Martin Fay, Irish fiddler and bones player, and a former member of The Chieftains, dies on November 14, 2012. The Chieftains collaborate with musicians from a wide range of genres and cultures and bring in guest performers such as Mick Jagger, Van Morrison and James Galway. Yet traditional tunes lay at the heart of the band, with Fay’s fiddle a vital part of their distinctive sound.
Fay is born in Cabra, Dublin, where his mother teaches him to play the piano. As a boy, he is captivated by the music in the film The Magic Bow (1946), about the life of Niccolò Paganini, and he changes instrument. He progresses well in his classical violin lessons and at fifteen is playing in a Butlins holiday camp orchestra. After leaving school at eighteen, Fay works in an office by day and in the evenings plays in the Abbey Theatre orchestra, where he meets the Abbey’s musical director, Seán Ó Riada.
In the 1950s, traditional music is regarded as distinctly old-fashioned in Ireland, but Ó Riada’s success with a film score, and a play at the Abbey, encourage him to establish a folk orchestra which includes Fay, piper Paddy Moloney and the tin whistle player Seán Potts. Instead of all the musicians playing together in unison, as in the established cèilidh bands, Ó Riada wants to create a chamber orchestra, playing arrangements of folk music. Fay’s classical music background is essential for this approach. The resulting ensemble, Ceoltóirí Cualann, enjoys radio success and, in 1961, plays the soundtrack for a film of The Playboy of the Western World. Fay was soon earning more playing traditional music than in his day job.
Garech Browne, a member of the Guinness family and founder of Claddagh Records, asks Moloney to record some traditional Irish music. Moloney brings in Fay, Potts and Michael Tubridy on flute, and uses a similar approach to arranging the tunes. Their eponymous album, The Chieftains, is released in 1964, before they first perform in public. The success of this new approach to traditional Irish music leads to radio and television work, and they attract celebrity fans. Browne is a great thrower of parties, where the guests included Jagger, Princess Grace of Monaco, Peter O’Toole and Sean Connery, with The Chieftains invariably playing through the night.
By 1968, Moloney is working full time for Claddagh Records, and when he, Potts and Fay are offered a recording contract by a rival company, Gael Linn, Moloney refuses to sign. Potts and Fay believe that their future lay with Gael Linn and they leave The Chieftains, only to return a year later. In the meantime, Seán Keane has joined to play fiddle, but on Fay’s return the pair work well together.
The Chieftains’ popularity is extending far beyond folk enthusiasts but they are still playing only in their spare time. That changes in 1975 when they provide music for the Oscar-winning score of Stanley Kubrick‘s film Barry Lyndon and the promoter Jo Lustig books the group into the Royal Albert Hall in London on St. Patrick’s Day. The sell-out concert is a triumph, and Fay and his fellow Chieftains finally give up their day jobs.
The relentless international touring takes its toll on band members with young families, and Tubridy and Potts leave, to be replaced by the flautist Matt Molloy. Fay is happy to continue. A reserved and modest man with a great sense of humour, he is unfazed by the pressures of extensive touring. He is the only Chieftain not to be racked by nerves when playing to well over a million people at Phoenix Park during Pope John Paul II‘s visit to Dublin in 1979.
Although he has a classical training, Fay has a natural understanding of traditional music. He is a master of changing the mood at Chieftains concerts from the lively onstage parties to a more tranquil atmosphere, through his emotional interpretations of the slow airs. In total, Fay records more than 30 albums with the group before he withdraws from touring in 2001 and retires altogether in 2002.
Martin Fay dies in Cabra, Dublin, on November 14, 2012 after a lengthy illness.