” from Cover the Buckle
Artist: Seán Clohessy, Sean McComiskey, and Kieran Jordan ]

And now I feel like I’m much more clued into what’s going on, the twirling, especially. For a painter, the feet are moving so fast that you have to blur the motion. To me that’s… I love that.

>> Shannon: There is a lot of motion with the bow arm. With the guitar strumming hand. There’s a whole lot of motion. 

>> Vincent: Absolutely. You know, the way fiddle players have their own way of being. And catching those nuances, it’s a… I just love doing it.

>> Shannon: Do you always paint stuff that you’ve seen?

>> Vincent: No. I make stuff up quite frequently too. But I do like live painting, as opposed to in here in the studio. There’s a lot of adrenaline in the mix. And that adrenaline forces you to make maybe less of a fool of yourself than you would want. You know, it’s, um, everyone can see your painting when you’re out in the live situation. So it would be silly to expect people not to come up to and look at what you’re doing. It spurs you on.

>> Shannon: Wow. Adrenaline because you feel nervous because everybody’s watching? 

>> Vincent: Yes.

>> Shannon: I can’t imagine sitting in the middle of that room and you’re the only one with the paints. And everyone can see what you’re doing. And there’s a finite amount of time, right? The session is not going to go on forever. …

>> Vincent: Yeah. And you know, you can snap a few photographs maybe, and tweak it at home as well. But what you cannot do at home is get the live energy. It always shocks me that the energy of the night comes into the painting.

>> Shannon: It was shocking how much energy Vincent’s backdrop brought to the music and dance during that BCMFest Finale Concert. The scenes of dance hall and candlelit parlor transported us, especially when the lights came up.

>> Vincent: The thrill for me was the lighting. They had had this amazing powerful sets of lights that just set the whole thing into all sorts of moods.

The BCMFest show wasn’t Vincent’s first set design rodeo. He’d created backdrops for many other traditional music and dance events. His favorites have been with his wife Kieran Jordan for her original dance productions. They cook up the designs together/

>> Vincent: You know, we sit at the kitchen table. I have index cards and a pencil. And Kieran has a very organized mind and a very clear sense of her show. Before I know what’s going on, she knows what she needs. And I love working with her more than with anyone else. She’s just a joy. Those three shows, I wish we were doing it all the time. But it’s one of my happiest memories.

[ Music: “Little Bird Lullaby,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: Kieran and Vincent have created three shows together, including Tir Rag Beog, the living landscape. It centered around the summer harvest festival (Lúnasa), and the Samhain festival that marks the beginning of winter. Lúnasa ia the modern Irish word for August, and Samhain for November. But both words go back to the calendar of the ancient Celts.

>> Vincent: The Fall equinox?

>> Shannon: Yeah, the solstice?

>> Vincent: She wanted to have that as a theme of the show. So she wanted a dry, crispy Fall scene. And then the winter one was supposed to be dark—really dark and moody. Melancholy. So, both my parents, I lost both of them around September 2010 and 11. So I kind of mixed in my parents’ house with a local river. They don’t meet in reality. But in the scene I put in my parents’ house. And the local Brogeen river. And I put in the moonlight, and shadows, and beech trees, and ivy on the tree trunks. That was really personal scene that I was really happy with. 

And then, then she wanted a bright Spring scene, which was completely the other end of the spectrum. Light pale greens, and heather, and stuff like that. Anyway, it was incredible watching the dancers in a darkened theater come out with this as their world. They were dancing in a world that I had made. The projection makes it gigantic in a proper sized theater. My 24 inch by 36 inch painting becomes 30 feet wide by 15 feet tall or something like that. So that was a wonderful experience.

>> Shannon: Vincent Crotty’s paintings of Irish music and dance are a window in to real nights of tunes, into real traditional culture, into history. They document Irish and Boston life. They show musicians and dancers I love, intent on sharing traditional music, in venues that have helped me get by.

And the worlds and moods that Vincent creates with scenic landscapes and backdrops—like the dance hall he made for the BCMFest finale—they help performers and audiences connect with post WWII Irish America, and with the life behind traditional music and dance.

[ Music:  “Slow Reel,” from January EP
Artist: The Assembly ]

* * * * *

Back to the piano, where I’d sketch my son playing, if I could. And back to the piano where I keep my copy of the Companion to Irish Music… and one of Vincent’s evocative paintings… and a print by artist Catharine Kingcome—of her painting of Patsy O’Grady’s home in County Clare. 

Clare, on Ireland’s west coast, is my home base, when I hop across the pond. I love the flute and concertina style there. And above all, I love the people who gave me and my husband Matt such a kind welcome, from our very first visits. Patsy O’Grady’s house sessions were part of that welcome. There were always great musicians, dancers, and nice company. 

When I first saw Cathy Kingcome’s portrait of fiddle player and dancers in front of Patsy’s fireplace, I was struck by the detail. And how deeply Cathy had captured the essence of those nights. The expression on Patsy’s face—it’s joy and delight! It’s a perfect portrayal of a host committed to sharing his home and a genuine and complete welcome with local and visiting musicians.

Cathy, the artist, totally got it. Because during her time in Ireland, Cathy the fiddle player went to Patsy’s house sessions many times. and when she spoke about the painting from her home in Birmingham, England, she talked not only about those nights of music and Patsy’s home, but of Patsy himself.

>> Cathy: Patsy isn’t a musician, but he has a deep love for and appreciation of the music, and the local musicians. But it was Patsy’s own story that inspired me. He and his brother lived together in the family house for many years. When his brother died, Patsy made the positive and admirable decision not to stay at home and be lonely, but instead to get out and meet people, listen to music, and ultimately to host sessions in his own home.

[ Music: Tune: “Kiss the Maid Behind the Barrel,” from House Session
Artists: Boston and Clare musicians ]

These sessions are always welcoming, inspiring, warm and friendly gatherings of musicians and neighbors. The turf fire is always lit. And the music starts around 9pm, with a compulsory break around 11pm—when I say compulsory, you want to by then—around midnight for tea, porter cake and soda bread and other nice things that neighbors bring in. And it’s lovely. Um, you’ve been to these, so you actually know what I’m talking about. It’s lovely.

A few years ago, though, you may know this or not, his house sessions became so popular, that they actually outgrew the space in Patsy’s kitchen. So nothing daunted, he set to work and converted the cowshed next door to the house and turned it into a ceili house. And filled it up with all the old interesting old household and farm items that he’d kept over the years. And he also installed a fireplace. And he’s made it very comfortable with a big space for dancing. And haha, it’s just lovely! It really is. Fair play to him.

[ Music: Tune: “Jackson’s Jig,” from Kitchen Session

Artist: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: So this is the house. The scene. The story that Cathy painted in oil on canvas. The original painting is 52 x 44 inches. And Patsy himself bought the original.

>> Cathy: I feel really honored that Patsy bought my painting. He said he couldn’t let it go to anyone else, it had to stay in his house. And he’s so proud of it. So we’re both delighted. Um, he didn’t have any wall space to put it on. So he hung it from the bannisters. And he rigged up a curtain over it with a spotlight. And he derives huge enjoyment from unveiling it to all visitors who call around.

In the kitchen, I changed the concrete floor to floorboards in the painting, for aesthetic reasons. I don’t know, going back now… I think the floor was pretty boring really. It wasn’t a flagged floor, which would have been lovely. And the idea of having floorboards is that it leads your eye to the picture. So it was good, and it helps. And I also made other small changes. But Patsy decided that the floorboards looked so good that he’d actually put down floorboards in his kitchen on top of the concrete floor. Hahaha! Which is a lovely thing to do!

There’s also a piece of fabric tacked onto the front of the fireplace. It’s very traditional. It’s a piece of plasticized tablecloth, basically, with a sort of flowery print on it. And I painted that, I painted the pattern on it, which took quite a long time. But this piece of fabric in real life really needs to be got rid of. It’s all brown with age, with the smoke catching it fro the fireplace. But Patsy won’t get rid of it, because it’s in the painting! Instead, he’s hoping he might find a piece of it somewhere. It’s obviously something that was printed in the 1960s or 70s. So it’s going to be difficult. Maybe one of your listeners will have some of it, if they look at the picture. Haha! I think he’s going to have to buy a new piece of fabric. And if that does happen, I’ll probably have to go and repaint that bit in the painting, because he won’t be happy with it otherwise.

>> Shannon: The painting at Patsy’s house was part of Cathy’s third exhibition on traditional music and dance themes, from the year 2000. Three years before that, she’d painted a series of narrative portraits of Irish fiddle players, along with images inspired by the tunes of masterful fiddle player Tommy Peoples. 

The title portrait, “Tommy’s Music/The Source” shows Tommy surrounded by images inspired by the emotions that Cathy felt while hearing Tommy play.

[ Music: Tune: “Doberman’s Wallet,” from Malden Fiddle lesson

Composer: Frankie Gavin
Artist: Tommy Peoples — at the end Tommy says, “I think it dies a little bit.” ]

Tommy loved sharing tunes. And really digging into what made them work. And what they’d need so they wouldn’t, as he said, die a little bit,

There was great feeling and intention in his playing. And in his original tunes. He played with the popular Bothy Band. But playing in a group setting, and touring with an Irish band, and being in the limelight wasn’t really Tommy’s bag. He kept up his music in smaller and solo contexts. And fortunately, he was recognized and appreciated throughout his life. Irish language television channel TG4 named him traditional musician of the year in 1998, and composer of the year in 2013.

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

Cathy’s visual interpretations of Tommy Peoples and of his music are fanciful. And in her painting “Tommy’s Music/The Source,” he’s surrounded on one side by shadowy images: a dark winding road, an old cabin, an anguished woman crying in a graveyard, a child looking warily right at me. Thorny vines weave around Tommy’s bow arm.  

On then on the lighter side, there are people frolicking in the grass, there’s sun on the water, trees in full bloom.  

When I asked Cathy about the painting, she told me that, yes, there are themes of death, loss, famine, forced emigration, family, and traditions. But she prefers for people to interpret specific images for themselves. Though it’s a fantastical collage, it really captures Tommy Peoples: the way he frowned and smiled at the same time when he held the fiddlel The way he closed his eyes and tilted his head (just like his daughter Siobhan does); the way his hair curved like a river; the way his left pinky bent around as he played.

That’s how he looked when we first met at Cruise’s Pub in Ennis, a town in County Clare, where he and Siobhan were playing. My husband Matt and I went there for years to be around all the great music and musicians. During those sessions at Cruise’s, Tommy had his eyes closed most of the time. But every once in a while he’d look over at Siobhan. 

Cathy has a portrait of Siobhan Peoples, too. Behind Siobhan there’s her Mom, Marie on one side. And Tommy’s on the other. But his eyes aren’t closed in that painting. He’s watching Siobhan, and smiling. 

Cathy would have observed Tommy and Siobhan many times during the nine years that she lived in Clare, before she settled back in England. While she was in Ireland, she created powerful paintings of Irish musicians and dancers. And she reworked her bow arm.

>> Cathy: I was very lucky to be able then to have private fiddle lessons with Siobhan Peoples, which just for me was utterly amazing. And what she used to do is write out tunes for me. And she’d write out variations and decorations, and most importantly, bowing. And I had a completely different bowing pattern before I went to have lessons with her. So for me it was almost like starting again. But it was so well worth doing. So that was a long process and very hard work, but vert worth it. I was also very privileged to play in sessions with her, and with Tommy Peoples, and many other fabulous fiddle players all around County Clare. Which is why I came to paint so many of them. They were, and they are, a huge inspiration to me. 

[ Music:: “The Traveller,” from Kitchen Session
Artists: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

>> Shannon: When we let something in—like Irish music—something that’s really big, and really old, and challenging, and full of mystery, we meet people along the way who help us unlock new levels of understanding. 

Many musicians have pushed me along on my Irish music journey. Dancers have taught me about rhythm, and physicality, and the architecture of tunes. Writers have illuminated the tradition for me. And visual artists who have painted Irish music and dance have inspired me, and have led me to dig deeper.

[ Music: Tune: “Wild Irishman & The Sailor’s Bonnet,” from Paddy Keenan
Artist: Paddy Keenan ]

Paintings can capture moods and moments, and musicians, and dancers. They bring us into movement, and also into stillness. 

By sharing observations and real, or remembered, or imagined scenes, paintings and drawings of trad — and the visual artists who create them — give us insight into the stories below the surface of hornpipes, jigs, and reels.

* * * 

Irish Music Stories was written and produced by me, Shannon Heaton. Thank you to  Méabh Ní Fhuartháin, Susan Lindsay, and Brian O’Donovan for the research help. A big thank you to my friend Carol Zall for helping me polish this script. Thank you to Pavel Barter for recording my interview with Brian. And to Hanneke Cassel for sharing two of her fiddle and piano compositions for this episode. And as always, thank you to Matt Heaton for the production music, and Nigel for acknowledging our sponsors.

And a big thanks again to Robert McOwen, Lance Ramshaw, Chris Murphy, Richard Kuhwarth, Mark Haynes, John Kerr, Will Coleman, David Vaughan, Brian Benscoter, Joe Garrett, and Gerry Corr for underwriting this month’s show. If you can kick in, there’s a donate button at Or share your favorite IMS episode with a friend or on social media. Every little bit helps. So thanks again.

I’ll close this episode with a piece of flash fiction by Galway-based writer Anne Marie Kennedy. It’s on her Spoken Word CD; but I recorded this recitation in her living room one morning. It’s based on an encounter she had with a woman on a rainy day in Galway. 

Poem: “No Fixed Abode,” from Kitchen Session
Artist: Anne Marie Kennedy

She looked small and frail

The opposite of me I thought when I spotted her sheltering under the whitethorn on the Athenry Road.

She put out a reluctant thumb.

Thanks for stopping, ma’m. I goes out to the brother to kill the time. Killin’ the time is hard in the town, but I don’t like the country. I’m too old for the road. But don’t give me a haltin’ site. I don’t like safety belts. Could I just pull it across me in case the Guards stop us. I don’t like the Guards at all. The women are the worst, But where are you from, ma’am?

From Menlough in North Galway, I said.

I think I was born near there, somewhere along the side of the road, sure. But I wouldn’t know the year. Would you know to look at me what age I am? Would I be 70? I’d love to know, ma’am.

She said she was deaf in one ear from a belting she got from her husband. She was married at 15. Her father made the match.

And you’re a married woman yourself, Are you happy with him? I was never happy married. 

Yes, I’m very happy, actually.

Does he like you?

Sure he loves me.

Ha! Like and love. They’re two different things altogether. And faith not as well, I know that. If a man doesn’t like he won’t love. 

I dropped her at the brother’s caravan. She leaned the good ear and the damp musty ponytail in my window. Nelly Ward they call me. I’ll say a prayer for you. Would you have any auld clothes? I’d say you’re around the same width and girth as meself. 

Companion Chapters

Related essays

Bonus Content

Related videos

Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

J. Brian Vallely


Armagh-based painter and uilleann piper who founded the Armagh Pipers’ Club

James Gurney


New York-based artist, author, and lecturer best known for his illustrated book series Dinotopia

Boston-based artist regarded for land and seascapes, nocturnes, and Irish music portraits

Catharine Kingcome


Bristol England-born painter and fiddle player deeply influenced by Irish traditional music

Bristol England-born painter and fiddle player deeply influenced by Irish traditional music

The Heaton List