by Bill Margeson
Be forewarned. At the end of this, nothing may be clearer. Hopefully, we’ll both be better informed, but this is murky stuff.
It all began years ago. Fado, fado. While having lunch with legendary Sligo fiddler, Manus McGuire, the topic of regionalization in Irish traditional music reared its head. Manus resides in East Clare. He agreed with music partner, Paul Brock (sitting across the table—the incomparable Brock-McGuire Band was in town), that the days of regional styles within the music are rapidly fading. More on why this is happening in just a bit. The point is that it used to be very obvious when you were listening to a Clare fiddler, and one from Wicklow. Roscommon flute players did not play like Dublin flute players, and Sligo fiddlers didn’t play like anybody. Back in the day, anyone could hear the difference and enjoy it. Tougher, now. Why this is, and what is the current state of regionalization, climbed on top of the memory wagon from that lunch with Manus years ago and led to this article. This is deep and tricky. So, we decided to go to three of the most knowledgeable people regarding these styles. Manus McGuire is already in the story, and is regarded by many as the best Irish fiddler in the world. Brendan Hendry is a magnificent fiddler from Derry, and is recently out with his second album, Stringtones. Hendry is widely respected as one of the great exponents of the “northern style.” Alan O’Leary lives in London and is Dublin-born. In addition to running the iconic Copperplate Distribution, featuring the best in traditional artists, it can be argued that traditional flute player, Alan, and Harry Bradshaw, formerly of the RTE are the two most knowledgeable men living when it comes to the real music. It is unnecessary, but let us quickly add here, that of course, we are talking about real Irish music played by real, traditional musicians. Talk to Brendan Hendry. Brendan agrees that the differences in style are disappearing. Why? In the old days of traditional music—whenever that was—it was quite conceivable that a terrific musician may never have gone further than 20 or 30 miles from his or her home in the course of a lifetime. Slowly over time, this resulted in natural styles gathering around areas. (Here, we step off the curb into heavy traffic. It is critical to remember that all of this refers to an incredibly subjective experience. Music. What the ear hears. How it hears it. With that in mind, we continue.) The northern traits include a strong bowing technique, use of triplets, a lesser use of finger rolls, and a lively pace. To the general punter, northern music is identifiable as being highly rhythmic and precise with deep emotion coming from the bowing technique. Brendan states, “From the northern perspective, I would include the nine counties with the distinct individual style to the west, including the northwest Donegal style. These styles have a very strong and rhythmically aggressive style, as opposed to the rest of the region which has a softer bowing style.” Names of great fiddlers like Jimmy Comac, Sean McGuire and Jim McKillop, come up frequently while talking with Brendan. This is where the waters start to part. Alan O’Leary agrees with Brendan and Manus McGuire’s feelings about the music, but adds a further dimension beyond simple geography. “I’ve never thought so much of geography, as of families. Within all these geographic areas, and the entire Island, you have these famous musical families. I don’t want to start naming them, because you inevitably leave out some of the greats. The point is that these styles are more reflective of family than a region. I don’t discount the geography, at all. But these family members went and taught others around their area. For me, the alpha and omega is the family in Irish music.”
Manus McGuire seconds that. Brendan Hendry would speak of “controlled aggression” meaning a direct aggressively open style in attacking the melody. Little ornamentation. Clear transitions note to note. That sort of thing. Manus, on the other hand, tells you that the secret to the southern style is the interpretation of ornamentation. The strong bowing technique is the hallmark in the south. “There is more of a bounce to the southern style, more of the lengthening of a transitional note. [Instead of bounce, your correspondent likes the term, “swing,” but Brendan Hendry disagrees—and who am I to disagree with him?] The northern style shows great lift and direct rhythm, while the southern style bounces a bit more.”
Again, Alan O’Leary checks in with another interpretation. “A lot of the music is losing its regionalization and its identifiable character because of fleadhs, or musical competitions. Over the years, and I don’t think anybody would disagree with this, certain styles have become more favored by the adjudicators. This has resulted in every medal hunter naturally gravitating towards that style.”
Let’s take a breath. Where are we? Well, we seem to have a general agreement among these three experts that regionalization is lessening and that the northern style is more direct, aggressive, and rhythmically precise to the exact measure. The southern style is all about ornamentation, bounce, and bowing technique. Brendan and Manus are going to disagree with even that statement. That is the fun of the music. There can be an endless dissection of it. Experts such as Brendan even attribute styles to the way that people speak in different regions. “These styles can all be influenced by the way people speak. Some people have a voice that is soft and rounded and others are very direct. The speed at which they talk and their inflection, does their voice go up and down, or is it direct and fairly monotone? It all matters in the music.”
It is right about here that I stopped, leaned back in the office chair, and dreamed of a shot of Jameson’s. Bravely onward. NOW where are we? Wait. There’s more. The punch line to this whole complicated story is that when talking to great musicians like these three, they will tell you at the end of it all—brace yourself—that regionalization is actually not disappearing! This is counterintuitive. Vastly improved transportation in Ireland and America, mass communications, fleadhs, computers, records tapes, CDs. All of these and more have combined over the decades and centuries to provide a more unified approach. Seems natural, unavoidable.
But, wrong. Why? Because, the really great ones, like Hendry, McGuire, and O’Leary will tell you without hesitation that they can instantly still hear the differences in players and tell you where they are from. The first reaction at this point in the article should be to say, “Well, then, why have you written this in the first place?” Here’s the reason. All of the regional flavor is, in fact, lessening. But, it has not disappeared. All three of our panel of experts agree that the day is coming when these differences may be virtually non-existent. But not, thank God, for a while. “There is a nine year old girl residing in New Jersey who I heard play recently, Haley Richardson. She is a prodigy. She is already a brilliant fiddle player, and a student of Brian Conway in New York. Maybe this makes Alan O’Leary’s point. Brian Conway is a wonderful fiddler, greatly influenced by Andy McGann, whose parents were from Tyrone and Sligo. You can hear it in his Haley’s playing. It has always been like that, and still is.”
On it goes. As you investigate these matters in traditional music, you almost always find that what is assumed to be true is nonsense. “The great sean nós singers all sang without vibrato.” Nonsense. “Regionalization is disappearing and television is killing style.” Nonsense. However, Alan O’Leary may sum it all up best. “Because of mass communications, traditional musicians’ individual styles are in decline. But, there have never been more people playing Irish music.”
This much is true. The future does not hold the same amount of highly idiosyncratic styles that were a part of the past. Yet, the future is still very bright indeed. Just ask Haley Richardson!