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Máire O'Keeffe: From Ireland to Cape Breton and Back Again
Peter Marten

Máire O'Keeffe of Tralee, County Kerry, Ireland, plays an exciting variety of fiddling that reflects her many musical interests. Her repertoire incorporates stylistic elements and tunes from Sliabh Luachra, Donegal, and other areas of Ireland, as well as other Celtic traditions, such as Cape Breton. Some of her numerous musical friendships are in evidence on her album Cóisir - House Party, which is divided almost evenly between Irish and Cape Breton tunes. The recording boasts appearances by several well-known Cape Breton musicians whose playing complements Máire's uplifting sound. On the other side of the Atlantic, she has often worked with Sliabh Luachra accordionist Jackie Daly and plays on several tracks of his CD Domhnach Is Dálach - Many's a Wild Night. Her interest in the music of Sliabh Luachra has led to the inclusion in her repertoire of a large number of slides (single jigs or 12/8 jigs) and polkas, which are the most popular dances in that region. In her musical travels, Máire has played and taught all over the world, from Canada and Shetland in the North to Australia in the South. She took time out to talk to Fiddler Magazine during a busy week of workshops and concerts at Boston College's Gaelic Roots festival in June 1998.

How did you get started playing, and who were your first influences?

My first influence was a nun. Her name was Sister Kevin, and she was a music teacher in the primary school that I went to. I remember when I was about 4, she used to let me go into her music room, since my mother was a teacher as well, and just mess with the piano, and then she began to teach me. So she taught me the piano for years...


And then I just started taking lessons with Nicky McAuliffe, and Nicky would teach in a variety of ways. He usually had a huge whistle class in the same room and I'd be given a tune, either on a tape, or sometimes he would write it out for me really quickly. Some weeks, if he was really busy, he'd say, "Have you got Tommy Peoples and Paul Brady, that album? Last track, side two, learn that this week."

And that was the lesson?

That was the lesson. Actually, the real lesson would be to come back the following week and play it for him. He would go through it with me and say, "Look, he doesn't do that here," or "Maybe you could try this here." He'd just quickly show me. There were no classes, like the way the classes this week have been, for instance. When I'm teaching, I tend to break it down into phrases. It was a real survival course, you had to really use your ear. But I'd played by ear all along anyway, so playing by ear wasn't a difficulty.

Aside from the sets that you learned from records, do you plan sets out before playing a performance? Some fiddlers--I'm thinking of Cape Bretoners--may pick the tunes as they go along, and the accompanist just has to follow their lead.

Well, the Cape Breton situation is different, because generally if they start in A major, they stay in A major, or they might move to A minor. But you will not catch Cape Bretoners going from D to G, to A, back to D, which, of course, is what happens in Irish music. So, for an accompanist in Irish music, it's actually harder. I think that's how the Cape Bretoners can be so much more inventive, because they don't have to worry about, "This fellow might change into G, and I'll be caught." They don't have to worry about that, because they generally start with, say, an A set of strathspeys and reels, a C set of jigsthey might go into F, but they stay around the home key, whereas the same is not true of Irish music. It also depends who you're playing with. If I'm playing with a melodeon player, for instance, I'll stay in D and play tunes in D, because they don't have a C natural and it's just really hard for them. Whereas if you're playing with an accordion player it's OK, it's different. They've got the chromatic situation.

How about sessions? With so many musicians and instruments involved, how are they coordinated?

For key changes, it's good to know what's happening in the session. I sat in a session the other night, and I just asked, seeing as I was used to this, "Could I have a situation where I knew what the next tune was before we started?" It kind of started going around and people started saying, "Alright, we'll play this one, and then we'll do this one after that." So everybody knew what was happening--they know what's coming.

In situations where musicians are very experienced, they very often don't have to do that. They might just raise an eyebrow, and you'll hear somebody say, "G." Then you know you're going to change key, and most experienced musicians will fall into the tune immediately, so there's not a break in the session. But in sessions where people are not terribly experienced with sessions, and you've got three people starting different tunes on the second tune, the bottom falls out of the session. It's a good idea to build up your repertoire in set structures. That's the way a lot of older musicians did it. You could sit in a session with all these older musicians at home, and because I've listened to a lot of their music, I know their repertoire. I know exactly what they're going to go into after. But if I don't, they'll always make sure that I do. They'll say, "How about this one? We usually play this one after." It makes you feel very welcome.

On the topic of Irish styles of playing, you mentioned in the workshop that you've run across people who think that you ought to know certain tunes just because you come from County Kerry.

Yes, there is certainly an element of the Irish music fraternity who would believe that because you're from Kerry, you should play Kerry music, or if you're from Donegal, you should play Donegal music. People get themselves into knots about labeling. And of course, I don't think anybody should be labeled. When I started out, Tommy Peoples was the first person I wanted to play like--I very quickly realized that's a very difficult thing to do. From Tommy Peoples, I suppose, I went into the Donegal connection, and I also ended up doing the Scoil Éigse with Paddy Glackin, and it happened to be in Buncrana in Donegal, before the Fleadh.

It was a very special Scoil Éigse, because the whole school-there were flute players and whistle players and so on-were taken off on a trip in the middle of the week. We were taken down to see this fiddle player. We walked in, he was at the back of a pub. There was a pool table at the pub, and this little old man with a cap and a pipe was sitting there, and it was John Doherty. It was just the most amazing experience, to actually meet him. At the time I didn't know who John Doherty was; I had no idea who we'd been brought to hear. It meant nothing to me when Paddy Glackin said, "We're going to visit the great John Doherty." I have this vivid memory of us all sitting on the floor, and he was sitting on a bench. He talked and played the fiddle--it was kind of a magic experienc. The first thing I did when I came away from that was to go looking for John Doherty records. And I got them, because Comhaltas had brought one out, a great one. And in about 1980, I think, Gael-Linn brought out a double album of John Doherty's music. I was in clover. I became really into Donegal and John Doherty's fiddle playing. From there, I kind of moved to go to West Donegal, Southwest Donegal, and started going up there a lot in the early '80s. There were a few of us that were really into that kind of music.

In the meantime I was getting stick from some musicians at home, who are now playing Donegal music themselves and will remain nameless-they know who they are. [Laughs.] They were saying, "This is terrible. You shouldn't be playing Donegal music, you should be playing Kerry music. You should be sticking to your own music." Nonsense.

[For the full text of this interview, as well as Máire's tune "McIllhatton's Retreat," purchase the Summer 1999 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]

[Peter Marten is a journalist and translator based in Helsinki, Finland.]