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Regional Fiddle Styles in Ireland

Part Two: West Clare

by Brendan Taaffe

In West Clare we start with the pipes, and the music of the legendary Garrett Barry, a blind piper from Inagh who died in 1899 in a workhouse in Ennistymon. As with Tom Billy in Sliabh Luachra, Barry lived and played before the age of recordings: it was his influence on the Clancy's in Miltown Malbay that keeps his name alive today. Willie Clancy (1918-1973), born on Christmas Eve, was a piper, flute and whistle player, singer, storyteller and general wit. Willie's father Gilbert had gotten his music from Garrett Barry and Willie, conscious of that treasure trove, dedicated himself to preserving and passing on his heritage. With dire economic conditions at home, Willie emigrated-like so many others-to London, returning home to Miltown Malbay in 1957 when his father passed away. Immortalized when friends created the Willie Clancy Summer School (Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy or Willie Week, as it's popularly known), Willie Clancy had great passion and style in his playing, influencing a lot of the fiddle players in the area.

One of those was Bobby Casey (1926-2000), from Annagh. Casey learned a lot of his music from Martin 'Junior' Crehan (1908-1998), who had learned from Bobby's father, 'Scully' Casey. Bobby wasn't born until his father was in his later years, and Junior served as something of an older brother. Very evident in Bobby's music is the influence of the pipes: when he plays you can hear the phrasing, ornaments, intonation, squawks and wildness that come naturally on the pipes. There's also a darkness of tone, slower tempos and a less ornamented approach to melody than in Sligo. In addition to two rare LP's, Casey in the Cowhouse and Taking Flight, Bobby Casey can be heard, along with Junior Crehan, John Kelly Sr., Joe Ryan, and Patrick Kelly on Ceol an Chlair, an even rarer recording put out in '78. These other fine fiddlers show similar tendencies: a lovely, laidback approach and an emphasis on melody.

Ceili bands were a big presence in Clare, with legendary names (and rivalries) like the Tulla and the Kilfenora. In 1935 the government enacted the Public Dance Hall Act, declaring that "no place...shall be used for public dancing unless a public dancing license. . . is in force in respect of such a place." This effectively ended house dances, long the core of the community, and forced dancing to larger, licensed halls. The needs of a larger hall gave rise to bigger groups with multiple fiddles, accordion, flute, banjo and pipes, accompanied by piano and drums-the modern ceili band sound. Playing with ceili bands-common to all of the musicians mentioned-was a good social opportunity to play with other musicians and to get out and about: certainly, it also helped emphasize the centrality of good rhythm and playing with 'lift'. It also may have enforced a certain level of uniformity: everyone, at the least, had to have the same version of the tune in question. But even though ceili bands are popular and well respected, it is the solo musician that is the heart of the tradition in Clare. And for the solo musician, after playing with draoicht (dree-ucht)-or soul, variation in playing the tunes is highly regarded. That variation comes not so much in changing the actual notes of the tune, though that can happen in a small way, as it does in high degrees of nuance-changing ornamentation, bowing and timbre to create a different look at the melody the second (and third and fourth) time around. Bobby Casey was particularly revered for his talent at variation, his knack for drawing the soul out of a tune.

The music of Clare has had a huge impact on the rest of the country, due in part to the influence of radio. In the 50's, Ciarán Mac Mathuna (Cure-on Mac Ma-who-nah)began broadcasting traditional music on the national radio station, giving special focus to many of the great musicians from Clare on programs like The Job of Journeywork. Broadcast throughout the country, musicians everywhere heard the music of Casey, Mrs. Crotty, Willie Clancy and others, making Clare music endlessly popular. Given that, it's no surprise that there's a great depth of young players tearing it up now, nor that Ennis and Doolin are top destinations for musical tourists.

James Cullinan is one of the great fiddlers on the current scene playing in a lovely West Clare style. With the late P.J. Crotty, James recorded Happy to Meet, one of the nicest fiddle and flute duet albums around. On that album you can hear James play The Porthole of the Kelp, a reel written by the inimitable Bobby Casey. I've transcribed it here so that you can get a flavor of the music, but only as a skeleton. In a later article, I'll come back to this tune, transcribing the different repetitions to show you how James changes the tune each time through, and talking about bowing and ornamentation. For now, seek out the recording and soak in some fantastic playing. The symbol over the first f natural denotes a roll, a common Irish ornament achieved by playing the note, the note above, the note, the note below and the note at the end. It's a five note figure, but should sound like three notes (the main note) broken up by the motions of your left hand rather than by a change in bow direction. It's bowed all in one slur.

Next time I'll discuss the music of East Clare, popularized recently by the incredible Martin Hayes.

About the author

Brendan Taaffe is based in Vermont, where he plays fiddle and guitar for dances and concerts. Holding a M.A. in Irish Music from the University of Limerick, Brendan has toured and taught in Europe and throughout the U.S with groups. You can find out more at

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