The Kilfenora Ceili Band — a century of great Irish music
Some of my earliest musical memories are of Kilfenora musicians playing in my father’s pub in Ennistymon in the 1950’s. Kilfenora was the home of my paternal grandmothers people, the Murphys, and so our ‘house’ was a natural ‘stand’ or calling house for people from that parish when they came to town. The first time I saw or heard a tape recorder, was when my cousin Tim Murphy came to our place with a huge Grundig and played a recording he’d made of the Kilfenora Ceili Band. To us youngsters, the Kilfenora had the aura, energy and spell of U2. They made us feel good on the dark nights and the rainy days. They were friends of the family and as their then leader Kitty Linnane used whisper to me ‘We’re all the one, we’re all connected.” And so we were through bloodlines and through music.
This year the Kilfenora are 100 years on the go…that’s a lot of Clare music, a lot of Clare sets. Here’s a brief History of the band from their website:
“Kilfenora boasted a fine fife and drum band founded in 1870, which later gave way to an accomplished brass and reed band in 1910. It appears the fife & drum was regarded as a boy’s pursuit. The move to the brass & reed was in order to hold onto the musicians into adulthood. The trumpet player was Jim Mulqueeney
who was a founder member of the céilí band and became a seminal
influence on the fiddlers of the area. The Brass & Reed band proved to be a
solid foundation for the céilí band that started in 1909.
“In 1908, the parish of Kilfenora was in debt. The new priest, Canon Cassidy from Moughana set to clearing the debt and refurbishing the church. At the fundraising dances he held in the schoolhouse, members of the old Brass & Reed band like John Joe Lynch, (fiddler and drummer) and Jim Mulqueeney (fiddler) were involved, though were deferential in the presence of the senior players such as fiddle master Michael Slattery.
“The ’20s core group consisted of Jim Mulqueeney, Jim McCormack, John Joe Lynch, Austin Tierney and Lynch’s sister, Mrs. Brigid McGrath, on concertina. Tom Ward – (fiddle) Lil McCormack, (piano), Paddy “Pepper” Linnane, Tommy Mulqueeney, Pat Madigan (banjo, clarinet, bass), Jimmy Leyden (drums), brother and sister Paddy and Nora “Marshall” McMahon (flute and fiddle respectively) and Maureen Kelly (piano).
By the thirties, there were already a couple of radios in Kilfenora village. The first broadcast by the band was in 1932 from Athlone. The radios were taken out in the open, as the crowd of listeners was as big as when Eamon de Valera came to the village for the Clare election in 1917. There was another broadcast in June 1935 relayed from the town hall in Ennis. They were half-hour programmes and entailed lengthy rehearsal beforehand. On June 30th 1940, the Kilfenora broadcast from the Convent of Mercy, Ennis on Radio Éireann, a prize for winning the Céilí Band Competition at the Ennis Carnival.
They had a three-year standing contract to play for the céilithe in the Queen’s Hotel, Ennis, during the winters of ’35, ’36 and ’37. The regular lineup during the ’30s was: John Joe Lynch, Jim Mulqueeney, Tom Ward, Nora McMahon (violins), Paddy McMahon, Jim McCormack (flutes), Jim Ward (piccolo), Paddy Byrt (concertina), Pat Madigan (Sax & Clarinet), Jimmy Leyden (drums).
During the ’40’s some of the Kilfenora stalwarts played under a different banner. The Corcomroe band was organised in 1942 by, Barry Ward from Northern Ireland, who came as an engineer to the phosphate mines in Doolin, which were opened in that year. According to Jim Ward, this Barry Ward (no relation) played the piano accordion and was “music mad but apparently didn’t know much about traditional music”. It was his good fortune though, to gather around him some of the finest traditional musicians in North Clare.
The Byrt family featured very much in this band and the photo shows four of them. Paddy Byrt, a founder member of the Kilfenora in 1909 was a gifted musician with an unmatched knowledge of music and traditional lore, which he passed on to his sons, one of whom, John in particular was regarded as one of the foremost fiddle players of his time and according to some of his peers, he possessed more tunes than any other of his contemporaries.
As a young adult, P.J. Lynch liked to go off for a few days playing music with his friends and he smelled an opportunity for enjoyment when he heard of the All-Ireland fleádh to be held in Athlone in ’53. He was excited by the concept of a céilí band competition and took part there with a hastily assembled ad-hoc band of musicians he met at the festival.
During the autumn after his return, he assembled a group of musicians from within a five-mile radius of the village. They rehearsed and started playing for céilís every Sunday. They enlisted the assistance of Molly Conole, daughter of Michael Slattery, the 1909 founder, as coach. They duly travelled to the ’54 fleádh in Cavan and a vigorous performance brought them victory.
The Kilfenora obviously had devised a winning formula. Much to the delight of their supporters, they triumphed at the next two fleádhanna, completing the celebrated three-in-a row on home ground in Ennis in ’56, The lineup that year was: Gerry Lynch, Kitty Linnane, Frank O’Mahony, PJ Lynch, Gerald O Loughlin, Shamus McCormack, Gus Tierney, Noreen Lynch, Jim Ward and Ita Mulqueeney. (
The 1958 album The Kilfenora Céilí Band was the only commercial recording by most of that line-up. After that, there were substantial changes in personnel and it was a very different band that won at the fleádh in Swinford in 1961. .
P.J. Lynch stepped aside and the steady hand of Kitty Linnane steered them through the next three and a half decades. The band was extremely busy on the céilí circuit. They played every county in the Republic. They went on a series of trips to Britain during Lent when demand was quiet at home. It is surprising that caution prevailed in preventing them from accepting the numerous invitations to the U.S.
From the mid-’70s onwards, their work as a full-blown céilí band was greatly diminished. During the early ’70s, the band did produce two more albums, Clare Céilí (E.M.I.) and The Kilfenora Céilí Band (Transatlantic). By the ’80s, their activities were limited to special occasions of nostalgia. The fact was that set dancing was at that time becoming pub-based and céilí bands weren’t getting many bookings till the resurgence of the ’90s.
The band members who appeared on the Clare Céilí album were: Kitty Linnane, Paddy (Organ) Mullins, Tommy Peoples, Gus Tierney, Jim Ward, Michael Sexton, Jimmy Leyden and singer P.J. Murrihy.
During the ’70s and ’80s, the aforementioned fiddler Gus Tierney was passing the music on to the next generation during his classes all over North Clare. Many of his pupils went on to turn professional and several formed the basis of the present Kilfenora band.
With Kitty in failing health, John Lynch, son of P.J. stepped into the breech in ’91. He assembled a young lineup to carry the torch. The group (with the help of mentors Phil McMahon and Gerry Lynch) achieved three titles in a row from ’93 to ’95, forty years after the original achievement.
The band in the past decade has been commercially very active. This is the third album by the current personnel (sixth in all by the Kilfenora). They gig the length and breadth of Ireland and travel regularly to Britain, Europe and the United States. Their performances are no longer confined to playing for céilí dancers and they regularly entertain at the larger U.S. festivals for audiences of thousands.
Lynch has been very careful to preserve authenticity by keeping innovation to a discreet minimum and staying true to traditional instrumentation and repertoire. To date, the band has continued in the style of its predecessors.
(for more info: http://www.kilfenoraceiliband.com)
PROGRAM OF CENTENARY CELEBRATIONS
23-26 April 2009, KILFENORA, CO. CLARE
Thursday, 23 April 2009
9 pm Céilí with Four Courts Céilí Band – Vaughans Barn
10 pm Singing Night – Linnanes Pub, Session – Nagles Pub
Friday, 24 April 2009
9.30 pm – 12.00 am Céilí with Kilfenora Céilí Band – Community Hall
Saturday, 25 April 2009
10 am – 12.00 pm Childrens’ Sean Nós & Step Dancing Workshop
1 – 3 pm Recital by local musical families – Community Hall
4 – 5.30 pm Lecture on History of Kilfenora Céilí Band by Garry Shannon and Photography Exhibition (from 3.00 pm) – Community Hall
8 – 10.30 pm Gala Celebration Concert with Kilfenora Céilí Band and special guests – Community Hall
10.30-1.30 pm Old Time Céilí with PJ Murrihy and Michael Sexton Vaughns Bar
Sunday, April 26th 2009
11 am Aifreann Traidisiúnta for deceased members of Kilfenora Céilí Band
– St. Fachnans Church
12 pm Unveiling of plaque commemorating 100 years of the Kilfenora Céilí Band – Burren Centre
1.30 pm Traditional music and entertainment by local musicians and school children – The Square, Kilfenora*
3.30 pm Launch of “Century” CD by Kilfenora Céilí Band – The Square, Kilfenora*
4.15 pm Tulla Céilí Band – The Square, Kilfenora*
5 pm Final concert including presentation to past members of Kilfenora Céilí Band – The Square, Kilfenora*
9 pm Céilí with Four Courts Céilí Band – Vaughans Barn
*Please note: Programme subject to change. In the event of rain, open air sessions will take place in the Community Hall
TRADITIONAL MUSIC SESSIONS IN ALL PUBS NIGHTLY
Up The Banner!!!