P.J. Hayes: Fifty Years with the Tulla Ceili Band
It was at the gala final concert at the close of Willie Clancy Week, 1994, that I first had the pleasure of hearing P.J. Hayes perform live. Through over a half century of performing traditional Irish music, much of it with the influential Tulla Ceili Band, P.J.'s earnest, deliberate bowing and graceful ornamentation have come to define the hauntingly beautiful East Clare style of fiddle playing. As Willie Clancy week officially came to an end, the music continued unabated at spontaneous sessions along the still bustling main street of Miltown Malbay and I was able, after a few inquiries, to track down Mr. Hayes at a lively session at the Central Hotel. During a break in the music, he spoke about his early influences, his experiences with the Tulla Ceili Band, and the evolution of East Clare fiddling over the years.
I was born on the 8th of March, 1921. That gives me seventy-three years last March. And I got my first fiddle around '31 or '32, I think. I was around eleven or twelve when I started to play a few tunes. I learned a few tunes from Paddy Canny who turned out afterwards to be a very great traditional fiddler himself. He was only a little bit older than myself, but he was quite a teacher. I learned by the old ABC way. You know where they say 1,2,3. I learned six or seven tunes that way.
The ABC way? How does that work?
They write down the string you put [your finger] on. You put a 1 for the first string and you put a note. You read the letters A, B, C, D to tell what the note would be.
So you wrote it out -- four strings and put the letter of the note that you would be playing? What tunes did you learn?
The first tune was a simple thing called ACA, ACA, ACA, DB; ACA, ACA, ACA, BA; ACA, ACA, ACA, DB; ACA, FGA, ECA, BA. [Whistles the tune]
That was the way that people learned to play the fiddle in those days?
That's right, yeah. There weren't too many music teachers that wrote it, and I can't read it or write it.
Did that tune have a name to it?
It hadn't, I think. It was just a simple tune to get you into the notes. So I learned tunes that way, and then after that I started learning by ear from Michael Coleman's records and Paddy Killoren and Hugh Gillespie. And I learned one from the Flanagan
Brothers… New tunes were scarce back then…There were long distances between musicians. The transport was only by bicycle or by walking.
Did you use to play sessions in those days or is that a new thing?
Sessions are new, over the last seven or eight years they are coming in more and more. We go to a pub down here every Wednesday night...and we have a great session there.
But when you were learning, were there any sessions?
No, no, no. The only sessions would be...somebody could come home from the States and they'd have a small party and then we'd have twenty or thirty people and we'd be asked to play for that. At that stage, there weren't too many musicians around.
[This article is from the (out-of-print) Fall 1996 issue of Fiddler Magazine.]