Shane McAleer is tuning his fiddle again. This is the eighth time, although the Irish traditional music session he leads at Madden’s Pub in Belfast is just an hour old. McAleer checks his strings at every pause, but not with the digital tuner now popular with young players—he trusts his ear.
Most Irish traditional musicians tune their instruments at the beginning of a session, and listen for trouble as the night progresses. But one of McAleer’s obsessions is being in perfect pitch. His plucking and fine-tuning takes just a minute, but it’s an odd quirk. The other players chat and swig Guinness.
After he makes sure he’s spot on, McAleer indulges in another obsession—he rosins his bow for the umpteenth time. When he is done tuning and rosining, he sips from his tepid cup of tea and starts up a set of reels. His three quirks—the tuning, the rosin, the tea—set him apart from the others, although he’s friendly enough.
The tuning and rosining, are, of course, redundant. No decent instrument goes out of tune that often, and the extra rosin on the bow is useless after a point. But it’s an indicator of how hard Shane McAleer is working now to keep his life in balance. The constant tuning seems to mean he’s conscious of staying on the straight and narrow path. The rosining? That’s probably his concern about not losing the astonishing drive and power that first brought him international acclaim twenty years ago.
Until McAleer vanished from the Irish traditional music scene over a decade ago, he was considered perhaps the best young fiddler around in the genre. His first solo CD will soon be released, and the title speaks volumes—Long Time, No See.
Each week McAleer is the featured fiddler at six sessions around Belfast, a town that, like McAleer, is making a major comeback. The sectarian “Troubles” seem years behind, and in the last decade the traditional music scene has exploded. Sessions are on every night, and musicians and listeners have their choice of several pubs. McAleer is easily the hardest-working musician in Belfast, and probably in all of Ireland. It’s surely the most underrated Irish music town in the world, and McAleer, along with wooden flute wizard Brendan O’Hare, seems to be everywhere. The epicenter of the Belfast scene is Madden’s, a pub where locals mix with musicians and leftist-backpackers. McAleer hosts sessions there Saturday, Sunday, and Monday nights. On Wednesday nights and Sunday afternoons, he’s at the subdued and charming Garrick Pub. Friday evenings, he leads the tunes at the Rose & Crown, which caters to lower-Ormeau neighborhood.
Six sessions a week. Figure three hours per session. That means McAleer rosins his bow and retunes his fiddle hundreds of times every week before he flies into another set of jigs or reels. His style of Irish fiddling is distinctly northern and seems to be a contradiction itself—marked by both utter precision and an exuberant wildness. You can hear traces of Counties Donegal and Sligo in his playing as well. Although he’s just 5’ 7” tall and weighs less than 140 pounds, he has hands the size of a heavyweight boxer. Fair enough—that’s the kind of stunning power he gets from his instrument.
Before Shane McAleer tossed his future away, he was widely considered the hottest young fiddler in the Irish “trad” music scene.
In 1990, around the time of his eighteenth birthday—and just after he won the All Ireland fiddling championship—he was invited to join the group Dervish. Most of the band called Sligo home, but McAleer was from Omagh, County Tyrone, in the north of Ireland—about an hour’s drive, but very much a world away.
Before he’d joined Dervish the band had produced a modest cassette tape. Soon after McAleer signed on, Dervish soared, becoming the darlings of the Irish and folk festival scene. They toured all over Europe and America, and the first four Dervish CDs are considered landmarks of recent trad music. Their 1994 album, Playing with Fire, rocketed to number one in the Irish Folk Music and international World/Roots music charts. Their 1996 CD, At the End of the Day, won the Hot Press Folk Album of the Year. Just after their fourth CD, Live in Palma, was released, readers of Irish Music Magazine awarded Dervish “Best Overall Trad/Folk Band of the Year.”
McAleer was the youngest member of Dervish, but it wasn’t just his age and hometown that set him apart. He was wildly immature, something that became clear as a less-than-healthy habit overshadowed his fiddling: McAleer loved to drink. Beer, stout, spirits. It didn’t matter.
Before he was thirty, his career with Dervish was over.
In the end, McAleer didn’t go to rehab; he simply gave up drinking. “The odd thing about it,” he says today, “was that alcohol made me feel terrible for years before I quit.”
He refuses to place the blame for his problems on growing up in the north of Ireland, or on his elders in Dervish. Instead, he confesses, “I was just too young to handle it all.”
It’s been fourteen years since McAleer’s fiddling was featured on the great Dervish CDs. And today, he has been totally off alcohol for the past six years. McAleer, who nearly destroyed himself, has found the right steady girlfriend—she came to Ireland to document the history of The Troubles and conflict resolution.
If McAleer were an athlete, he’d be washed up, forgotten. Fourteen years away from the spotlight? And in general, the pop music business discards the old.
But the Irish fiddle isn’t the electric guitar. It’s an old person’s instrument; there’s something of the past about it. The most revered fiddlers are still the ones who spent a lifetime at the craft. McAleer is over forty now so he’s had a fiddle in his hands for three-quarters of his life. And the most successful Irish fiddlers—guys like Kevin Burke and Martin Hayes—are quite a bit older than Shane McAleer.
Long Time, No See is his first solo CD, so he had complete control over the material and the personnel—just Eamon McElholm, guitar wizard from Solas, plays with him.
No other Irish fiddler in recent memory has disappeared for fourteen years. McAleer may be the Lazarus of Irish trad music. And he may be the only person ever to move to the city of Belfast to clear his head and focus.
Today, as the release of his new CD approaches, he maintains his marathon session schedule as a sort of penance. His fiddling has improved, matured since the Dervish days. The irresistible drive remains, but a lighter, tasteful touch has blossomed, too. His power is more impressive because of the remarkable control. Totally sober, he appears ready to handle the notoriety that will likely come with the rebirth of his recording career. If he can keep his fiddle in tune, his bow rosined, maybe the music will come to fruition. Long time, no see, indeed.
[Shane's excellent new CD is now available! For ordering information, please visit his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/shane.mcaleer.96 or order via CD Baby at www.cdbaby.com/cd/shanemcaleer
[For the full text of this article, purchase the Spring 2013 issue.]
[Rus Bradburd is the author of “Paddy on the Hardwood,” a memoir about learning the Irish fiddle while coaching his Irish Super League basketball team into last place. Bradburd lived in Belfast for six months in 2012. He teaches writing classes at New Mexico State University. For more information, visit rusbradburd.com.]
A sampling of Shane's music on YouTube: