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Sean McGuire: Master of the Irish Violin
Ken Perlman
1998-03-01

It was not very long after I started exploring Irish music in the early 1970s that I began to hear about an almost legendary fiddle player named Sean McGuire. Tunes were named for him, accom-plished players spoke in awe of his technical prowess, and he was credited with composing what appeared to be a finger-twisting set of variations on the common tune "Mason's Apron," some of which even highly developed players failed to pull off with much success.

It was not until some twenty-five years later when I had an opportunity to meet McGuire and see him play that I began to fully appreciate his role in the development of the modern Irish traditional music revival. I also came to view him as a figure of great personal courage -- a man who could re-train himself to talk after losing his voice-box to throat cancer, then carry on with his busy teaching and performing career as if nothing had happened.

McGuire was born in 1928 in the Belfast region of Northern Ireland. He grew up surrounded -- within both his family and community -- by the traditional music of his homeland. When he expressed interest in playing the violin, however, he was sent to a classical teacher. Such was his aptitude for the instrument, that he was soon receiving the kind of training that is only available to those being groomed for an orchestral or concert career. As a teenager, he was made first violinist in the Belfast Youth Orchestra; as a young adult he was invited to join the Belfast Symphony Orchestra.

McGuire never felt quite at home with the classical repertoire. Instead, he found deep within himself a great longing to play the kind of traditional music that he had absorbed in his youth. At this point, he could have merely abandoned his classical training and become a straight-forward traditional fiddler. Instead, as is implied in the following quotation, he developed two interlocking ambitions. First, he wished to apply his rigorous violin training to the playing of traditional Irish tunes, thereby raising their musical level and artistic significance. Second, he wished to transform Irish traditional music as a whole from what he refers to as a "primitive" state, to a true art music that would be appreciated worldwide:

I was always deeply interested in my own culture and I thought that a repertoire of the jig, the hornpipe, the set dance, [and] the beautiful slow airs -- of which we have many -- was a worthy subject for the talents of the serious musician. I decided to devote my techniques and life to the furtherance and promotion of my culture.

McGuire was only fourteen when his violin playing was broadcast for the first time on BBC radio. In 1949 at the age of only twenty-one, he won the Oireachtas (pronounced "ee-RUK-tus"), the All-Ireland musical championship held annually in Dublin) with the only perfect score ever awarded in the long history of the competition. In the 1950s, he became part of a major touring group called the Malachy Sweeney Ceili Band; later he helped form the Sean McGuire Ceili Band and the Four Star Quartet. [Ed. note: Ceili, sometimes spelled ceilidh -- pronounced "KAY-ley" -- is a Gaelic term for musical gathering]. Through the 1960s he was a leading member of the Gael-Linn Cabaret.

In the days before the Chieftains assumed the role, McGuire sometimes served as Irish musics cultural ambassador. He has appeared throughout Europe, and he has been named "Grande Artiste" of the Soviet Union. When he toured the U.S. in 1952, he was asked to appear on such classic American variety programs as the Ed Sullivan Show and the Arthur Godfrey Show. He was also honored by the Wurlitzer Co. of New York City, who not only invited him to play the Stradivarius and Guarnerius violins in their possession, but also to enter his name (alongside those of Fritz Kreisler and Yehudi Menuhin) in their "golden book" of master violinists.

Over the years, McGuire's name has become synonymous in Irish traditional fiddling with excellent musicianship. He has composed many pieces for the idiom, and written countless classic variations -- not only for the aforementioned "Mason's Apron" -- but also for such common tunes as "The Poppy Leaf," "The Bees Wing," "The Reconciliation," "The Boys of the Lough," and "The Golden Eagle." Among his many innovations to the playing of traditional Irish music have been the practice of using sophisticated key modulations (changes) within a piece, the adaptation of advanced classical bowing techniques, and the use of up-the-neck violin "positions."

In terms of training, ambitions, and outlook, McGuire is certainly comparable to a major figure in Scottish fiddling history named James Scott Skinner (1843-1927). Skinner, too, sought to widen the scope of his native fiddling and increase its regard internationally. He created important sets of variations, and incorporated up-the-neck positions and sophisticated bowing techniques into traditional music. He was celebrated in his own time, and to this day his variations are reproduced note for note by traditional musicians in both Scotland and Cape Breton.

Because McGuire lived in a different era and worked in a different tradition than Skinner, he has for the most part been a much more controversial figure. Even before Skinner came along, Scottish fiddling had a long tradition of virtuosi who were equally at home in both the art and folk traditions. Moreover, the long history of Scottish tune-publication created a respect both for the written note and for those artists who approached the music from a learned perspective.

Irish music before the time of McGuire, on the other hand, was still pretty much an oral music culture. As we shall see, there was even a strong feeling among some that a musician with McGuire's training and outlook could not possibly perform Ireland's traditional music in an authentic manner. Certainly, there was a lot of resistance among musicians of "the old school" to some of McGuire's innovations. One story along these lines was imparted to me by piper/tin whistler Bill Ochs of New York City. When McGuire landed at a house party in Philadelphia some years ago at which traditional fiddler John Vesey was already holding court, the latter is said to have stood up and remarked, "There will be no playing in the flat keys in this house tonight!"

To some degree, the controversy over McGuire's approach was driven by the on-going debate on the nature of Irish nationalism. Certainly the argument could be made that McGuire's technical innovations serve to insinuate a "foreign" element (German, Italian -- or worse yet -- English) into the native music. McGuire's own take on this particular subject is touched on in the following interview.

Although McGuire's playing is still regarded as controversial by some elements in the Irish music scene, there is no doubt that his example has left an indelible mark on the tradition. Not only has he imparted his approach to countless students over the years, but his mere presence on the scene has served to raise the general level of technique and musical knowledge required of all top flight players. Seamus Connolly, a world-renowned Irish fiddler who now lives in the Boston area, sums up McGuires impact as follows:

Before 1957 and 58 many young fiddlers coming up were listening to Michael Coleman on scratchy old 78s, and almost all of Irish fiddling was in just a few keys. Then Sean McGuire's first recordings came out, and we had heard nothing like this -- tunes like "The Mathematician," with parts where he shifts effortlessly through a number of high positions, or like "The Golden Eagle" where he switches back and forth between second and third positions. And there were a number of tunes where he was playing with great facility in the flat keys. It took me years to find out what he was doing. He certainly influenced a lot of my generation -- the level of his technique first of all, and also the way with his variations he could get inside a tune and turn it around. And I have seen that many of the young fiddlers who were initially opposed to his approach came to admit his genius later on. He also opened the way for players in the next generation to take classical training and apply it to the traditional style. As far as I am concerned, McGuire was a real genius of a player and I hope he is ultimately accorded his true place in the annals of traditional Irish music.

The following interview took place June 2, 1996 during the Northern Lights "Festal" [sic] in Ballycastle, Northern Ireland, which is roughly sixty miles north of Belfast.

When were you first exposed to fiddle music?

I developed the interest when I was about ten years of age. I was fortunate to have parents and grandparents that were musical. You could say that I caught the bug. Very few people know that in order to pay for my violin studies I had to take a job -- I am a fully qualified motor mechanic!

Did your parents play traditional music?

Yes they did. My father was a renowned flautist and piccolo player in the Irish style. My mother could have sung the very humble ballad. My brother is as good a player as myself and my sister would not be in the background if she was called on to sing a song. My grandfather on my mother's side played violin in the Irish style; my grandmother on my father's side was a renowned folk singer.

Was there a distinct style of Irish violin played by your parents' and grandparents' generation?

It was known more or less as the standard at that time. People stuck religiously to what they called the old traditional style, whereas mine is more the advanced style of playing the music. That said, I had quite a battle to get away from this form of stagnation of culture. I said, "Well look, Irish music, and any music, is something that lives. It's got to progress, and you've got to accept personal interpretations within the structure of the basic music." There's a big range there to be explored.

How is your style different from your parents' style?

I had the advantage of classical training, things that could be put into the music -- key changes within the same piece for example, they were seldom explored when I first came to the music. I transposed [the tunes] quite a lot and felt I had done them justice. I explored all the possibilities to transform the tunes by arranging, key changes, different bow stylings, and not so much the "rumpy tumpy" style of playing Irish music.

How would you say your approach to Irish music differs from the Sligo approach to fiddling, as exemplified by its most famous exponent Michael Coleman?

Coleman was accepted in his era as being a great player. But if you analyze what he's done... For a start, he was playing in a primitive style. He didn't stray outside D and G major and related minors. I'm exploring one flat, two flats, three flats, four flats, and the multi-sharp keys. That was not done in Coleman's day and he could not have attempted it. This is where the training stood me!

Where in your community would you have heard traditional fiddle playing as a child?

My aunt was a renowned violin player. There were also ceilis in nearly every area. The local musicians would gather -- melodeons, accordions, violins, flutes mostly. And it was the case that odd-ball instruments, like banjos, clarinets, dulcimers, and things like that were also accepted as capable to do our music justice, even though some self-styled "purists" in the cities would not have accepted anything then but flute, uillean pipes, and the violin. Not even the Irish harp was accepted at all times.

The music was in a primitive state. The Irish had been denied their culture for so long by the English occupation -- not being allowed to play, sing, or speak the language, and all go together. Read the history of our country, and you know why the music, like our language, nearly disappeared. Now it's all coming back. Some of my students will surpass me, and there is no danger now that it will ever go back to being primitive.

Can you describe the ceilis when you were young?

The kitchen was got ready -- it was at a person's house. It was made spotless --Flagstone floors. There would be the turf stacked to keep the fire burning. The porter or Guinness would be ready to hand, and anybody that wanted to partake of the beverage, they could help themselves. The smell of home-baked bread -- you just couldn't wait to get it! And meanwhile the merry-making went on. You were called on to play a solo, play a few tunes, sing a few songs. The balladeer was always there.

But one feature of the Irish ceili was the story teller, he was a character in his own right. He told more lies than were ever published, but it was all in good fun! Then there would be dancing; someone would be called on to dance a step [step-dance]. And that was in real boots; it sounded like a corps of drummers on that flagstone floor. Those dancers were genuine experts!

But I loved the sean nós singing, its the old unaccompanied traditional singing. It was gorgeous, and believe me it drew you very near to nature.

And a stranger was always welcome. No questions were ever asked. If you came in and wanted to be part of the night's enjoyment you were made welcome. It started at eight or nine o'clock, and went on till five in the morning. And many's the summer morning, somebody would say, sitting by the window -- the blinds would have been drawn for the night -- "Whats that blue light there?" It was daylight! They had played, and danced, and sung all night.

And it was different venues every other week. There was the harvest festivals, the planting of potatoes, or church meetings. Ceili means "gathering," and Ceili mor means big gathering. So every so often you'd have the ceili mor and everybody looked forward to it.

Was there square dancing or other forms of set dancing at the ceilis?

No, there was just step dancing at the ceilis. We had set dancing at the barn dances. This was of course held in the barn with a wood floor. Youd get somebody with a bodhran, a couple of fiddlers, somebody with a set of pipes. And you got there what we called "formation dancing" -- you might call it square dancing. It might be two facing two, four facing four, or three facing three. And they'd advance, retire, do their step, do their swinging, and then the next group got up.

And this went on for different figures to be completed before the dance was completed. Some of our popular dances were Haymakers Jig, the Fairy Reel, the Four-On Reel, and The Six-On Reel. Then there was the odd polka, and of course if you had the expert stepdancer they were called on to perform.

Who played for the barn dances?

It was a band. They had a program for each dance, of how many turns [repetitions of a tune] had to be played. They'd get together and practice. They timed their playing to coincide with the dance starting and finishing, and they'd change from one tune to another. They'd play each tune two or three times through. Coming to the end of the dance theyd speed it up, and this was quite accepted. Their repertoire may have been limited but they put it to damn good use.

[This article is from the Spring 1998 issue of Fiddler Magazine, which is out of print.]