How Mary Bergin changed my life

Looking through the mess I lovingly call the cupboard at the top of the stairs, trying to find something else entirely, I came across this gem of a memory. A flyer for an event I played and taught at back in 1991:

Although I used to be involved with the (now defunct) Lancaster and Morecambe Branch of Comhaltas (I was Branch Secretary in the 1980s), by 1991 I was living in Leicester, studying for a degree in Sociology. I was asked by my former branch to come back to teach a whistle workshop at this event and, drawn by the lure of one of my musical heroes, readily agreed. One reason for my enthusiasm was that, a few years earlier, Mary Bergin had changed my life. That sounds like a grandiose claim but, musically speaking, it is perfectly true. To illustrate how, we must first take a brief detour back in time.

I started to learn the tin whistle when I was 13 years old. In the absence of anyone in Blackpool who could show me what I needed to know (the only other Irish musicians in Blackpool – members of my family – played banjo and fiddle), I painstakingly taught myself to play, trying desperately, through persistence and trial and error, to sound like the traditional flute players and whistle players I admired so much.

record player

An essential item in the kit bag of an isolated teenage whistle player.

I was lucky enough to have a ‘toy’ record player, battery operated no less, that I’d been given for Christmas several years before. The really great feature of this toy was the fact that in addition to the usual 33 and 45 RPM, it could also play at 16 RPM, which meant I could effectively listen to any album track at almost exactly half speed, and almost exactly in the same key (albeit an octave lower).

This was an invaluable tool not only for slowing down fast Irish tunes so I could learn them, but also for teaching myself how to do ornamentation. Through this method, systematically listening and listening and listening again to short phrases of music, I taught myself about cuts, worked out the five-note pattern of rolls, and had conniptions about crans.

My interpretations were far from perfect, however. Somehow, I could never sound exactly how I wanted to sound. I would learn absolutely note-for-note Matt Molloy’s setting of tunes, and copy Mary Bergin’s playing as exactly as I possibly could. But it still sounded off, somehow. And try as I might, despite listening and listening and listening some more, I just could not work out what I was doing wrong.

It was Mary Bergin who set me on the right path. I think it was about 1988, when Mary came over to teach a master class on tin whistle in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. Utter Mary Bergin fangirl as I was, this was not an opportunity I had any intention of missing. It was to be the first (and only) tuition I ever had on the tin whistle, and it completely transformed the way I play.

It was from Mary that I learned the error of my ways, and why I did not, despite years of persistence, sound like a proper Irish player. The problem was a straightforward one: my ornaments were all wrong. Whilst I was on the right track rhythm and pattern-wise, the actual fingering of cuts and rolls was not something I could really have ever picked up for myself without being shown how to do it, as it defied my logical assumptions.

I learned from Mary that, for cuts and rolls, only the B or G fingers are used for the highest note of the ornament, not the note immediately above in every case, as I had incorrectly assumed (unless, of course, B or G is the note above). For an A cut, for example, you lift the B finger, not the A finger, as I had been doing all along; a kind of closed-fingering technique, reminiscent of the uilleann pipes. In all my ornaments, I had been omitting that not-quite-a-real-note yelp, which gives the music a wildness and an edge that I had been entirely lacking.

That was my eureka moment. I came away from that workshop determined to completely scrap everything I thought I knew about ornamentation and start again. After a couple of months of hard graft I finally unlearned all my bad habits, and developed a more authentic style. I started to go regularly to South Sligo not long after that, playing in sessions with local flute players such as Harry McGowan and Joe Stenson. Listening to them, and building on what I had learned from Mary, I finally knocked my flute playing into shape as well.

Mary Bergin is an amazing musician, an extremely nice lady and a really good teacher. Here she is in action, playing (at the start of this set) one of the tunes I learned from her at that workshop so many years ago, The Boys of the Lough:

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One thought on “How Mary Bergin changed my life

  1. I had the great good fortune to live in Galway from 1987 to 1989. As a U.S. citizen, my experience of Irish traditional music until that time music was the Clancy Brother’s album The First Hurrah. I was looking for a way to meet some Irish folks on their home ground and saw an ad for tin whistle lessons given by someone named Mary Bergin in the Galway Observer and went to sign up. I thought I’d be taking lessons from a nice Irish granny, but why not, I thought. I showed up to sign up for lessons and met Mary for the first time. There was another guy there, sort of hanging around, and he kept asking her to play a tune. She finally gave in and I was astonished at what I heard. I floated home and told my wife, “I just heard a woman play the tin whistle and make it sound like a flock of birds singing.” I took lessons for two years and became of fan and friend of Mary and her the members of Dordan. I pestered them to make a Christmas album, and whether it was my pestering or their intent or both, they made the Christmas Capers, which is one of the finest holiday recordings anywhere, ever. I plan to start pestering her to record a third solo album, but I know she’s very busy right now. I’ve stayed friends with Mary over the years. You are right, she is a lovely, generous person, an inspiring teacher and through her I was introduced to the world of Irish traditional music. I think I might have been among the first people to buy Volumes 1 and 2 of her truly superb Whistle Tutor. I was shocked to see that she mentioned me in the acknowledgements, not because I was such a great student — dedicated yes, talented no — but perhaps because of my gentle pestering over the years. I really can’t say enough wonderful things about her. She enriched my two years in Galway beyond imagining and remains one of my favorite musicians in any idiom. That we’ve become friends over the years has brought great joy to my life. I don’t play the whistle as much as I did, but as Micho Russel once said of a tune, “Tis not often I play it, but tis often I think of it.”

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