Article MT048 - from Musical Traditions No 10, Spring 1992

Junior Crehan of Balymackea Beg

Profile of a West Clare Fiddle Player



Finding places in the middle of the Irish countryside can be confusing!  Direction signs are few and often appear totally misleading; a noted landmark to a person who has rarely moved more than a couple of miles from his or her native parish will usually be an object of no significance to a stranger.  Jim Gleeson's pub in Coore, West Clare, although somewhat easier to find at night than an isolated farm in the starless blackness of the countryside, is a case in point.  After weaving the car round a seemingly endless succession of twisting narrow lanes, the outline of a fairly large building eventually looms out of the night, as do the various conveyances of the customers - ranging from tractors to smart modern saloon cars - parked randomly along the roadside.  Entering the bar at what seems a reasonably civilised time for a Sunday night (say 9 p.m., bearing in mind that by law drinking must end at 10 p.m.) it is a little surprising to find that nothing is happening.  Well, nearly nothing: a few ladies are purchasing groceries from the shop counter at one end of the room; at the other, a few people are seated at tables scattered round a large uncarpeted space.  At the bar, a few men engage in conversation on matters such as the weather, the economy, the price of Guinness, etc ...

Suddenly an elderly man wearing a cap strolls into the room and is greeted with cries of welcome; you notice he is carrying a fiddle, then you realise that there is a little stage in one corner.  Photo by Pat MackenzieAfter acquiring a 'pint of stout' from the bar, the man with the fiddle mounts the stage, followed by several other men of the same generation carrying fiddles, whistles and bodhrans.  After some desultory tuning and adjusting of the 'amplification', they break into a lively selection of reels.  Very soon the dancers are on the floor and Junior Crehan and his colleagues - known affectionately to their family and friends as 'Dad's Army' - have begun another night of music and dancing at Gleeson's.

If quizzed about County Clare, most non-Irish people would look puzzled; a few might venture a guess that it was in Ireland, a few might tentatively suggest that it could be the West of Ireland.  For many people interested in Irish traditional music, however, County Clare holds a particular fascination.

Geographically, Clare is situated about halfway down the west coast of Ireland, stretching from the southern shores of Galway Bay in the north, to the estuary of the mighty River Shannon in the south.  The river takes a turn to the north after Limerick City and forms the eastern border.  The county is an area of topographical contrasts, from the hilly lakelands of the north-east and the limestone uplands of the Burren in the north-west, to the marshy plains of the south.  There are not many distinctive natural features; only the towering Cliffs of Moher feature regularly in the guidebooks.  The land is generally harsh and unprofitable, which is no doubt why it was included with the Province of Connaught in the area to which the Irish were banished by the British Parliament in 1653 following the ravages of Cromwell upon the Irish countryside.  Today most of the population earn a hard-won living from the land, only 26 per cent of which is agriculturally profitable, doubtless a major reason why the population has fallen from around 300,000 in 1841 to under 70,000 today.

It is perhaps because of their relative isolation that the people of County Clare have preserved their traditions longer than most, and that one of the greatest preservers of Irish music and Irish traditions in general should have been born and live in the far west of the county: Junior Crehan of Ballymackea Beg.

Early Days:

Martin 'Junior' Crehan lives in the house in which he was born in 1908, at Ballymackea Beg about four miles south of Miltown Malbay.  His father, Martin senior, was the local schoolmaster and, although not a musician himself, was related to the legendary piper Garret Barry from Inagh.  Junior was raised in an atmosphere of traditional music making, mainly from his mother's side of the family.  Junior and his wife Cissie still work the family farm.

Cissie, who used to play the concertina, is an excellent dancer and has been one of the principals in rescuing a number of nearly forgotten set dances - including the superb Orange and Green - from oblivion.  They have five children who are active musicians though curiously none of them play the fiddle!

The musical ramifications of the Crehan family tree would fill an article in itself.  However, it is worth noting that one of Junior's brothers, Vincent, resident in Dublin for many years, is an excellent exponent of the tin whistle and concertina and has a number of children who are fine musicians on various instruments.  It is one of Vincent's sons, Kieran, who seems to be carrying on the Crehan fiddle tradition, and as well as being an excellent traditional player, is also an expert fiddle maker and restorer.

Junior recalls that in his youth the area around his home abounded in music, and that the most common venue for music and dancing in the summer was the nearby crossroads known locally as 'Markham's Cross' after the family who lived in an adjacent house: On Sunday afternoons in the summertime at about four or five o'clock, the people gathered at the cross:

... the music and dancing started; and while the young people played and danced the old folk sat on the wall enjoying the music, stepdancing and set-dancing; and telling stories of times they had known and things they had done.  The old people were our critics, historians and custom keepers. Junior Crehan, ' Junior Crehan Remembers', Dal gCais, III (1977), p.72.  This magazine is essential reading for anyone interested in the traditions of County Clare and Ireland in general.  Copies can be obtained from: Harry Hughes, Glandine, Miltown Malbay, Co Clare.1
When wintertime came, the big stoneflagged kitchens came into their own and any opportunity would be taken to hold a dance or 'soiree' as they were known locally: festivals, family celebrations (weddings alone had five different days of celebration), bereavements, ' American wakes' (especially sad occasions to mourn the departure of a friend to foreign parts - all too regular an occasion in Clare) and, often, just for the 'crack'.  The Crehan house was a regular venue.

Not surprisingly, in view of the fact that Junior's mother was a noted concertina player, Junior's own first musical sorties were on that instrument.  However, it was always his ambition to play the fiddle:

There was a fiddle here and it was here for years, I don't know where it came from but 'twas inside the room [the little parlour off the main kitchen], it was hanging up all dusty, two strings on it ...  so when I was painting for my mother one day I took it down and gave a few twists on the pegs ...  the old bow was as black as soot ...  I was fingering on one string, so I went down to the second string and I knew it was too low ... and I twisted it again to this note ...  But anyway, later I went to Miltown Malbay and I got a set of strings and a box of rosin and polished up the fiddle - I didn't even know how to put the strings on or even the pegs!  So I came into this room [the parlour] in the quietness and I tried to tune it, and I knew when I did one note it was too low and I'd be bringing it up and down.  I hadn't a clue about tuning but I got it middling anyway after two or three nights!  So all the tunes I had on the concertina I was bringing out slowly ...
There was a wedding at Crosses of Annagh [a noted local music pub in past years, about two miles from Junior's house] and Thady Casey was there, and Thady had played for a good few sets, and he was back to the supper and the lads wished me to play for a set.  I said that I had no fiddle, so the man of the house asked Thady if he would give me the fiddle to play for a set.  "He can play for twenty, if he likes," he says, so I played for the set and Thady came over and he stood at the door listening away: "Who learned you", he says.  Photo courtesy Len Wilson"Why sure, no one, Thady, I'm only making a bit of a noise," I said.  "You weren't too bad at all, come up to the house and I'll straighten you!" Recorded conversation between Junior Crehan and Barry Taylor, Ballymackea, County Clare, 8 July 1976.2

Thady Casey was a well-known figure in the music of the area, and, although an accomplished fiddle player, he is best remembered as a great dancer and the foremost local dance teacher.  Junior took up the invitation and visited Thady's house, where he received valuable instruction on many of the technical aspects of fiddle playing: how to hold the bow, tuning etc.  On the meantime, however, he had fallen under the spell of Thady's cousin, John 'Scully' Casey.

Scully Casey lived just across the road from the Crosses of Annagh and was, by all accounts, a wonderful musician.  The late Willie Clancy commented that his playing had "a flow and melancholy about it ...  full of meaning". Interview with Willie Clancy, printed in Dal gCais, I (1973), p.111.3  Sadly, Scully was never recorded, but it is possible for us to get some idea of how he may have sounded by listening to his sons Bobby Casey, who has been resident in London since the early 1950s, and is a well-known musician in London-Irish circles.  Junior says of John Casey, "He was a great fiddle player ... the best practitioner of the ornamental style that I ever heard ...  This unique style of his came down to his son Bobby whose music is full of grace and beauty." Recorded conversation between Junior Crehan and Barry Taylor, Ballymackea, County Clare, 8 July 1976.4  And if echoes of Scully's music can be heard in the son, then they can surely also be heard in the playing of Junior.

Whenever the conversation in the Annagh area turns to Scully Casey, someone is sure to remark on his 'relaxed' attitude to life.  Junior tells of a time playing by the fireside in the Casey cottage while a fierce storm raged outside.  Thunder shook the tiny building, and the lightning darted around.  Junior became more and more nervous until at last, casting an eye on a somewhat insecure ceiling, he enquired whether Scully was not a bit nervous: "Not at all", replied Scully, impervious to the storm "Sure we're playing God's music anyway!"

Although Junior could be described as a pupil of Scully Casey, there was no attempt at formal teaching by the older man.  Said Junior, "I didn't learn nothing, you know, but he'd play the tune and I'd play with him, and I'd take his style.  There might be an odd note here and there, he'd say 'No,' and he'd tell you the finger to put on ... " Recorded conversation between Junior Crehan and Barry Taylor, Ballymackea, County Clare, 8 July 1976.5

Such was the traditional way of learning.  There was no attempt at intensive coaching; it was assumed that the 'pupil' already possessed the corpus of music and understood its function in the community.  All that was required was to select a suitable and preferred model and a long apprenticeship could begin.

The relationship between Junior and Scully was not altogether one-sided.  Scully was not a man who would bother too much with travel, whereas a constant feature of Junior's life has been his great interest in learning, not just tunes, but the lore which surrounds the music and way of life of country people.  Although opportunities for travel have been severely restricted, no opportunity was ever missed to add to his repertoire of knowledge.  He was able, therefore, to bring tunes to the older man, and Junior commented that Scully was exceedingly quick to pick up a new tune.

One of the great changes in this century has been the improvement in various forms of communication.  Developments in the fields of recording and broadcasting have had profound effects on traditional music.  Many Irish musicians have commented on the effect of the dissemination of the '78' record; in some cases, when faced with the recorded brilliance of a Michael Coleman, James Morrison or Paddy Killoran, country fiddle players simply hung up their instruments and retired.  Others saw both an opportunity to enlarge their repertoires and a challenge to match their skills against the best.  Junior was in this category.  When a friend or relation acquired a new record Junior would take every opportunity to study it and pass on the newly acquired tune to his 'teacher'.

In this respect it is interesting to note that the recording industry has never been generous to Clare musicians.  I am unable to trace any pre-1950 78s featuring Clare musicians, with the exception of the tracks cut for Decca in the 'thirties by Pat Roche's Harp and Shamrock Orchestra.  Roche was a dance teacher from County Clare around whom a ceilidh-type band was organised for presentation at the 1934 Chicago World Fair.  However, none of the other members of the orchestra were from Clare, being mainly from Sligo.  The lack of recorded Clare musicians was perhaps due to patterns of emigration or simply because candidates for recording were usually suggested by personal recommendation and the Sligo boys got in on the act very early!

Opportunities for Junior to practice and develop abounded.  In the 'twenties and early 'thirties the country house dance was going strong:

'Twas at the country house dance we all learned to play to dance ...  There'd be singing grand old songs, there'd be dancing sets too - and the tea'd be on, everyone got a cup of tea!  The songs: any good singer'd get up to sing, you know, and they'd stepdance for a couple of numbers - all the good dancers'd be up on the floor ...  You'd hear the music the next day in a breeze of wind, you'd hear the music, like, from the night before.  The two Caseys used to play together, and we young lads'd be behind the chair, we'd be spotting everything, bow-work and the tunes ... Recorded conversation between Junior Crehan and Barry Taylor, Ballymackea, County Clare, 8 July 1976.6
As Junior became more proficient, demand for his services increased:
I used to be off, hardly going to bed at all ... dances, country house dances, you know, this time of the year [June/July] people might come from America.

There might be a group here now, and a group in Miltown.  There'd be a dance here, and the people from Miltown (would say): "We want you at our house tomorrow night," and you might meet other folks there that night: "Oh, you must come with us the night after!"   It'd be going on that way, and Lord, you'd be falling dead for want of sleep, and you'd swear that, well I'll go to bed tomorrow, whatever happens, and I won't go anywhere.  But - you'd cock your toes in the evening and off again! Recorded conversation between Junior Crehan and Barry Taylor, Ballymackea, County Clare, 8 July 1976.7

Decline in the Countryside:

The situation was soon to alter for the worse as a wave of social change swept the Irish countryside; in this West Clare was to suffer more than most.  In 1932 the Fianna Fáil party of Éamon de Valéra was returned to power.  Growing tension between the Irish Free State and the United Kingdom culminated in the period of 'economic war', one consequence of which was that cattle exports fell by a third.  Attempts to promote industrialisation were inadequate to compensate for the resulting economic difficulties and the West of Ireland, always the poorest region, was particularly hard hit.  Emigration began to soar once more.

The policy of Fianna Fáil was to encourage all things Irish, and in official circles Irish traditional music was elevated to a position second only to the Irish language (itself in steep decline: between 1881 and 1926 the number of Irish speakers in the country had fallen by 41 per cent).  The Irish Folklore Commission was founded in 1935 in an attempt to recover and record the vast repository of folklore before swift change overtook the countryside.  However, these activities were paralleled by a simultaneous campaign of cultural repression, which succeeded in banning 1,200 books and 140 periodicals between 1930 and 1939.  It could not succeed, however, in halting the tide of foreign culture which swept Ireland in the form of films, radio broadcasts and gramophone records, aided by the new mobility provided by the spread of motor transport.

In 1936, the government, spurred on by the combined weight of clergy, judiciary and police, enacted the Public Dance Halls Act.  This required all public dances to be licensed and laid down the conditions under which licences might be issued by the District Justices.  As the late Breandán Breathnach pointed out in his excellent booklet, Dancing in Ireland:

Intentionally or otherwise, country house dancing was not excluded from the scope of the Act ...  That it extended to parties in private houses when dancing took place is unlikely ... [but] the local clergy and gardai acted as if it did and by their harassment they put an end to this kind of dancing in those areas of rural Ireland where it still survived. Breandán Breathnach, Dancing in Ireland, (Miltown Malbay, Co Clare; 1983), p. 45.8
Junior's description of the desolation caused by the economic and social upheavals of the 'thirties is graphic and moving:
So, they barred the country house dance, and the priests was erecting parish halls.  All they wanted was to make money - and they got 3d. into every shilling tax out of the tickets to pay the government for tax.  So the country house dance was knocked out then, and 'twas fox-trots, and big old bands coming down, and our type, we'd be in a foreign country then.  We couldn't put up with it at all, the noise and the microphones, and jazz and so on ... the music nearly died out altogether - Irish music.  Then the emigration started, a lot of the lads I used to play with went off to England and America, and there was no-one but myself - Scully was dead - and I used to go down the road, and I used, honest to God, I used to nearly cry.  Nowhere to go, no-one to meet, no sets in the houses, nothing left but the hall ... Recorded conversation between Junior Crehan and Barry Taylor, Ballymackea, County Clare, 8 July 1976.9
And so, a movement with the laudable aim of preserving and promoting the culture of the people of rural Ireland had, by a combination of mismanagement, narrow minded bigotry and, most importantly, a total lack of perception of the results of its economic policies on the rural population, virtually succeeded in destroying the traditional culture of Ireland.  The folly of such policies can be seen in the banning in 1942 of Eric Cross's wonderful evocation of the people of the West of Ireland, The Tailor and Ansty; senators protested in the Dáil against quotations being read from the book and ordered that they should be struck from proceedings, 'to avoid the minutes being purchased by purveyors of pornography'.

Seamus MacMathuna, the respected musician from Cooraclare in south-west Clare and a long-term collector and researcher for Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, summed up the state of traditional music in Ireland when he said:

In the 'forties ... lovers of Irish music must surely have felt that the fates had decreed that their music be banished off the face of the earth.  The country was poor, and her lifeblood streaming steadily away on the emigration ship.  The house-dance and ball-night had all fallen victims of the ruthless machinations of church and state.  The pubs you would be even allowed - let alone encouraged - to play a reel or jig on a fiddle or flute were rare indeed. Seamus Mac Mathuna, 'Fortunes of Irish Music', Treoir [magazine of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann], VIII, 2 (1976), pp.8-11.10
But the spirit of men such as Junior Crehan is not easily quenched, and, as The Tailor and Ansty was to survive to be republished in 1964, so did the music maintain a tenuous hold in the Irish countryside. Eric Cross, The Tailor and Ansty (Cork; 1970).11

The Revival:

According to Maurice Gorham, " ... it may truly be said that Radio Éireann, in cooperation with Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, fathered the great revival of Irish traditional music in recent years." Quoted in Breandán Breathnach, Folkmusic and Dances of Ireland, (Dublin; 1971), p.130.12

Such claims appear a little overblown, however, when compared to the experiences of, for example, the Tulla Ceilidh band, who journeyed to Dublin in 1948 for a radio broadcast, were treated with scant respect by the producers, and not called upon to return until 1966!  A member of the Tulla Band was the late Sean Reid of Ennis, one of the founders of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, and an original and innovative thinker on the subject of Irish music.  He had calculated that the total yearly output of traditional music on Radio Éireann at that time was less than nine hours!  Proinsias Ó Conluain, writing of his time sharing a room with Séamus Ennis at Radio Éireann in Dublin, gives a further insight into the thinking of the broadcasting establishment in the 'forties recalling problems faced in preparing a programme on County Leitrim:

All musical material for use in features, documentaries and similar programmes had to be approved by the Music Department, in effect by Dr Arthur Duff, the Assistant Director of Music.  Leitrim, whatever its shortcomings, had never been lacking in traditional musicians and Ennis in his travels there had recorded some of the best fiddlers and box players he had met, but I'm afraid Duff's reaction to them was less than enthusiastic.  "Out of tune, out of tune," he would say "out, out".  Now Arthur Duff was a kindly warm hearted gentleman, and an excellent musician in the classical field in which he had been trained, but his understanding of traditional music was, shall we say, less fully developed, and it was not surprising that an expert like Séamus Ennis should have found some of his judgements rather puzzling. Proinsias Ó Conluain, 'On the Road with Séamus Ennis', Dal gCais, VIII (1986), p.58.13
It is more likely that the success of the revival of interest in Irish music lies in a social phenomenon found in many modernised urban societies: a tendency for young people to seek an alternative culture apart from that which is the daily diet fed to them by the various instruments of mass communication.  In a counter-attack on the cultural repressions of Irish society of the 'twenties, 'thirties and 'forties, various organisations were founded to promote traditional culture from within.  Among these was the Irish Music Society - Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann - founded in 1951 by musicians, for musicians (it was taken over by bureaucrats and nationalists later).  One of the foremost proponents of CCE was Sean Reid, and in its early years, Clare musicians were prominent in its development.  Junior recalls of this period:
In 1951 came a revival of hope.  Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann was established and it set out to promote and preserve Irish music ...  Here in West Clare a new heart came back to the music and our revival began with a visit by Ciaran Mac Mathúna [one of the young spirits behind the revival] to Miltown Malbay in 1953 when he came collecting music for Radio Éireann.  A session was organised in the Central Hotel in Miltown and many musicians came together again after a long separation.  Old tunes, memories and stories were recalled, and Ciarán got together a fair selection of music and stories.  We had made a start and rekindled the spirit among ourselves, but we realised that we would have to do something definite to keep this spirit alive so we formed a branch of CCE in Miltown.

Our next step was to bring the distinctive music of West Clare to a wider audience and we set up the Laichtín Naofa Ceili Band, which involved most of the musicians of the Miltown - Mullagh area.  During its lifespan -1954 to 1962 - this band carried our music to a large audience all over Clare, Galway, Tipperary Limerick, Kerry and Dublin ...  The Laichtín Naofa bridged the gap between past and present by linking the musicians of today with musicians of another era.  In this way it contributed to the preservation of traditional music and carried the influences of great music-masters to a new generation. 'Junior Crehan Remembers,' loc. cit., pp.81-3.  I have written elsewhere of the seminal role of the ceilidh band in helping preserve Irish traditional music (Barry Taylor, 'The Irish Ceilidh Band - A Break With Tradition?', Dal gCais, VII (1984), pp.67-74.)14

The most profound action of CCE was the inauguration in 1953 of the Fleadh Ceols, the great music festivals.  Imagine the feelings of musicians such as Junior Crehan: ignored for years by the populace at large, isolated by emigration; suddenly an opportunity occurs to meet fellow musicians, to play to an appreciative audience, for the music to live once more.

There is not as yet any worthwhile history of Irish music in this century; nor yet even a single magazine (to the best of my knowledge) which deals solely with Irish traditional dance music.  This seems extraordinary in view of the enormous world-wide interest which the music generates and the way it has attracted the attention of massive non-Irish audiences.  Without the perspective which a properly constituted analysis would provide of even fairly recent history, looking backwards can be frighteningly deceptive; the problems faced by the proponents of Irish music in the 'fifties can disappear in the rosy glow cast by the media success of present-day ersatz Irish ensembles.  Thus, in our mind's eye, we see one day the musicians abandoned and alone at the crossroads, and the next acclaimed as saviours of the nation.  Such notions, however, are far from the truth and between the revivalist activities of the early 'fifties and the relative successes of today, the musicians faced many hardships and rebuttals, even very close to home (in the following story recounted to me by Junior, I have omitted the names of the individuals and places):

*** told me he didn't want me in *** and I was the leader of the band there.  But I thought to myself, there was two lads from *** and they were working on the road outside my house and I said I'll resign before I'm dismissed!  So I wrote a bit of a note and showed it to the lad, knowing full well it would get to ***.

'In all my ramblings in County Clare,
And in other countries I have played my share.
'Twas my intention 'till my gay youth may last,
To finish in *** and play my last.

But a stranger came from over the sea,
And *** is not what it used to be.
Instead of improving I think it got worse,
But I'll give my blessing and not my curse!'

The lad we had in showed it to him anyway, and we after fell in to playing at the Crosses of Annagh! Recorded conversation between Junior Crehan and Barry Taylor, Katty's Bar, Mullagh, Co Clare, 26 September 1977.15
In a sense the circle was complete and Junior was back playing where he had first encountered Thady and Scully and in the heart of the country.  Sadly, the Crosses of Annagh, with its deep associations with traditional music, was to fall into the hands of proprietors with no particular regard for its traditions and for a time Junior and his colleagues led an almost nomadic existence around the pubs in that area.  Photo by Barry TaylorFor a while he played in Katty's Bar in Mullagh (owned by PJ Neenan, husband of Junior's eldest daughter, Ita).  However, although an extremely hospitable environment for listening to the music, its size prevented dancing to any real extent.  Eventually, former owners of the Crosses, Jim and Nell Gleeson, were to open a suitable venue for both music and dancing and so the 'Sunday nights at Gleeson's' were to beeline an established part of life in that area, and a Mecca for people who wished to see an example of the 'old days' of Irish music and dancing.

It is, however, a sad fact that lack of opportunity still drives the young people from the countryside and this, combined with the deadening impact of mass culture, has severely curtailed the number of youngsters who wish to keep up the old traditions.  As I said in my introduction, Junior's colleagues in the little band at Gleeson's are all around his age: fiddle player Michael Downes, himself a pupil of Junior's; Paddy Galvin from Quilty, perhaps the last fiddle player alive in that area, once noted for its tradition of fiddle playing; Josie Hayes, long-time partner of Junior on whistle and flute; and Pat Kelly of bodhran fame.  We are fortunate that the revival of interest in Irish music and tradition has led to a number of younger people moving into the area and so the music seems destined to live on for some time, but the prospect of any continuity in the Casey / Crehan / Downes tradition seems remote.

The Quilty Exiles

Each night before I went to sleep, I thought that I could see,
The boys and girls at Quilty Cross and they dancing in full glee.
I thought I heard John Fennell's flute, Paddy Calvin on the fiddle,
As I longed to be in Quilty, where the three-leaved shamrocks grow.

From a song by Junior Crehan Quoted from Muiris Ó Rócháin, 'The Hidden Ireland of West Clare', Dal gCais, I (1973), pp.33-41.16

Junior's Style of Playing:

'Among Irish musicians nothing is so noticeable as the absence of uniformity of style or system'. Francis O'Neill, Irish Folk Music: A Fascinating Hobby (Chicago; 1910; reprint edition, Wakefield; 1973).17 - so wrote Captain Francis O'Neill in 1910, and, after a lifetime of practise and observation, he was in an excellent position to comment.  It is perhaps this great diversity of styles that has made categorisation so difficult and has led to some bizarre attempts at the subject.

The method of categorisation with probably more adherents than any other is that of differentiation by the county of origin of the player.  As a consequence of the lack of scholarship in Irish music, it is difficult to trace the origins of this thesis, although it was popularised by Seán Ó Riada in his Radio Éireann series Our Musical Heritage in 1962. Sean Ó Riada, 'Our Musical Heritage'.  Radio series originally broadcast on Radio Éireann, 7 July - 13 October, 1962. Extracts available in the booklet accompanying the 3-record set of the same title issued by RTÉ. (Dublin; 1982), co-edited by Thomas Kinsella and Tomás Ó Canainn.18  Such a concept is bound to appeal in a country where identification with one's county has such a strong hold and it is now commonplace to hear musicians described as playing in the 'Sligo' or 'Clare' or 'Donegal' style (perhaps not surprisingly the counties selected for illustration by Ó Riada in his broadcasts).  However, one rarely hears of an 'Offaly' or 'Tipperary' or 'Cork' style, and yet there are fine traditional musicians in all those counties.  What seems obvious from the material we have available is that even musicians from closely related backgrounds can show tremendous variations in their styles and techniques.  In David Lyth's excellent and unique analysis of the bowing styles of traditional fiddle players from Sligo he demonstrates beyond question that even those bastions of the supposed 'Sligo School' - Michael Coleman, Paddy Killoran and James Morrison - used profoundly different techniques in their playing. David Lyth, Bowing Styles in Irish Fiddle Playing, Volume 1. (Dublin; 1981).19

We are left with only a meagre remnant of the profusion of traditional players that once existed even in sparsely populated areas such as West Clare.  One of the most respected musicians from that area, the late John Joe Healey, a son-in-law of Thady Casey and a shrewd observer as well as an excellent fiddle and concertina player, once told me that in his native Quilty in the 'twenties and 'thirties there were many excellent fiddle players, including a 'Fiddlers' Row' of six houses inhabited by good musicians, all sadly departed unrecorded.  Photo by Pat MackenzieI feel bound to observe that this fracturing of the tradition of Clare and the rest of Ireland and lack of systematically recorded evidence does not allow one to make substantiated claims suggesting 'schools of styles' along the lines suggested by Ó Riada.  In fact what evidence exists, and the scope of this article does not allow for a full review of the material collected, suggests that a player's style is largely determined by the twin factors of personal choice and physical and intellectual ability (after all, we might aspire to be Colemans a Crehans but our own individual limitations will determine how well such aspirations can be achieved).  Of course, as we have seen in the case of Junior Crehan, the availability of suitable 'preferred models' for emulation will also have an effect.

In discussing Junior Crehan's style I feel bound to state that written descriptions are totally inadequate to give even a token understanding of the impact of his music.  In general, even the medium of recording is inadequate to convey the playing of traditional musicians, whose performance will vary considerably according to circumstances.  For example, Junior's performance of a set of reels to an individual listener in the quiet of his parlour will be very different to that of a Sunday night for the dancers in Gleeson's.  The following comments are therefore intended as a brief description of some aspects of Junior's approach to the music rather than any attempt at a detailed analysis.  Readers who really wish to get the proper flavour of his playing must listen to recordings (at present only available on one commercial disc) or visit the West Coast of Ireland!

It is noticeable that traditional musicians themselves when asked to describe another player's style rarely delve into the technicalities but rather fall back on emotive descriptions.  Thus Willie Clancy's description of Scully Casey's playing, quoted earlier, or Michael Downes on Junior Crehan: "Junior has a very nice sweet style for playing music". Recorded conversation between Michael Downes and Barry Taylor, Doonogan, Co. Clare, 11 July 1976.20  John Kelly, the well respected fiddle player from Kilbaha in the extreme south-west of Clare, commenting on Junior's playing of Scully Casey's Jig, said that it was 'wild and not too fine' John Kelly, fiddle demonstration. Willie Clancy Summer School, Miltown Malbay, Co Clare, July 1976.21 - 'fine' in this case referring to Junior's habit of flattening certain notes, giving that melancholy feeling to a tune noted by Willie Clancy.  P Joe Hayes from Feakle in East Care, himself a much respected fiddle player and for forty years a member and leader of the Tulla Ceilidh Band, echoed those sentiments when he described Junior's playing thus: "You can hear those long kind of notes here and there through the tune, a lonesome kind of drawl note ... " Recorded conversation between P Joe Hayes and Barry Taylor, Maghera Caher, Co Clare, 5 July 1976.22

I think that these comments point out the quality in Junior's playing which always makes him stand out from the crowd: an innate artistry which exceeds the purely functional necessity of providing a steady rhythm for accompanying the dance.  However, it must be emphasised that Junior is a superb player for the dance, shown by the long running success of Gleeson's as a 'dancing house'.  Junior's playing is not a display of dazzling pyrotechnics and pure technical skill, but a simple yet effective reflection of his lifelong immersion in the music and customs of his native area.  Much of his repertoire consists of the standard popular dance tunes played by all Irish traditional players.  Take, for example, the reel The Green Fields of America.  Junior's version is virtually that as noted by O'Neill and features only a few complex ornamentations. Francis O'Neill, The Dance Music of Ireland: 1001 Gems (Chicago; 1907; reprint edition, Dublin; 1965).  Tune no. 513.23  These principally consist of Junior's favourite device, the roll, a method of 'decorating' or 'embellishing' a tune by adding three 'grace' notes, generally between two notes of the same pitch.  This is done so lightly and quickly that it is often quite difficult to determine the exact duration or pitch of the added notes at normal playing speed.  These are added relatively sparingly and are usually isolated one from the other, rather than in long strings (a technique which gives a 'baroque' quality to the music - quite out of character with the Irish tradition, I believe).  The sparing use also ensures the rhythmic identity of the piece, giving a 'solidity' greatly valued by dancers.  In what is essentially a fairly repetitive piece - the first part of the tune consists of a 4-bar strain played twice to give the standard 8-bar reel part, then repeated - Junior avoids monotony by varying the rhythmic structure of the first bar by altering the initial C natural crotchet to a quaver or minim.  This simple device gives quite a different feel to each repetition and, on the minim variation, allows the chance to 'slur' both the C and the following B, which produces the 'long ... lonesome' sound mentioned by P Joe Hayes.  It is this ability to maintain the rhythmic flow and not overburden the melody line with unnecessary embellishments which makes Junior what Michael Downes describes as a 'sweet player'.  It is the ability to impart a simple dance tune with a lyrical, emotive quality, evocative of the best traditional singing techniques.

Junior is also a considerable 'maker' and 'reshaper' of tunes, terms I prefer to 'composer' as they more accurately indicate the practice, which I believe is not one of composition in the 'art music' manner.  Junior may take a complete air and play it in dance rhythm; for example, the air Caoineadh an tSagairt (The Priest's Lament) becomes a hornpipe, An Caislean Oir (The Golden Castle).  At other times it is a phrase or two from an air which forms the basis of his tunes.  In this way Junior is continually working and re-working the tradition; it is why, unlike the efforts of some others, his 'own' tunes always sound like traditional pieces.

This practise places Junior in the bedrock of the tradition: when the quadrille was introduced into Ireland around 1816 the stock of native tunes was not sufficient to match the demand and one of the prime sources for new dance tunes was the existing stock of song airs.  These could be speeded up to the tempo required for the dance and rhythmic alterations made where necessary.  This tradition has continued with Junior Crehan into the late twentieth century.

A good indication of Junior's approach to music can be found in this comment:

One thing I'd advise young people is to play slowly.  I've heard a lot of groups and they're going a hundred miles an hour ... you can't fit in all the little decorations if you're going too fast.  So anyone starting on the fiddle should go nice and slow - even when you've perfected don't go too fast, you'll ruin the whole thing, you'll leave out the nice little passages ... Recorded conversation between Junior Crehan and Barry Taylor, Ballymackea, County Clare, 8 July 1976.24
One difference Junior notes between his own playing and Bobby Casey's is the bow-work.  Junior comments that Bobby uses more bowing, which is undoubtedly the case - by any standards Junior is remarkably 'economical' in his bowing, at times appearing to move the fiddle rather than the bow!  Nevertheless, with relatively little movement Junior manages to achieve an awful lot, the apparent simplicity masking a great technique.  The bow moves very smoothly under great control, the transition between up and down strokes at times hardly discernible.

There are some aspects of the so-called 'Sligo' (for most people this means the playing of Michael Coleman) and 'Clare' (again, for most personified in the playing of Junior Crehan) styles which appear to correspond, particularly the tendency to use rolls as the main method of embellishing tunes.  However, Sligo players also make extensive use of trebling - three notes of, generally, the same pitch played rapidly in sequence.  Junior rarely makes use of this technique, and his playing has a smooth and less vigorous feel.

Junior has undoubtedly been influenced by the playing of two legendary uilleann pipers: his great friend Willie Clancy, from nearby Miltown Malbay, and the travelling piper Johnny Doran.  Harmonic accompaniment is of course an inherent feature of the pipes and in Junior's playing we find an echo of this in his extensive use of 'double-stopping' - playing two strings simultaneously.  This has not been developed to the same extent as in the playing of Patrick Kelly, the great fiddle player from Cree, 10 miles or so to the south of Junior's homeplace, who tuned individual strings to provide a drone accompaniment.  Patrick's playing is remarkably different from Junior's, thus providing some ticklish problems for those who promulgate some type of unified Clare stylistic school.  (Incidentally, it was Patrick Kelly who preserved for posterity the magnificent five-part Foxhunter's Reel, later popularised by the playing of Sean Keane.)  Junior's technique involves an occasional rather than systematic bowing of adjacent strings, often to produce distinctly non-harmonic sounds which accentuate a particular note or passage.

Another area of correspondence with the great pipers is Juniors love of slow-air playing .  "I love to play slow-airs - I'd be as well to play an air as a reel or jig." Recorded conversation between Junior Crehan and Barry Taylor, Ballymackea, County Clare, 8 July 1976.25  This, I think, is a natural consequence of Junior's love of traditional singing, rather than a reflection of any long-standing instrumental tradition.  The fiddle was, par excellence, the instrument for dance music, and in its traditional venue, the country-house dance, the pressure would be on the fiddle player to play dance music.  Rarely would an evening pass without a song or two from singers present, however, and it is this tradition that Junior reflects.  Yet, although he is extremely interested in singing, and is a 'maker' of songs, he does not see himself as a singer in the public sense: 'I used to [sing] you know, when I was out working, to pass the time away ... Recorded conversation between Junior Crehan and Barry Taylor, Ballymackea, County Clare, 8 July 1976.26

All of Junior's airs relate to songs with which he is deeply familiar, and the way in which they are delivered reflects the performance of the traditional singer.  Classically trained violinists, when playing airs, tend to copy the tone and intonation of the classically trained voice.  Junior, on the other hand, with his somewhat raspy, hard tone, has much in common with the traditional singers.  There is little use of vibrato or dynamics; instead, the fiddle sound emulates the slides, trills, and grace-notes of the traditional singers.  The pace does not drag and the tune is never allowed to disintegrate into a series of virtuoso improvisations.

A Passing Note:

No justice can be given in such a short piece to a man with the range of talents possessed by Junior Crehan.  I had always thought of Junior as primarily a musician until, one night in a public house in south London, I was introduced to a man by the name of Michael Kelleher (sadly no longer with us) who hailed from Quilty.  'Mikey', himself a noted dancer, informed me that Junior was considered one of the finest dancers in an area renowned for its traditional dancing.  I later discovered that Junior had learned much of his dancing from one Pat Barron, a legendary dancing-master from West Limerick who spent a considerable time in West Clare (eventually marrying a lady from Mullagh).  I have also given scant regard to Junior's activities as a collector of traditional lore and his ability as a story-teller - the aforementioned Priest's Lament is also one of his finest tales and to hear Junior tell the story is a deeply moving experience.

This article is primarily devoted to placing in context Junior' s role as a fiddle player in the development of the Irish musical tradition, but I make no apology for ending with a few verses from one of Junior's songs, dedicated to the memory of his musical mentor, Scully 'John' Casey:

'Tis often I rambled to Casey's,
And sat myself down on the Job,
And Scully'd be playing on the fiddle,
And the pipe in full steam in his gob.
The smoke of his pipe and the music,
Up the chimney they'd go to the sky,
May God rest your soul, Scully Casey,
'Tis a pity that you had to die.

'Tis often we rambled from Quilty,
Ard na Bhotar and Clohanninchy,
And we'd part at the Crosses of Annagh,
And the clock would be worse than half-three.
The cocks would be crowing in the half-door
And the people just out of their beds,
And some would be cursing and saying,
'Tis time those two devils were dead.

There was a melody and draiocht in your music,
Volume and sweetness galore,
But mo bhron you are gone forever,
And that music we'll hear no more.
Now, if there is music in heaven,
I hope you are playing up there,
Like we played at the Crosses of Annagh,
In our sweet County Clare.

Junior Crehan on record:

Junior Crehan may be heard on the LP Ceol an Clair, Vol. I (Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann CL 17), on which he performs a jig (The Mist Covered Mountain), a hornpipe (An Caislean Oir) and an air (The Kerry Woman's Lament).  The record also features Bobby Casey, John Kelly, Patrick Kelly and Joe Ryan from Inagh.

Junior also appeared on An Irish Dance Party: The Laictin Naofa Ceili Band (Dublin Records LP 1007), issued in the U.S.A. in the early 1960s.

Barry Taylor

Notes:

  1. Junior Crehan, ' Junior Crehan Remembers', Dal gCais, III (1977), p. 72.  This magazine is essential reading for anyone interested in the traditions of County Clare and Ireland in general.  Copies can be obtained from: Harry Hughes, Glandine, Miltown Malbay, Co Clare.
  2. Recorded conversation between Junior Crehan and Barry Taylor, Ballymackea, County Clare, 8 July 1976.
  3. Interview with Willie Clancy, printed in Dal gCais, I (1973), p. 111.
  4. See footnote 2.
  5. See footnote 2.
  6. See footnote 2.
  7. See footnote 2.
  8. Breandán Breathnach, Dancing in Ireland, (Miltown Malbay, Co Clare; 1983), p. 45.
  9. See footnote 2.
  10. Seamus Mac Mathuna, 'Fortunes of Irish Music', Treoir [magazine of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann], VIII, 2 (1976), pp. 8-1 1.
  11. Eric Cross, The Tailor and Ansty (Cork; 1970).
  12. Quoted in Breandán Breathnach, Folkmusic and Dances of Ireland, (Dublin; 1971), p. 130.
  13. Proinsias Ó Conluain, 'On the Road with Séamus Ennis', Dal gCais, VIII (1986), p. 58.
  14. 'Junior Crehan Remembers,' loc. cit., pp. 81-3.  I have written elsewhere of the seminal role of the ceilidh band in helping preserve Irish traditional music (Barry Taylor, 'The Irish Ceilidh Band - A Break With Tradition?', Dal gCais, VII (1984), pp. 67-74.)
  15. Recorded conversation between Junior Crehan and Barry Taylor, Katty's Bar, Mullagh, Co Clare, 26 September 1977.
  16. Quoted from Muiris Ó Rócháin, 'The Hidden Ireland of West Clare', Dal gCais, I (1973), pp. 33-41.
  17. Francis O'Neill, Irish Folk Music: A Fascinating Hobby (Chicago; 1910; reprint edition, Wakefield; 1973).
  18. Sean Ó Riada, 'Our Musical Heritage'.  Radio series originally broadcast on Radio Éireann, 7 July - 13 October, 1962.  Extracts available in the booklet accompanying the 3-record set of the same title issued by RTÉ. (Dublin; 1982), co-edited by Thomas Kinsella and Tomás Ó Canainn.
  19. David Lyth, Bowing Styles in Irish Fiddle Playing, Volume 1. (Dublin; 1981).
  20. Recorded conversation between Michael Downes and Barry Taylor, Doonogan, Co. Clare, 11 July 1976.
  21. John Kelly, fiddle demonstration. Willie Clancy Summer School, Miltown Malbay, Co Clare, July 1976.
  22. Recorded conversation between P Joe Hayes and Barry Taylor, Maghera Caher, Co Clare, 5 July 1976.
  23. Francis O'Neill, The Dance Music of Ireland: 1001 Gems (Chicago; 1907; reprint edition, Dublin; 1965).  Tune no. 513.
  24. See footnote 2.
  25. See footnote 2.
  26. See footnote 2.

Article MT048

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