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Archive for the tag “tulla ceili band”

A Musical Youth in West Clare

The Tulla Ceili Band, 1952, Georgie on piano, far right

I read the news today, oh boy, and learned that Georgie Byrt had died. It put me thinking about my musical journey and the musicians I played with, back in West Clare during the 60’s and 70’s. Piano player and taxi man, Georgie was from my hometown of Ennistymon and the first time I ever played on stage, it was with Georgie and Mickey Hogan’s Dance Band. I was fifteen and scared and excited as if I was going on my first date.

Mickey Hogan had invited me to his house a week or so beforehand, and I figured it was just to play a few tunes; he played the fiddle and tenor sax and had the reputation of being a maestro. I brought my electric guitar and amp and we played for an hour or two — tunes and songs that my parent’s generation danced to.

After the session, his wife served us tea and plain biscuits, and we chatted. It turns out Mickey was checking my musicianship, and asked if I was free to play at an upcoming wedding with his band.  I said yes, yes of course. We shook hands and his wife said that a musician would always find a wife. She told how she fell in love with Mickey when she danced to his music, forty years beforehand.

“It was the uniform that got me,” she said, “Mickey had a beautiful band uniform, snow-white with gold buttons and I was smitten.”

At the wedding, Mickey wore a red tunic with gold buttons and the rest of us wore blue blazers, which he supplied. Mine was oversized, and I had to turn up the cuffs so I could play the guitar. I forget who the other band members were apart from Georgie, who told me to stand near him. When Mickey announced the next number, George would whisper to me, something like: “Key of G and there’s an E minor in the second part.” That’s how the evening went. The band blasting out tunes and songs, and Georgie telling me the keys and the chords. Georgie was a gentleman, may he rest in peace.

Ennistymon, 1961

For a town as small as   Ennistymon, there were more  musicians than houses. Fiddlers, drummers, piano players, accordionists, sax players, trumpet blowers, guitarists, flute and whistle blowers — you name it, we had it. Some musicians had regular gigs with bands like the Tulla Ceili Band and the Kilfenora; others were hired hands and could flit from trad to country to old-time, jazz to soft pop. We were crossover musicians, guns for hire and in spite of my father’s disapproval, I was sneaking out and playing with some outfit most weekends. School took a back seat and I used fall asleep at class on Mondays. Eventually it was too much for my parents and they decided to pack me off to boarding school in Galway, telling me to ‘mind the books and forget about the music for the time being.’ Of course I didn’t, both parents came from musical families and music was in my blood.

A few weeks before I left for boarding school, I was invited to join a ‘pop’ band in Miltown Malbay, a few miles down the coast from Ennistymon. It was Fintan Malone’s band and called The Merchants. Another Miltown guy — Alsie Clancy was the singer, Malone played lead guitar and Willie Healy, a friend from Ennistymon played drums. We had no bass, but it didn’t occur to us that was odd, as we rehearsed Kinks, Beatles and Rolling Stones songs in Malone’s Markethouse. We were rebels, playing rock and roll in the sacred shrine of Irish traditional music. In shop doorways around the street, local teenagers listened to us rehearse, and when we had a few dozen numbers together, we did our first gig.

That was on a Sunday afternoon and called a ‘hop’, something less serious than a night gig, which might have freaked parents and Fr. Kelly. The gig went well, even though we fluffed a few numbers. I made a shambles of a Kink’s song ‘Tired of Waiting’ and Malone cracked up laughing and the drummer lost time. Alsie took a song in the wrong key and we couldn’t find where he was until the second verse. It must have sounded woeful, but the Miltown crowd was loyal and clapped rather than booed. Afterwards, Mrs. Malone had dinner ready for us, and excited as Oscar winners, we plotted our course to the top of the charts. We also decided to let our hair grow long.

Miltown, 1973

The following summer, we were a tight outfit. Willie Healy got a job in Dublin and our new drummer was my good friend Jimmy Hill. We practiced a few of times a week, Jimmy and myself hitching to Miltown, often staying the night in Malone’s house.

Every Sunday night we did a gig in the Markethouse and it was always crammed. We did a mixture of pop and rock, dressed in mod gear, inspired by Limerick band, Granny’s Intentions. In West Clare we were hotshots, an up and coming young band which priests were wary of. Getting gigs in parochial halls was tough work and a lot of padres turned us away from their doors. But we got other breaks — playing support to top band in ballrooms around the county. For those gigs, we had a roadie-cum-driver called Christy Body, who had a sister called Annie.

People in West Clare still talk about The Merchant’s gigs, and hindsight makes the band appear a lot better than we were. One night, a group of Girl Guides from Limerick who were at camp in Spanish Point came to our gig and screamed every time we played a number from the charts. It was like we were the Beatles, the way they crowded around the stage, beaming and waving at us. The local girls were a bit miffed and there were a couple of cat-fights. When I began ‘I Saw Her Standing There,’ the place went gaga, and I struggled with stage fright until Malone joined in the chorus.

Since I was a toddler, I spent the summers with my grandmother and grandfather — Susan and Tommy O’Sullivan — in Lahinch. Grandma played fiddle and concertina and tried her best to get me interested in traditional music. She played tunes every night of her life and my grandfather tapped a box of matches for percussion. She used finish the session with a reel called ‘My Love is in America,’ but granda didn’t tap for that one. Many years later she told me she had fallen in love in America in 1922, when she was on the run from the Black and Tans at home. Grandma never forgot the cop from Cork who arrested her for picking flowers in Central Park, on her first Sunday in New York. He let her go and asked her for a date. She fell in love, came home to do her duty in the Civil War and never went back to New York. I’d say she went to bed thinking of him every night,  after playing that tune. She called my guitar ‘the yaw-yaw’, inspired by the Beatles ‘She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah.’ She rooted out an old mandolin she brought back from America and encouraged me to learn it, but my head was with the Beatles, Dylan and the Stones.

And then I was struck on the Road to Damascus…or rather the road to Miltown. It was in the month of August, when Miltown hosted the ‘Darling Girl from Clare Festival.’ Every night there were big crowds in town and we were gigging heavy, we had groupies and girlfriends and were waiting for our big break. I hitched from Lahinch with my guitar and got a ride to Spanish Point crossroads, about a mile from Miltown. It was late afternoon, warm lazy weather that brings out the best of West Clare. I walked towards town, in the distance I could hear music playing from the speakers mounted on telegraph poles, ceili bands, flutes, pipes, fiddles. This used be the fashion, to ‘warm the town’ and invoke a festive feeling. Paddy Flynn was the local DJ and PA expert. I wasn’t paying much heed to the music, probably thinking of the girl I would meet after the gig, a good-looking chick called Bríd, who wrote love poems and gave me one every night we met. The old railway station was on the outskirts of the town and here was the first telephone pole which had a speaker. As I was approaching it, Paddy Flynn put on a record that I hadn’t heard before. It began with harmonica, guitar, mandolin and maybe another instrument. Then a guy began singing and the first words brought me to a standstill.

‘Sullivan’s John to the road you’ve gone,
Far away from your native home…’

Sweeny's Men — Johnny, Andy and Terry

The hair stood on the back of my neck. I leaned against a stonewall and listened, not with my ears as much as with my heart. Something came over me and I’ll never forget those few minutes. I remember thinking, ‘who is that?’ Then Paddy Flynn played a tune I knew — The Exiles Jig— by the same group. I’d never heard traditional Irish music played like that, with counter melody and harmonies weaving around the tune. It was Sweeny’s Men — Johnny Moynihan, Andy Irvine and Terry Woods — musicians who I would become friends with a few years later. Traditional Irish music suddenly became relevant to me, after listening to it for well over a decade.

I don’t recall how our gig went that night, or if I got a love poem from the girlfriend. The following day I took out the mandolin grandma had brought back from New York and asked her to teach me The Exiles Jig. I remember her blessing herself and saying,

“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, what has come over you?”

She got the fiddle and we sat in the kitchen while bread baked in the oven. She showed me how to tune the mandolin and then played The Exile’s Jig until I got it. Then she taught me Banish Misfortune, Patcheen Flanagan’s Jig and Hardiman the Fiddler. Local tunes which rose easily from my  genetic memory. Later I went up to the attic and practiced on my own.

That night when she took down the fiddle, we played my new tunes and granda tapped the box of matches. I vamped along and picked a note here and there when she played her own selection. As she drew the notes at the beginning of ‘My Love is in America’, granda put the box of matches in his pocket. And for the first time, I felt the wistful longing and loneliness she channeled into that tune. I had finally arrived at the Well.

Tom Barrett, Susan O'Sullivan and Kevin Houlihan


All Clare images courtesy of Clare County Library


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Biddy Early’s Magical Blue Bottle found on eBay

Regular readers of this blog will recall that Patrick Saint twittered the universe a few weeks ago, asking where was Biddy Early’s magical Blue Bottle. Glass_Bottles_BlueSadly, he received no response and we were beginning to think that all was lost as time went by. Our mind was on other things — hay, visitors, gigs, slugs in the garden. Then, out of the blue, as is the way with cosmic events, we received an email from America that perked us up. A fan of the blog relayed vital information to us: Biddy’s bottle was in the US! This fan — we’ll call her Ms. M — sent us the url of an eBay page which has the following heading:

IMPORTANT! PLEASE READ! *ONE OF A KIND GODDESS SPELL$$$ BIDDY’S BLUE BOTTLE! FAST WORKING GREY MAGICK!! HAUNTED

Naturally we were intrigued and read that the eBay vendor was selling a magic ring for $500 which was described as:

~~~COVEN CAST USING BIDDY EARLY’S BLUE BOTTLE~~~
VERY OLD AND MAGICKAL BEYOND WORDS!
***THE ONLY ONE OF ITS KIND IN EXISTENCE***

Glistening Garnets and Citrines. Sterling Silver, size 8.

Fascinating! So we read further and learned:

The use of the Blue Bottle and Biddy Early’s participation in the procedure is thought to be a main ingredient in the spells! INCREDIBLE and obvious potency and is most likely the reason for the manifestations of Goddess’ Energy in visible form. If the winner of this auction is psychically sensitive, they too may experience such visual manifestations.

Wow! Then we discovered that Biddy’s one and only last descendant, a Ms. Irél Flannery has recently passed to ‘the otherside’. Apparently Irél was a great Irish Druidess, something we were not remotely aware of. Irél had the Blue Bottle and used it to cast numerous documented miracles, including the magic ring for sale on eBay. Then she died, and Biddy’s Blue Bottle came into the vendor’s possession.

Remains of Biddy Early's home, Feakle, Co. Clare

Remains of Biddy Early's home, Feakle, Co. Clare

We were flabbergasted. After all these years, after all the stories we’d heard as young lads, and all the theories about Biddy’s Bottle, all the chatter from folklorists, eccentrics and self-promoters, we’d located someone in California who has possession of the magical vessel: a lady named Anna Kikiandpops. She even had an extract from Meda Ryan’s Biddy Early book on her eBay page to show she was tuned in to the real deal. Another wow!

For Clare people, this knowledge is like learning the Fatima Secrets…Biddy’s Blue Bottle could unjinx many hexes. Just being aware of its existence alone would be a tremendous boost to the county’s hurlers…And of course any politician who had access to it could fix everything. Can’t you picture Taoiseach Brian Cowen and a few Clare stalwarts huddled around it in some dark back room…spells being cast, brandy lashed back? The recession would be over in a flash and we’d all be in clover. Again we’d have white vans zipping around on the wrong side of the road while drivers talked on cell phones. Auctioneers back on the hair gel and driving like Eddie Jordan, while builders would tear up our remaining green fields, making huge messes…speeding construction trucks driven by men with shaved heads and tattooed arms would haunt us…

We had nightmarish flashbacks of the Boom and decided no, Brian Cowen could not be privy to this info. We knew it had to be handled with the utmost care and so we passed it on the Patrick Saint via Twitter. Our allegience was to Gertie Gorm. In her capable hands, Biddy’s Blue Bottle could change the world for the better, or at the very least, Clare hurlers would win an All Ireland.

Biddy Early Country

Biddy Early Country

Patrick was upset when he called us. He was with Gertie at her cottage in Scroppal, East Clare and she was moaning in the background. He’d sent Ms. Kikiandpops an email on his yPhone asking if she had Biddy’s bottle. He got an instant responce:

Hello Paddy. Yes, we do have the Bottle. Eventually it will seek out a new owner, but not right now. If the Bottle is up for sale, it will be under very close scrutiny, and may not be public–I’m not sure how it will work, but it will be quite an event. Many Blessings Have a wonderful day. Anna Kikiandpops

“I’m afraid that Gertie is loosing it,” Patrick told us, “how are we going to get Anna Kikiandpops to sell us the bottle? And if she does decide to sell, how are we going to raise the money?”

We said that raising the money would be no hassle. A few concerts would bring in a good boodle of dosh…we could ask the Kilfenora and the Tulla Ceili bands to do a benefit in Cusack Park. Plus we’d have a few surprise guests…pull in a few favours…The Pogues would be ideal if they were around. Also, we might get Shannon Development involved, although that might be stretching it…the Clare Champion might sponsor the deal…And not to be outdone, the Clare People would come up with some scheme for us…like a treasure hunt or spot the ball. Maybe some Banner entrepreneur could set up a tour of the bottle around the county like the bishops did with St Theresa’s relics…Clare FM would want to be involved. Clare Heritage might be wary of us after the leprechaun story… An Arts Council grant could be applied for…like, they’ve funded a lot more cockeyed ideas. Really, the money was no problem.

“The main thing is,” we consoled, “Biddy’s Bottle has been located. It’s in Los Angeles. And surely Ms. Kikiandpops will sell if the price is right.”
We could hear Gertie sobbing ‘I want my bottle…I want my bottle.’ It was heart wrenching. So near and yet so far. But we were out of steam…we’d been to the Clancy Week in Miltown Malbay and before that, we’d had all the leprechaun stuff to deal with. We suggested Patrick sit tight.
“Maybe your reader’s could help,” he said desperately, “maybe Ms. Kikiandpops would be more inclined to deal with a third party…”
“Maybe,” we sighed, “we’ll mention it in the blog.”

We’re not sure if a great mystery has been solved or another one created. But woe to poor Kikiandpops if it’s a hoax, because Biddy would not like that sort of carry on done in her name. We note the following at the bottom of her web page:

Legal Stuff: Per the regulations: Paranormal objects are for entertainment purposes only. We cannot take responsibility for activity that may or may not occur in association with this item. Paranormal items are not dangerous but please handle with care and respect.

At last, here’s the link to Biddy Early’s long lost Blue Bottle: http://is.gd/1wiFU
(scroll half way down the page and mind your eyes…Ms. Kikiandpops has a spacey web designer ) And of course, Let the Bidder be aware.



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photos: Mary Gaynor


Irish Traditional Music: thoughts after a night in East Clare

A view of Ennistymon from the Falls

A view of Ennistymon from the Falls

For those of us who grew up immersed in Clare music, we were always aware of a friendly rivalry between our two great ceili bands, The Tulla and The Kilfenora. Each had won several All Ireland Ceili Band Championships, and had huge followings, both in the county and far beyond. Every year they battled it out at the famous fleadhs of the Fifties and Sixties, packed halls and were often on the radio. We were proud of them. The Tulla were based in East Clare and the Kilfenora in North Clare, but in our county, a few miles made the world of difference in musical styles, tunes and rhythm.

The Tulla Ceili Band, 1952

The Tulla Ceili Band, 1952: Ennistymon's Martin Garrihy on drums + George Byrt on piano

Both bands had musicians from my home town of Ennstymon, and a few musicians changed bands over the years. Though we were geographically closer to Kilfenora — and were part of their ancient diocese — we also had a proud East Clare connection. Our native poet Brian Merriman, who wrote the famed Midnight Court, had moved to Feakle some 200 years earlier. Art stands the test of time in Clare, and so Feakle and Ennistymon were bonded forever by him. Merriman was also a fiddler, so we played that card as well.

Brian Merriman — poet + fiddler

Brian Merriman, poet + fiddler of Ennistymon & Feakle

Almost like political alliances, there were Tulla supporters and Kilfenora supporters in the town, there were closet supporters and suspect supporters. There were torn loyalties, blood loyalties and each year the town awaited the outcome of the All Ireland Fleadh Ceili Championship like the winning score of a hurling final. This was back in the days before television, computers and texting, and our contact with the outside world was a public phone in the Square, a green kiosk with a rickety concrete slab floor and broken windows.

our only contact with the outside world

our line to the outside world

I remember the Sunday evening of The All Ireland Fleadh one August when I was a boy. A staunch Kilfenora female supporter stood beside the kiosk smoking a cigarette and fumbling with rosary beads. She was waiting for ‘the call’. I was watching her from the door of our pub and every now and again my mother would appear and look down anxiously at the woman. My mother was smoking too, the tension was sizzling. A few men in pub were discussing drummers — Ennistymon men drummed for both bands.

The ringing phone echoed up the quiet square on that warm evening. The woman rushed into the box and you could hear her shouting “Hello?” above in Dublin. Then we heard her say, “Thanks be to Sweet Jesus and his blessed mother, I was prayin’ all day…”
My own mother announced to the bar,
“The Kilfenora won.”
The following year it was probably the Tulla. We were blessed with great music in Clare.

The Tulla, Ennistymon Hall, 1/1/1962 (Martin Vaughan drums, Francie Donnellon + PJ Hayes fiddles)

The Tulla, Ennistymon Hall, 1/1/1962 (Martin Vaughan drums, Francie Donnellon + PJ Hayes fiddles) courtesy of Clare Co Library

When bands played at the hall in Ennistymon, they drank in our bar and generally took a crate or two with them for the road home after the dance. One night The Leitrim Ceili band from Galway, anchored by accordion player Joe Burke, played in town. They had a great crowd, collected their crate of porter or beer for the road and headed home through the Burren. They were travelling in an old VW bus and somewhere near the Corkscrew Hill, they slowed down so an on coming vehicle could pass. It was the Kilfenora Ceili Band on their way home from a gig so they stopped and everyone got out. The bands had a chat, discussed the night and the crowds they played to, praised and razed dancers. Then another vehicle approached and slowed down. It was the Tulla, bringing home a few of the Ennistymon boys. So they stopped too, got out and there was great jollity. There was a full moon, and the musicians sat on the silver limestone wall, opened multiple bottles and had the crack. A most beautiful summer’s night, moon beaming down on the Burren and away in the distance, the twinkling light of Galway in another province. Then someone said,
“You know, since we all met, we might as well play a tune.”
And so it was. Music was played that would make the stones dance. A gift to the night and the moon, a gift to the land from where the tunes came.

The Tulla, 1982 (Andrew Mac + Martin Hayes on right)

The Tulla, 1982 (including Martin Hayes, Andrew + Mary McNamara and Jim Corry)

Last weekend was Kilfenora’s big do, a celebration of one hundred years on the go. This past weekend, there was a small gathering in Feakle, East Clare in memory of PJ. Hayes, a founder and leader of the Tulla Ceili Band. I rambled over there on Sunday afternoon and can say there’s many more than forty shades of green in East Clare. It was a beautiful sunny evening and nature was alive after rain. I lost count of the shades at fifty…

There was a session in full swing in Peppers Bar, fiddlers Martin Hayes and Mark Donnellon, local box player Seamus Bugler and guitarist Dennis Cahill. East Clare music, lyrical with a swing, the boys were back in town. Tunes in minor keys, tunes by Cooley, Fahey and Canny. It was like finding a well spring for the soul.

After the session finished there was the chat and the catch up. Accordion player Andrew MacNamara arrived, just back from a tour of Australia with guitarist Brendan Herrity. Stories are related, experiences parlayed. We discussed boomerangs and the size of kangeroos…Jim Corry, the Tulla piano man enters the company, he’s back from a week in Spain with the Swallow’s Tail Ceili Band. He apologised for his tan: in these stricken times, not many can afford a tan. Jim is excused and has a pint of beer before getting ready for a gig with the Tulla Ceili Band in the tent behind the pub.

The Tulla in Ennistymon, 2006

The Tulla in Ennistymon, 2006

A photographer comes to the table as Martin Hayes, Mark Donnellon and myself are finishing dinner + discussing the state of the nation. He’s from a local publication and needs a photo of the lads…Instruments are taken out of cases for the shoot and a session begins…a few more musicians join, evening sun shines through the window and there’s a golden glow in Feakle. A well known business man comes in with Rayban shades on his head and tiger trappings around neck…he does a bit of glad handling and back slapping and a wizened man with a pint and a cap mutters, “Will someone tell that shaggin’ idiot that the boom is over…”

Mark and Martin stop playing after an hour or so, take a break before going on stage with the Tulla for the ceili. Andrew Mac takes out his box in the bar, twirls a few notes and like bird call, a flock of musicians join him. His side-kick Brendan Herrity twangs the guitar and the energy amps up. Dance music rocks the bar and a group of locals hit the floor for a half-set. Mac is in his element, driving his box like a man in control of a rocket heading for the moon.

High voltage music from Andrew MacNamara in Feakle, May 2009

High voltage music from Andrew MacNamara in Feakle, May 2009

Sometime later a Cajun box player comes in from Seattle— he’s a fan of Andrew’s and he joins the session. Cajun two-steps, songs in French, we all play along. Music is music, it all comes from the heart and soul. A Japanese violinist joins and amazes everyone with her playing of East Clare reels. Mac smiles broadly when a man known as ‘The Waneling’ tries to sing a song called ‘Johnny on the Mountain’. It’s a magical night in Feakle, a fitting memorial to PJ Hayes, the quiet man who guided us all here with his music.

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