Paddy Glackin has made a habit of approaching music on his own terms. As the Bothy Band's first fiddler, he had as good a start as one could hope towards a successful professional career but chose, instead, to keep Irish music as "a fascinating hobby." Though full-time performing musicians are more prominent in the public eye, Paddy's is an important model to keep in mind: for most of us, playing music is a component of life but not the only part, and even while holding down a job, Paddy has made important contributions to the world of Irish music. The Bothy Band, clearly, reshaped the musical landscape, and his recordings with Paddy Keenan (Doublin') and Jolyon Jackson have been very influential. We spoke during the 2002 session of Gaelic Roots, at Boston College.
How did you get started playing the fiddle?
I was born and raised in Dublin, but my father was from Donegal. I was exposed to the whole Donegal thing early on, not only music but language as well -- so that would have been a big influence on me. But I grew up in Dublin and therefore was exposed to a lot of other types of music, other styles of traditional music, shall we say, particularly of fiddle playing. There was no Donegal music in Dublin when I was growing up. None whatsoever.
Did your father play?
My father played, but that was the only exposure I had to it. We would go to Donegal on holidays and I would meet John Doherty and people like that. That was the main influence, but I was also influenced by other great players who lived in Dublin at the time. There was a man by the name of John Egan who was a flute player, and John was a source of great encouragement to me. John Kelly, James' father, was hugely encouraging.
Thinking about the regional styles, do you think there's a Dublin style?
No, absolutely not. Kerry, Clare, East Galway, Sligo and Donegal, they would be the main regional styles. And when you say Donegal, you have to think there's a broader Ulster style of playing that people tend to identify as being a Donegal style. People are sometimes a bit loose in their use of language. In terms of style, we tend to forget that people's definition of styles is usually based on the music of very, very strong individuals -- Doherty for Donegal, or Denis Murphy for Kerry, or Patrick Kelly in West Clare. People speak in very, very general terms about Donegal music and say that they don't do any finger ornamentation, and that's wrong. John Doherty used finger ornamentation, Neilidh Boyle used finger ornamentation. They favored bowing ornamentation a little bit more, but it doesn't mean they didn't use their fingers. You see it written in books -- ornamentation only with the bow --- but it doesn't hold up.
So what do you see as the hallmarks of a Donegal style?
What defines Donegal fiddling for me would be, number one, the bowing of it, would be the rhythm of it, would be the sense of tonality of it, and as well as the actual variations and settings of the tunes.
What do you mean by tonality?
If you compare it with the southern part of the country, it tends to be slightly sharper, the rhythm and tonality of it is a little bit harder, and there's a wildness in it that other traditions don't seem to have.
With your strong family connections to Donegal, I would place you as a tradition-bearer rather than someone who comes to the music from elsewhere. Do you think that gives you any different responsibility?
I don't feel any responsibility as such. What I do feel is very privileged. I feel a huge privilege that I was able to get this music directly from the likes of John Doherty, that I knew the man so well and that we were very, very good friends. To my dying day I'll always be grateful for the stuff I got from him. But I don't feel any particular responsibility -- the only responsibility I feel is just to play it. Society has changed so much. I live in a city; I don't live in a small place where people can come to me. Our way of life is different. People pick it up through hearing tapes and such, and that's the way it is -- the process has changed. The one downside is that they don't get to know musicians because they don't get a chance to talk to them. You can't divorce the two of them -- that's the big pity for me, because part of the mystique of John Doherty wasn't just the way he played the fiddle, it was talking to him. It was the man, it was having fun and having a bit of craic. Part of John Kelly's mystique was that he had an incredible sense of humor, so you would spend a lot of time in these people's company and you mightn't play a tune. You could be there for hours and never even think of playing, you'd just be having a bit of fun, and that's a very, very important part of the whole operation.
When you were growing up in Dublin, how much music was there around?
There was no traditional music, really. It wasn't the thing for a young guy growing up in Dublin to play the fiddle, so I grew up with this dark secret. Nobody knew about it. I'd just be brought to these music clubs when I'd be on summer holidays and I'd meet people like John Egan and John Kelly and I got to know them on a Wednesday night in the Church Street club, or the Piper's club on a Saturday night. I was mixing with people who were a good bit older than me. I did play football and everything else that boys do, but there was this dark secret lurking there that I played the fiddle. This was in the sixties, and one of the problems for me was that it was very hard to identify with the music -- there were no people my own age doing it. My brothers are younger than me, so they weren't in the picture. There was nobody of the same age, so I was learning this thing in isolation.
So what was the incentive to keep going with it?
Well, part of the incentive to keep going was my father's perseverance, to be quite frank with you. I probably would have given it up because I had no sense of its relevance. You'd sit there dutifully and you'd listen to other players, and you just listened to them. It paid off in the end I suppose, but I had nobody of my own age to see where this thing stood in the scheme of things, where you might talk about a tune or talk about a player and get a bit of perspective on it. As well as to find out that you weren't some kind of a freak.
When did that change?
That changed, I'd say, in the seventies. I got to know some guys of my own age. It was starting to become a little bit popular and it was great to have people of the same age where you could sit down and play a tune and you didn't feel you were on your own. I went to fleadh cheoils and met fellows from other parts of the country who were the same age as me and we played in competitions together. It was good to feel that there were other people doing it.
[For the full text of this interview, as well as Paddy's tune "Gusty's Frolics," purchase the Summer 2003 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]