Maeve Donnelly is one of the top Irish fiddlers performing today. As modest as she is talented, Maeve does not mention her own achievements such as winning All-Ireland Fiddle Competitions, or making critically-acclaimed recordings of traditional Irish music. She talks instead of those who passed the music on to her, and how she can pass it on to the next generation.
It is rare to find her performing on this side of the Atlantic. I caught her exciting performance in March at The Coatesville Traditional Irish Music Series outside of Philadelphia. This interview came after her whirlwind tour of the East Coast, USA.
Do you want talk about how you got started playing music?
The first thing to say is that I grew up in a small village called Kylemore, Abbey which is near Loughrea, in County Galway. That’s East Galway. It was an area with a very rich musical heritage. My parents didn’t play music, but were always interested in music and wanted us to play. There was a small fiddle hanging up on the wall in the kitchen. It belonged to my older brother Declan. It was taken down and dusted and handed to me at around the age of five. And that’s how I started on the fiddle. My three brothers and I attended music classes in the local hall. Mal played the accordion, Declan played the fiddle and Aidan, my younger bother, played banjo. [Interviewer’s note: Track 7 of Maeve’s CD, Maeve Donnelly, includes all four of the Donnellys playing together with pianist Geraldine Cotter.]
Traditional music wasn’t an option for me at school. All the more reason for having good music teachers who taught music privately and who were passionate about passing on the music tradition.
One very dedicated music teacher was the late Mrs. Mary Donoghue Lyons from Tynagh, Loughrea. She deserves every credit for teaching me music. She taught hundreds of pupils and had a huge music influence on the young people in the area. She devoted her life to music –– teaching as well as playing in a band. She played with her brothers and sisters in a band and they toured England and Ireland. It was unusual for a woman to lead such a musical life at that time as women didn’t go outside the door to play. All their music was played at home.
Mrs. Lyons was a very committed teacher and insisted that her pupils learn to read music and that they hold their instruments correctly. I wasn’t very good at reading the tunes. In many cases, I’d know the tunes already by ear. I felt it was a bit of a drudge, and had no patience for reading music. But Mrs. Lyons insisted that I learn to read and I’m delighted now that she did. I went to music classes from about five. I remember how we all packed into the car every Saturday afternoon and traveled about a mile to the local hall. In the winter-time in the hall, we were frozen solid sitting around one gas heater waiting for our turn to play. It was cold enough to freeze both the brain and the hands –– making it impossible to play. Regular concerts were held in the local halls. We all met there and played a few tunes and had great fun.
We also entered the competitions in the Fleadh Ceols (flah key-ols: music competitions.) We would meet other musicians and enter the duet, trio, or band competitions. I remember entering the duet competition with the powerful flute player Marcus Hernon. We met on the street at the Fleadh and decided we’d compete in the duet competition for a bit of fun. We ended up winning the All-Ireland duet competition at the time without having a scrap of practice. I feel it’s important not to take the competitions too seriously and enjoy playing the music. The Fleadhanna certainly gave me a focus for playing tunes and meeting other musicians from all over Ireland.
Ceilis were popular when growing up in Galway at the time. You know people would cycle or drive for miles to hear bands like the Tulla and Kilfenora (two still-legendary ceili bands from County Clare). The Aughrim Slopes Ceili band was based in the Aughrim/Ballinasloe area of Galway and they recorded some great music in the 1930s.
Later, when I was seventeen, I left Galway and moved to Dublin. I spent three very happy years there. The folk club era was in full swing. Folk clubs like Slattery’s in Capel Street had music sessions every Wednesday night. I remember the first night The Bothy Band performed in Slattery’s –– that’s telling my age now! [laughs] I remember it, but I was very young at the time! I was only a baby!
Of Course! [laughs]
Anyway, I was fortunate to be there at the time as the whole Irish Music scene was buzzing. Bands like Planxty and The Bothy Band created a huge wave of excitement for everybody involved in music. The traditional music was very healthy in Dublin with people like James Kelly, and his brother John and their father John playing there. And there were sessions every week in pubs such as the Four Seasons, O’Donoghues. I didn’t play regularly at any one place, but there were a couple of haunts I would visit. Many of the older musicians who lived in Dublin played in sessions. Young and old people played music –– it had a strong attraction for people. They met and talked, and they kept in contact with one another. So I was never really far from home in terms of music when I was up in Dublin. I was swept away by the music of groups like De Dannan, The Chieftains, Planxty, and The Bothy Band! These groups never took a step too far away from the gutsy true traditional music but at the same time they pushed the boundaries out. Without a shadow of a doubt, traditional music was in a very healthy state in the ’70s.
After college in Dublin, I moved down to Clare. I got a summer job there playing music and twenty-seven years on, I’m still here in Clare. Irish traditional music has always been popular in both counties Clare and Galway. The very close affinity between Galway and Clare in sport and music has remained strong over the years. It’s a great haven for Irish music and always was.
[For the rest of this interview, and the tunes “Laven’s Favorite” and “The Nightingale,” purchase the Fall 2007 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Tim McCarrick works as a music editor for J.W.Pepper. He has written about fiddle playing for Mel Bay’s Fiddle Sessions website, and arranged music for the educational market. He also runs the Irish Fiddle wesbite which he promises to update more often! (http://www.irishfiddle.com)]