Memories of the Fleadh

Fleadh programmesI’ve been going through the cupboard at the top of my stairs again, which is full of all manner of treasures from my past. Here, therefore, is another little glimpse into my musical memories.

I went through a phase in my teens and early twenties when I entered loads of competitions. Mostly these were through Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann (CCE), and resulted in me never quite winning an All Ireland Champion title, although I was runner-up in the All Ireland twice and third once. Don’t get too excited, now, it was the Senior Flute Slow Airs competition!

I generally did pretty well in fleadhanna at local level, in both dance tunes and slow airs on whistle and flute, and usually got a fair showing in the All Britain. I no longer have my All Ireland medals, I think my mum still has them displayed on her wall, but here’s a handful of other medals I found in a box. This shows, really, how much of a masochist I was back then, putting myself through all that stress over and over again:


I also found a couple of adjudication sheets, with some fairly complimentary comments by the judges. However, I must admit I didn’t always agree with their comments, especially the one judge who told me she’d awarded me second place because the slow air I played was, quote, “A bit short.” I took quite a bit of umbrage at that, as I’d spent rather a long time painstakingly learning it from the singing of a Sean Nós singer, and thought I’d done a pretty good job! The slow air in question was Donal Óg.

Adjudication sheetsI went on to become very involved in Comhaltas throughout the 1980s and early 90s, and even eventually became an adjudicator myself. It was far less stressful than being on the other side of the table, I must admit, though could be a bit dull at times if there were 30 under-twelves all playing the same Kerry polka! Some of the kids were amazing, however, standing out from the pack like shining beacons of brilliance, and I’m sure those ones will have gone on to be tremendous musicians.

I have absolutely no desire these days to enter competitions. It was a phase in my youth, something I felt compelled to put myself through, possibly because I felt back then that I had something to prove. These days, I’m very laid back about it all, and I’ve always told myself, in the years since, that standing up and performing on stage is a doddle in comparison with setting yourself up for that kind of scrutiny. Remembering how scary it all was is a great cure for stage fright!

In the end, the music is what matters, and winning or not winning competitions is irrelevant in the great scheme of things. I like to think that, even back then, I still had some sort of perspective, despite my apparent urge to make life difficult for myself. Fleadhanna, for me, were always more about the sessions than the competitions, so I’ll end with a photo of the first All Ireland Fleadh in Listowel I attended, back in the early eighties, getting on with the real business of the day: playing in yet another all-night session.


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: