I think of Séamus Connolly's musical presence as a geologist might think of tectonic plates: beneath the surface but still exerting huge influence. His great success and technical precision in competitions in the '60s was, to me, hugely influential in setting the high standard of craft expected from today's players, while his connection with the older generation of musicians preserved the earlier values of the tradition. His presence and committed teaching in Boston has been influential up and down the East Coast, making it a badge of honor for the area's musicians to have a tune from Séamus, and his work with the Gaelic Roots Summer Program at Boston College makes the tradition accessible to an ever broadening circle. We spoke at Boston College.
The Senior All-Ireland Fiddle competition at the Fleadh in 1961, in Swinford, Co. Mayo, was probably the most dramatic in the history of the competitions. You and Brendan McGlinchey were competing and were so evenly matched that the judges couldn't decide who was better. So they called you up to play a second time, and still couldn't decide, and still hadn't reached a decision when everyone had gone home.
That's right, we read it in the papers the next morning. Brendan was gone home and I was gone home, and they said "Fleadh Cheoil crux ends at midnight." I mean, you'd think there was nothing else going on in the world, here it was on the front page. You see, there's different types of jigs: a double jig, a slip jig, a single jig. They are all in 6/8 rhythm, except for the slip jig, which is 9/8. I think that the real story would be that the ruling was to play a double jig, but I don't think it said to play a double jig. I think it was very unfair; Brendan played a slip jig, and then when they recalled us he did the same thing. The decision could have gone the other way, but Brendan played a slip jig when he should have played a double jig. I happened to play a double jig. Brendan could have won it, too. It's all a lot of nonsense, you know.
How old were you at the time?
I was seventeen. It just happened that I was the youngest ever to win it, and I won the Junior and the Senior in the same year. They changed the ruling again after that, so that you couldn't play in the Senior competition if you were under eighteen. So it got serious now after that. Luckily I was over eighteen the following year when I played in the fiddle competition. Brendan won it that year. To me there's too much emphasis on the rules. There's a competition frame that you have to play in that has been passed down through the years; an expectancy that you have to play like this. It kind of inhibited me from being what I wanted to be, or doing what I wanted to do with the music. I was pigeonholed, boxed into a certain way of playing.
You did quite well in competitions -- you won ten All-Irelands.
I did. But competitions didn't mean a thing to me. I went in to hear people like Brendan McGlinchey and to learn from them, and to try and improve my playing. I didn't have an interest in winning. That might seem strange.
Why did you compete if you weren't interested in winning?
I competed so that I could go to the Fleadh Cheoils and hear the good fiddle players. There were a lot of great fiddle players at the time.
Right, but you could have been a punter in the crowd.
No -- I could have been, but I felt like there's no point in sitting down and being like the hurler on the ditch, criticizing. The only way I could improve myself was by practicing, and getting into the competition. So I kept practicing. There's a lot of misunderstanding about music. People think it just happens and become upset with themselves when it's too difficult. It takes practice. It just doesn't happen overnight. Brendan and I practiced all the time. We put an awful lot of pressure on ourselves. And the competition was pressure in the sense that there were people following Connolly and another camp following McGlinchey, and that was fierce pressure. Every time we played, if we'd be playing in the streets at the Fleadh, there'd be a tape recorder stuck over your shoulder, and you'd know it was there. That was fierce pressure, and you felt like if you played a wrong note they were going to take home the tapes and compare them and all. I hated that. I hated that pressure. So Brendan stopped playing for seventeen or eighteen years.
You think because of that pressure?
Well, it had a lot to do with it. And so I kind of fought that pressure, till one day I decided to say to myself, "I'm going to play my own music, I'm going to play the way I want to play instead of being told how to play." My father many times said to me, "Sit down there and play for me, play 'O'Rourke's Reel' till I see that you play it as good as Coleman." That was an abuse in a sense. He was well meaning, but that was hard to sit in front of your father, who knew music and was comparing you to Michael Coleman. So every time we played, every time I went on the stage, I was my own worst enemy. I might look relaxed on the stage, but I hated the pressure. I was being so hard on myself. That's gone from me now. I'm enjoying my music now.
How did that come to be?
I don't know how it came -- I would imagine suddenly waking up one day, at a certain age, and saying I should be enjoying music. I shouldn't be putting pressure on myself. People say to you that you have to make another record; you owe it to the public to make another record. You don't owe it to the public to make another record. It's great when people say that -- it makes you feel good, but we don't owe anything to anybody. I feel that we've kept the music alive but we don't owe anything to people. When I came to America I loved some of the great fiddle playing that I heard here: French Canadian fiddle playing and the great fiddlers from Cape Breton. I wanted to emulate some of the things that they were doing and incorporate it into my own playing. And I've done that in the sense that it might have changed the style that the older people were listening to, but underneath it all I have the foundation of the old styles that I used to sit and play with Paddy Canny at home. I feel now that I'm more free with my music and that I want to go back and be where I was when I was a young fella listening to Paddy Canny and listening to Sean Ryan. That's the kind of music that I get the most enjoyment out of. It's like a complete circle for me; I'd like to go back to what I heard when I was younger.
[For the rest of this interview, as well as a transcription of Séamus' tune "Rock Point Lane," purchase the Spring 2002 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Brendan Taaffe lives in Massachusetts, where he plays fiddle and guitar for contra dances and concerts. He holds a master’s degree in Irish music from the University of Limerick, and has toured in Europe and North America. Visit his website at www.brendantaaffe.com]
Photo: Ena Doocey