Gerry O'Connor: Pockets and Seams of Tradition on the East Coast of Ireland
Gerry O’Connor is one of Ireland’s finest fiddlers. He recently earned the award for “Best Male Artist 2006” from Live Ireland. His album Journeyman received “Traditional Album of The Year” for 2004 from Irish Music Review, and his albums from his bands La Lugh and Skylark have received much critical acclaim including “Best Album of 1996” for La Lugh’s album Brigid’s Kiss.
I was looking at some biographical info and Brigid’s Kiss was an album of the year ten years ago.
That’s right, ten years ago now. Voted album of the year by the readers of Irish Music Magazine. That’s an album that was very well received and the “Bridgid’s Kiss” song is being picked up by a young, new act in Ireland, a pop-crossover act called Triniti. Three girls, from Dublin, I think, and it will be their third single. So it’s amazing to see that happen half a generation later. That album incorporated music and songs from the area of County Louth. It also included three generations of my family: a very young Donal O’Connor on the keyboard at age seven, and my daughter played and my mother played on a track, too. We had a set of jigs there called “The Three Generations Jig” –– that was a bit of fun!
That was my mother’s first recording in forty years! She had played fiddle way back in the ’50s on the radio. She was amazed at the studio and all the microphones. She’d say, “What do you need so many microphones for? Last time I was here there was only one for the entire ceili band!” [laughs]
When you were starting out in your younger years, who were the fiddlers you would try to sound like, or learn tunes from?
I suppose my mother. She was a fiddle player and she was the one who taught most fiddle players in Dundalk at the time. Back in the ’60s, on the East coast, traditional music wasn’t really a big thing, and it wasn’t a big thing anywhere. I mean we were coming into a period in Ireland where modernism was what it was all about. My mother played in a ceili band, and she thought that we should at least learn her tradition and the music she was brought up with. I suppose we were lucky because so many people of that generation didn’t teach and didn’t learn. So, like from the age of six, I suppose –– 1963 or 1964 –– I’ve been playing the fiddle…that’s forty-something years now!
So she put the fiddle in our hands. My older brother had one, and the next brother and I wanted one. By 1967 we had a ceili band in Dundalk with Rory Kennedy. He had a ceili band called the Siamsa Ceili band, but he had no young musicians. He was working with John Joe Gardiner and his daughters. John Joe is a fiddle player from County Sligo who would be a contemporary of Michael Coleman’s. And they (Coleman and Gardiner) would learn music in John Joe Gardiner’s house. Then they went to America, Coleman and Morrison…and John Joe Gardiner came to Dundalk in ’29. I didn’t meet him until his later years, but he was a big influence on the older generation of musicians in the area and sort of a source and an icon I suppose.
So, John Joe Gardiner would have been a huge influence musically, on me. After my mother, he was the biggest influence. Two local fiddlers –– Peter McArdle had just passed away, but I knew Tommy (Peter’s brother) pretty well. Traditional music was very strong in the area, but very small pockets and very rich seams of music. So musically my immediate influences were the McArdle brothers, Rory Kennedy and John Joe Gardiner, and my mother obviously the biggest influence of all, you know?
And then we suddenly we had a community youth group of musicians in the late ’60s, early ’70s, which was a top class. Winners in ceili band contests and all that so, to us, music was like a youth club. During the summer months between fleadhs [contests] we’d go off cycling and swimming and all that. We were more than just musicians –– we were friends. That was my community growing up, the musician community.
And traditional music wasn’t big, you know, and didn’t have the interest it has now. And in the late ’60s, early ’70s Planxty kicked in and a lot people took interest in folk culture. We were getting the tail end of the folk revival which was happening in the States, Ireland, Britain, and Europe. And people were coming into the halls where we were playing music and we’d say, “Oh, here are the Planxty fans!” It was a bit derogatory, I suppose, but the idea was that we’d been playing the music anyway and suddenly it became a popular thing to play traditional folk music. That was an experience in itself, having been there playing it before it was popular and profitable.
How did you get involved with being a violin maker and repairer?
When my mother was teaching she would always have these fiddles, and strings would break or pegs would break or bridges would collapse and that. And at the time that I was working as an industrial engineer at a mining company, I didn’t feel it was meant for me –– I was too interested in playing music. My next job would have been in Canada or Australia and I didn’t really fancy leaving. Rab Cherry, a violin maker from Belfast, was studying in Cork at the time, and he advised me a lot on that, and how to approach it [the luthier course]. The following year I went down to Cork and studied violin making for three years. And it complemented was I was doing. I knew lots of situations where people just didn’t have access to good repairs, and good set-ups for fiddles. And I thought it would complement my music and make more of a lifestyle. So it’s been what I’ve been doing the last twenty-five years or so. Servicing the needs of the traditional musicians in the area, and playing music.
That’s a good deal you’ve got going there!
Yeah! I get great people coming to the house to get a fiddle sorted and we’ll have a tune or a chat and a cup of tea or whatever and it’s a community that I’m familiar with and that I enjoy working with and being around. And that way, the whole fiddle thing has become part of my life in many different ways: repairing them, trading them, teaching the fiddle, and playing and recording. It’s been an all-encompassing sort of experience for me. I don’t look at myself as any sort of a serious maker, but I do feel that I service the needs of a community that needs it. And it’s good company and easy people to work with, so it’s always a pleasure. You know, the phone rings and somebody says, “Gerry, I’m in trouble, I need something.” And I say, “Alright, bring it over, we’ll sort it out.” As a performer, I can appreciate that. It’s always a last-minute job…”I’m heading off to Europe –– can you rehair the bow tomorrow, or even today?” And I know the story. We’ve all done it. So I say, “Go ahead and bring it over.” It’s great, though, and good fun…It’s a nice community.
[For the full text of this interview, purchase the Winter 06/07 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Gerry O’Connor will be teaching and performing in the USA and Canada beginning in May 2007. For further details or for booking information, visit his website atwww.gerryoconnor.net]
[Tim McCarrick works as an editor in the field of educational sheet music. He started the Irish Fiddle website in February 2000 (www.irishfiddle.com).]