Any oral tradition is rich with icons, and each successive generation of Irish musicians has left us with a host of names and stories. The first recordings in the twenties and thirties gave us such giant figures as Michael Coleman, James Morrison, and Paddy Killoran. The next generation gave names like Sean Ryan, Willie Clancy, Seamus Ennis, P.J. Hayes, Micho Russell, and a fiddler from West Clare named Junior Crehan. A lot of people outside of Clare were probably first exposed to the name when Planxty recorded a tune called "Junior Crehan's Favourite" on their 1972 debut album. Liam O'Flynn, the piper with Planxty, is related to Junior on his mother's side and would go on to record a number of other tunes that he learned from Junior. The other thing that people will know about him is that Junior composed "The Mist-Covered Mountain," the popular session jig in A minor. The fellow behind these tunes was a farmer in western Clare, a fiddler, concertina player, and storyteller. Junior was deeply concerned that the heritage of music and story be passed on, and was actively involved with Comhaltas Ceoltoírí Éireann (pronounced, roughly, Kyol-tas Kyol-tori Erin) and the Willie Clancy Summer School. His influence is hard to overestimate; his music has been a big influence on people like O'Flynn, Kevin Burke, and Martin Hayes, to name a few of the influential players of today. Of Junior, Martin has said, "He knew where the heart and soul of music was. If you could understand Junior, you could understand the music." Martin "Junior" Crehan was born in the townland of Bonavilla, Mullagh, County Clare on January 17th, 1908. He passed away on August 3rd, 1998.
The town of Mullagh is in West Clare, south of Miltown Malbay. It was a rural, farming community where set-dancing was popular. Junior's first musical influence was his mother, Margaret "Baby" Crehan, who played concertina and came from a musical family. At the age of six, Junior started learning concertina from his mother, and was exposed to the fiddle playing of Paddy Barron, a mendicant dancing master. Barron was in the area for two extended periods from 1914-1918 and again in 1935. Junior learned much from Barron, but his biggest influence was John "Scully" Casey from Annagh, Bobby Casey's father. The way his daughter tells it, Junior would hang outside Scully's door until he would get called in and be showed something on the fiddle. Through Scully Casey and his cousin Thady, a fine dancer and fiddler, Junior began playing for house dances in his teens. The dancer's expectations of the fiddler were high, and it was only when Junior was playing fairly well that he was invited to play. Junior's father, Martin Senior, was a schoolteacher and a strict man who always hoped that Junior would follow in his footsteps, so Junior had to hide the fiddle outside the house in order to sneak off to the dances, and rely upon his supportive mother to cover for him on his return.
The house dances at the time, in the way sessions are now, were the core of the tradition and the community. In 1935 the Fianna Fail government enacted the Public Dance Hall Act, declaring that "no placeshall be used for public dancing unless a public dancing license Is in force in respect of such a place." Mostly the law was passed because of the church's moral concerns about dancing, and because of rumors that funds from private dances had been given to the I.R.A. A license was issued only to those whom a district judge considered of "good character" and often licenses were refused to rural communities based on the difficulty of supervision. In some instances, the only person who could obtain a license was the parish priest. Even though the act did not specifically cover house dances and dances at the crossroads, local clergy and gardai (police) used it to ban these as well. Junior was strongly opposed to the act and said that "the Dance Hall Act closed our schools of tradition and left us a poorer people." Many felt that the underlying reason behind the law was that the government wanted a cut of the money if money was to be made. In response to the spurious argument about a lack of "sanitary facilities," Junior is rumored to have said, "You could make your water in the chimney so long as the government got a piece of the money." In a recent conversation, Liam O' Flynn said, "I often heard Junior talk with regret at the loss of the house dance and how the clergy, the church really, were responsible for the demise of the crossroads dances and the house dances. It was the center of their social lives and existences. Those house dances were wonderful, community events. When the dancing moved to the dance hall it had to change, of course."
The Dance Hall Act, in forcing dancing to larger, licensed halls, gave rise to the ceilidh bands, and in the 1950s, Junior was a founding member of the Laichtín Naofa Céilidh Band, which included Willie Clancy and Martin Talty from Miltown Malbay. The Laichtín Naofa won the Oireachtas Gold Medal in Dublin in 1956. But Junior was a farmer, by reputation a skilled and meticulous steward, and traveling to competitions was difficult as "no one had yet invented the five-day cow." As the music gained in popularity and people began recording commercially, Junior "felt a mixture of delight and a strange curiosity towards the end of his life," this from Liam O'Flynn, "that the music was becoming so fashionable, where it had been anything but fashionable when he was young. The whole commercialization he would have found difficult, for he was someone who only ever played for the pure love of it, and now there are powerful commercial interests involved, selling celtic this and celtic that. That word celtic had no meaning for Junior. He never would have described his music that way."
Photo: Helen Bommarito
[For the rest of this article, as well as a transcription of "The Drunken Gauger" as played by Junior Crehan, purchase the Fall 2001 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]