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Regional Fiddle Styles in Ireland
Part 3: East Clare
by Brendan Taaffe
In 1959, Paddy Canny and P.J. Hayes, along with Peadar O'Loughlin on flute and Bridie Lafferty on piano recorded an album called All-Ireland Champions-Violin. The album, one of the first full-length L.P.s recorded in Ireland, is one of the classics of the tradition, and captures the heart of East Clare music. Canny, Hayes and O'Loughlin had all played together in the famous and much-decorated Tulla Ceili Band (great rivals to the West Clare Kilfenora Ceili Band) so were familiar with each other's style, and recorded the album, with no rehearsals, in one sitting. It is a testament to its popularity and influence that many of the medleys on the album are still played in sessions today: Bunker Hill into The Old Bush; Rolling in the Barrel, In the Tap Room and The Earl's Chair, and Sean Ryan's two jigs are still wedded today. Both Canny and Hayes are from the area around Feakle, an area with a long and proud tradition for fiddle, pipes and flute. In 1906, Capt. Francis O'Neill visited the area, noting "the unexpected delight of finding, in the vicinity of Feakle, so little evidence of the musical decadence which is so noticeably affecting the spirits of the people in other parts of Ireland." Playing together since they were young, and surrounded by a wealth of other musicians, it's no surprise that they were able to create music with such a special feeling.
Thinking about their music in the context of regional styles, a lot of statements will sound familiar compared to Sliabh Luachra and West Clare: the role of dance is still influential in shaping the fiddler's approach to rhythm and 'lift,' and melody is still prized above ornamentation. One obvious difference between the regions is repertoire: Sliabh Luachra has its polkas and slides, West Clare its own bag of reels and jigs, and East Clare another set of tunes. Less obvious is what I think of as a 'sonic fingerprint': there's a certain timbre of sound in each of these regions that is easily distinguishable, and a different approach to intonation. For modern, trained musicians, equal temperament holds great sway, the compromise by which every note on a piano is just a little out of tune in order to make the whole thing workable. That leads us to think that there is only, and only one, B note. As an experiment to prove to yourself that there are actually multiple choices for each note, make a chord (a fourth) on the fiddle with the open E string and a first finger B on the A string. Make the chord as resonant and right as possible. Now make a chord with the same B and the open D string below it (a sixth). Make the chord as resonant and right as possible-you will have to move your finger to do so. The fiddlers in East Clare, certainly Paddy Canny and P.J. Hayes, play with a sense of intonation that represents, I think, a more naturally tempered scale. The third and seventh degrees of the scale tend to be flat and you can find what I call 'supernatural' notes: a C that's neither flat nor sharp.
Another point to be made here about regional styles is that one major figure, or one major recording, can have a huge influence on the surrounding areas and on defining our conception of the music of that place. Some people use this as a criticism of the whole notion of regional style. Without a doubt, there are people from East Clare who don't sound like the music on All-Ireland Champions, and we need to be careful to not pigeonhole the whole region. But I also think it is little surprise that one person can be so influential: Paddy Canny is one of the finest fiddlers I've ever heard. If you were a musician living in his locality, you would have to reckon with his shadow: by way of imitation, competition or other choice. His playing would influence everyone around: at the same time, he is a product of his environment and his playing reflects, or brings to a higher degree of realization, the sum of his influences.
East Clare's most famous fiddler is Martin Hayes, the supremely talented and very popular son of P.J. Martin has brought the music of East Clare to international attention: with it, he's also brought the idea of the 'lonesome touch.' In the notes to that album, he writes, "The lonesome touch is a phrase I have heard in my native County Clare all my life. It is used to describe a person's music. It represents a quality that is difficult to express verbally. It is the intangible aspect of music that is both elusive and essential." Concurrent with the idea of the lonesome touch is the lonesome note-notes that are bent and toyed with to get at the soul of the music. That happens in the blues, and it certainly happens in West Clare and in Sliabh Luachra. The fascinating thing is that each place has a specific approach, its own lonesomeness.
Regional styles in Ireland don't always adhere strictly to county borders. The geography of East Clare (towns like Tulla, Feakle and Scarriff) is defined by the Sliabh Aughty Mountains and Lough Derg, and is closer to East Galway than it is to West Clare. No surprise, then, that the music of Paddy Fahey, the well-known but reclusive composer, should bear so much similarity to that of Canny and the other lads from Clare. Fahey's distinctive compositions are played by everyone, and often play around with flattening the third and seventh degrees, creating lots of lonesome notes. (It should be said that Paddy is far less distinctive in his choice of names. With over 60 tunes to his credit, all are named 'Paddy Fahey's.' Questioned on why he didn't come up with titles to distinguish them, he replied, "Sure, then nobody would know they were mine!") There is also a penchant, as in East Clare, for lower, darker keys: Gm, Dm, and C in place of the more common Am, Em, and D. When Martin Hayes was young, Martin Rochford, a fiddler and piper from Ballinahinch, would visit the house and encourage him to take the tune down a step, casting a reel most often played in Am into Gm. This happens more in east Clare than anywhere else, contributing to the distinctive sound and distinctive settings of the tunes.
We'll end where we began, with Paddy Canny and his version of Garrett Barry's Jig. As you'll remember, Barry was from West Clare, but the tunes travel freely. This version was recorded for Gael-Linn shortly before the All-Ireland Champions album, and can be heard on Milestone at the Garden, a compilation of 78 RPM recordings. As with other transcriptions in this series of articles, I am only providing a skeleton of the tune. I did show a slur in the first measure across the three notes of the beat because it's an unusual approach, characteristic of Canny's playing. It's something that I usually tell students not to do, because it can weaken the rhythm of the tune and I find it more effective to slur across the beat. But Paddy Canny is a genius, so he can get away with it. There are plenty of other slurs in Canny's rendition of the tune that I haven't notated: one, because he changes with subsequent repetitions and, two, because it's my hope that you'll seek out the recording and hear him for yourself. In measure 4, the symbol over the F indicates a 'supernatural' note. Canny plays with the intonation and slides into the beginning of the note to create a lot of flavor.
Next time, I'll discuss the music of Sligo and the triumvirate of Irish fiddling: Michael Coleman, James Morrison and Paddy Killoran.
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 http://www.brendantaaffe.com.