seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Death of Martin Fay, Founding Member of The Chieftains

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.

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Birth of Uilleann Piper Willie Clancy

willie-clancyWillie Clancy, an Irish uilleann piper, is born into a musical family at Islandbawn near Milltown Malbay, County Clare, on December 24, 1918.

Clancy’s parents, Gilbert Clancy and Ellen Killeen, both sing and play concertina, and his father also plays the flute. Clancy’s father has been heavily influenced by local blind piper Garret Barry and passes much of Barry’s music on to his son.

Clancy starts playing the whistle at age five, and later takes up the flute. He first lays eyes on a set of pipes in 1936 when he sees Johnny Doran playing locally. He obtains his first set of pipes two years later. His influences include Leo Rowsome, Séamus Ennis, John Potts, and Andy Conroy. Clancy wins the Oireachtas competition in 1947. Unable to earn a living from music he emigrates to London where he works as a carpenter.

Returning to Milltown Malbay shortly after the death of his father in 1957, Clancy records some influential 78 rpm recordings for the Gael Linn label, among them the classic reel selection “The Old Bush/The Ravelled Hank of Yarn.” He develops a highly distinctive and individual style of piping. From 1957 until 1972 the Summer music sessions in the West Clare town become widely renowned, with Clancy as one of the main attractions. Pipe-making, reed-making, and all things connected with the instrument are explored and advanced by the Clancy influence. He gives many performances on both radio and television as well as live sessions in his local area.

He lives out the remainder of his life in Milltown Malbay. Clancy marries Dóirín Healy in 1962. He dies suddenly in a hospital in Galway on January 24, 1973, and is widely mourned among friends and musicians alike. He is buried in Ballard Cemetary just outside Miltown Malbay.

Later that year the Willie Clancy Summer School is established in his honour by his friends Junior Crehan, Martin Talty, Sean Reid, Paddy Malone, Paddy McMahon, Frankie McMahon, Jimmy Ward, JC Talty, Harry Hughes, Michael O Friel, Séamus Mac Mathúna, and Muiris Ó Rócháin. He is also the subject of a major television documentary “Cérbh É? Willie Clancy” on TG4, first broadcast in November 2009. In this programme, one of a series in which major figures in contemporary traditional music, profile and pay homage to a master of their craft from a bygone age, Peter Browne traces the life and legacy of Clancy.

A statue of Clancy is unveiled on November 9, 2013 on the Main Street in Miltown Malbay.