Brian Conway speaks with an accent that proudly declares his Bronx upbringing, but he plays fiddle with such a pure Sligo lilt that you'd swear he'd spent his entire life in Ireland. Conway is not as well known as he should be -- he's only released one solo recording and his day job as a lawyer in the Westchester County district attorney's office keeps him close to home -- but those lucky few who have heard him at his weekly seisiún at Dunne's Pub in White Plains, New York, or at one of his rare concerts, all agree that he is the real deal.
Conway owes his mastery of the distinctive ornaments, rolls, and rhythms of the Sligo style to a quirk of history. Emigrants from all over Ireland had been moving to New York City since the 1840s, but in the 1920s, when the record companies first started recording Irish musicians in earnest, there happened to be a large number of virtuoso fiddlers from Sligo in town.
Without a doubt the most famous of these fiddlers was Michael Coleman, who moved to New York in 1914. Coleman was a powerful musician whose records essentially defined Irish fiddling in the first half of the 20th century, and to this day many musicians refer to Sligo County as Coleman Country. Other notable figures include Paddy Killoran, whose Pride of Erin Orchestra played the ships that sailed the Ireland-to-America route in the 1930s, and James Morrison, who made numerous recordings in the 1920s and 1930s, and whose efforts as an instructor of both fiddling and dancing earned him the title of "The Professor."
Coleman, Morrison, Killoran, and countless less famous musicians passed on their traditions to a younger generation of New York musicians of Irish descent such as Andy McGann, Martin Wynne, James "Lad" O'Beirne, and Paddy Reynolds. This second generation of New World Sligo-style fiddlers in turn passed the music down to a third generation of fiddlers like Conway.
Brian Conway was born in 1961 on June 16, a date that the bookishly-inclined will recognize as Bloomsday, the day that all of the action in James Joyce's Ulysses takes place. "I realize it's an auspicious day for someone with an Irish heritage to be born on," he says. "But if I had my choice, I would have picked a date with a Yeats connection. He had a strong association with Sligo County and he wrote "The Fiddler of Dooney," which is my favorite poem. In fact, the title of my solo recording First through the Gate is taken from a line from the poem."
When Conway was ten years old, it was decided that he should learn to play the violin. "My mother's best friend wanted her kids to learn to play Irish fiddle with Martin Mulvihill, who lived nearby," he says. "My father was passionately in love with the violin -- he played a bit in the Ulster style -- so he thought that was a good idea. So I was told, not asked, mind you, but told, that I was going to take violin lessons along with my older brother Sean. Before we went to our first lesson my father showed us how to hold the violin and bow and taught us a scale and a tune. My brother picked it right away, but I was completely incompetent."
Conway remembers his early lessons as disasters, but over time Mulvihill's patience and kindness helped him over the rough patches. "Martin was so laid back and informal," Conway recalls. "I was so nervous but he was such a nice man. In my first lesson he kept telling me to "pint my finger down" when I was holding the bow. I couldn't figure out what he was saying and my mother had to explain to me that he was saying "point your finger down" in his Irish accent. I don't really think that I learned much of my personal style from him, but Martin ultimately gave me a strong foundation in violin playing, an excellent introduction to Irish music and, perhaps most importantly, a respect for the culture of Irish music."
After a few months of lessons, Conway became very enthusiastic about fiddling and started to show some real progress, when his father discovered that Martin Wynne lived nearby. Wynne had learned to play fiddle in Ireland from Philip O'Beirne, the man who taught Michael Coleman to play. Wynne also knew and played with Coleman, James Morrison, and Paddy Killoran in the 1930s and 1940s.
Martin Wynne introduced Conway to the Sligo style of fiddling, and helped inspire in him a deeper appreciation for the history of the music. "Martin Wynne was full of stories about the musicians he had played with over the years," Conway says. "He also had great insight into the various ways of approaching a tune, of how to play it in a personal way but not stray from the tradition. It was like I was able to go to Sligo and study with a master without having to leave the Bronx."
So for the next year or so Conway took lessons from the two Martins and progressed rapidly. He became so accomplished that when he was twelve years old he won the All-Ireland title at the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann held in Ireland. The next year he won it again, which inspired him even more. "I had a small tape recorder and I would play Michael Coleman tapes every morning," he says. "I would listen to "Farrel O'Gara" to wake me up. I would listen to it when I was eating cereal and I would listen to it when I went off to school. I'm pretty sure none of the other kids in the Bronx were doing that."
First Through the Gate is full of fine musical moments, but for Conway the finest are the fiddle trios with his mentor Andy McGann and Conway's own protégé Patrick Mangan. "Patrick is a wonderful player, and I was so glad he got the chance to record with Andy," Conway says. "I like the way that we all play in the Sligo style but also sound different, that we each sound like ourselves."
Mangan's appearance marks a new phase in Conway's development as a fiddler, that of becoming a teacher. "I was so fortunate to have teachers like Martin Mulvihill, Martin Wynne, and Andy McGann," he says. "I feel that I really should pass along what they so generously gave to me. And I do have to say that teaching has been the best thing I ever did to improve my own playing. I've developed my own teaching style, which is more focused than the way I was taught. I teach a tune phrase by phrase, just break it down into its parts, and then show the student how I bow it. I don't think my way is necessarily the best way, but that lets the student understand how I think about the music, which in turn may help them form their own ideas.
"I try to stress that it's not just technique they need to learn, but that the students need to understand the cultural roots of the music. They need to listen and they need to get out and play. Taking lessons in a vacuum may lead to technical ability, but I find it makes the music sterile. I try to keep my students from becoming too pyrotechnical, to keep reminding them that music is an art, not a technical exercise."
"For me, there is no more personal instrument than the violin. You may start out imitating someone, like I started out imitating Michael Coleman, but ultimately, you need to stop listening to them and start finding your own way. The challenge is to work within a tradition, but still put your personal stamp on it. Learning to do that is something that takes a lifetime."
[For the full text of this article, purchase the Fall 2004 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
"The Fiddler of Dooney" can be read at www.irishfiddle.com/fiddlerofdooney.html
[Michael Simmons is co-editor of The Fretboard Journal (www.fretboardjournal.com) and the author of Taylor Guitars: 30 Years of a New American Classic.]
Photo: Whitney Lane