James Kelly is one of the most respected fiddlers playing traditional Irish music today. Through his many recordings, his involvement in such well known performing groups as Planxty and Patrick Street, and his teaching work in Irish music schools and festivals around the world, he has touched and inspired legions of musicians and music lovers. James' roots in the music run deep. He grew up in a musical household during a time of heightened interest in traditional music in Ireland. Like his father, John, before him, James is a font of information about tunes and anecdotes of characters who formed the tradition, and a fierce advocate of the music.
Tell me about the musical legacy you inherited from your father [John Kelly].
Well, I suppose to start at the very beginning –– who said that, Julie Andrews? –– my father was a musician, a fiddle player and a concertina player from a very rural part of County Clare, in the west of Ireland. He grew up where people didn't travel away very much, in fact they hardly ever traveled away. You had all your influences from the area you lived in, and the style of music that he played, of course, was a very traditional style. His concertina music, although he played the same dance tunes as he played on the fiddle, were settings for the concertina and he kept it separate, lovely ideas. He left County Clare in his late twenties and worked in the Bob of Allen, just outside Dublin. He met my mother and they got married in 1945 and set up a shop in Dublin, a little shop in Capel Street called The Horse Shoe. And they started a family. I was the youngest of five children and everybody was a musician in the house including my mother who tipped a little bit on the accordion. Everybody else was a fiddle player in the family –– six fiddlers. We had one piper, my brother Anthony who was also a fiddle player, but he was more a piper than a fiddler. We grew up together learning tunes, listening to tunes, old recordings, 78s, and tapes, and being visited by just an endless string of musicians, it seems.
How did it happen that there was this scene at your house? Was that from your father's old connections?
My father was one of the elder statesmen in the music, so to speak, a musician that people looked up to and revered. They respected his opinion very highly. He was an old-fashioned man –– if you met him you'd think he was from the last century, he had this ancient feeling about him. He had a lot of knowledge about the music in him and if he responded to you favorably, you knew that you were doing something right within the tradition itself. Musicians loved to come to the house, they knew there'd always be a good welcome and they'd hear some music and talk. Through the years they made friends with a lot of people –– he would travel a lot within Ireland itself, and he got to know a lot of people. People who didn't know him would come anyway.
So your house and the shop became this gathering point.
It wasn't as if at any time there were twenty people standing outside the front door, it was just a place that people would come to if they came to Dublin. You'd usually nip in to The Horse Shoe to see John Kelly and my mother Frances. You'd have a great time. My father was a storyteller, a historian, and it was all natural for him because he came from the soil, he came from the West. He was kind of serious in his own way but very funny in another way. He'd always have a few nice tunes and a good welcome in the house and that. I grew up looking at all these people, not knowing exactly who a lot of them were. I might have known their names as a child, but not realizing how important these people were until I got older.
Who were some of these people, and why were they important?
People like Seamus Ennis for example. Seamus was a great uillean piper, storyteller, writer, and fluent Irish speaker. He had a great knowledge of the music, worked for the BBC, and collected songs around England, Scotland and Ireland as well. Willie Clancy was another great friend of my father and mother. Willie would stay at our place and when we'd go to County Clare we'd stay with him. We wouldn't have much, our accommodations were two rooms, two beds in the room, four kids in the bed, so if people came up for a few days and they didn't have a place to stay, you'd just do the best you could. Sometimes there'd be Darach O'Cathain the singer, and Joe Heaney, before he went over to live in America, Bobby Casey, Joe Ryan, Neillidh O'Boyle. When Johnny Doran would come to Dublin he'd always come into the house. Johnny Doran liked my mother's brown bread. He'd sit with her upstairs, because at that time, after World War II, they had to keep the shop open late to try and make a bit of money because the money was scarce. Just anybody might come down. Dennis Murphy, Julia Clifford, Johnny Leary, whoever.
How did you learn tunes? Did you ever play for these people?
As a young kid I was very shy. But I'd play a little bit and they'd play in the house. We'd learn tunes that way, listening; my father would teach us a few tunes. If you have relations or family or people close by who are doing the same thing, a little bit of competition or rivalry can be good because you're trying to do what the other people are doing, and there's great excitement when everybody's doing the same thing. I was always struggling to do what my eldest brother Michael would do. "I can't do those triplets, I wonder what he's doing there..." It took me a long time, but I was after them, so it was great.
[For the rest of this interview, as well as the tunes "Gaffney's Favourite Son" by James Kelly and "Humors of Lissadell," purchase the Winter 97/98 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]