Federation South logo

irish Traditional Folk Music Folk Dance Federation of California, South, Inc.

Sounding
the Hearthstone

By Danny M. Hathaway


Through the beauty of the tunes offered, I could still hear the rain outside and despite the gallon of tea I'd downed could still taste the peat on the moist air. The two men sharing music with me were past 60 yet somehow my walking into this valley had transported us back into the past and we were young friends gathering for the 'crack' [the fun of it] in this small cottage, expecting that at any moment the others would arrive for the ceili. I was lost in the variety of tunes played and the stories woven between each air. Emotions intertwined with melody. Variation and ornamentation sparingly, subtly, and playfully surprised and danced with the tune, never threatening to dominate or lose the beauty of the air so lovingly defined.

Margaret came in with more tea and left me a plate of store-bought bread, of the sponge variety, while Peter and Mick were both given a couple slices each of homebaked soda bread, butter melting into its warm un-eveness. I was too bold and foolish to let that pass, "Margaret, do you have any more of that homebaked bread you can spare!" She looked a bit surprised and I wondered whether having shared a few dances and a couple of songs with her allowed I could be so bold. She replied quietly, "Whenever my sister and her family come to visit they'll take nothing else but the packaged bread. They won't touch my own bread." She smiled, "I have more."

"That was a massurk my father used to play," Peter mused to himself as he came out of the trance of another tune. "There are a couple of others I might mind but it's hard bringing them back. They seem to come to the fiddle, to be more easily drawn out with the bow when there are others here for the same – " his voice faded as he paused to draw a long note out of the lowest string, like a drone of the pipes, then looking up from the fiddle with a mischievous grin continued, "when there's a house full of dancers and merrymaking." He then dropped his head back down to the fiddle and his eyes closed as he lost himself again in searching for another tune with his bow.

"That's true," added Margaret. "Peter puts more life into his music when there's dancers before him. The music and the dance combine into a very great thing." Her feet were moving under her seat as her eyes closed for a moment and then she added through the magic of another massurk Peter had found, "People have forgotten how to dance to these tunes."

Mick, who had been quiet up to this point, piped in with a voice like a chanter with a cracked reed, "The young doing the tradition these times have patience only for the fast tunes, lots of reels without the sense to play or hear anything else."

"Tis sad," said Peter coming to the close of another tune, "There's no humor in it for them. It isn't there in their playing."

"They're caught up in the show of it," Mick added with a frown, "I'm sure it makes one deaf and daft."

"Mick, would you play us that lament of yours again," Margaret requested, "the one you made for your father."

There was silence as the emotion Mick put into finding the tune and playing it carried each of us away with the air as it took form. It was as rough as limestone and sand, a piece that was played very little. The instrument giving it body was in a sorry state with a couple of cracks in the face and enough rosin on the frayed bow that Peter used it to rosin his own, but the sensitivity Mick expressed through his playing held us and made us unconcerned with any critical approach an over-refined ear might focus on the event.

Flings (so often lost amongst the mass of simple reels), airs, mazurkas, varsouviennes, polkas, barndances, schottishes, hornpipes, waltzes, laments, marches, various forms of jigs and reels: a great variety took us until dawn sharing music, a few songs, a couple of dances and steps, stories and feelings with never a judgement passed other than "That's a grand tune," "Good man," "Give us another" . . .

What took me most in the heart was the oft-repeated phrase in one form or another of "I haven't played this one in some time." In past times, it was nothing to walk as much as twenty miles or more for a ceili or house dance, which would usually last until first light, ending in time for whatever chores the morning held. There'd be a bit of music, some dance, a sup of tea and homebaked scone, a story, a song, the companionship. All of it could fill an encyclopedia, several novels, and a dozen books of poetry, folklore, and humor.

In the present time their instruments are rarely taken up. Peter and Mick found it particularly difficult to play without the dancers and the event, without others to share it with. There was me, who walked the many miles to be with them, and there was Margaret, who often pulled me up for a dance with the two of us making enough noise to fill the house. Neither money nor recognition could raise a tune out of their fiddles. They were too shy and sensitive, too personally involved with their music to be bought. Only friendship and patience would bring the fiddles out of their cases and inspire bows to find a melody.


While in Ireland, it was easy to find people involved in the music and tradition for the sheer pleasure of the event. This was especially true of the older people in the countryside. We shared both laughter and tears in awakening the past and sounding the stone floors.


During one of my excursions on foot through County Tyrone, I had the great fortune to meed Paddy Joe, a fiddler and most generous host who kept me for a week with friendship and a wealth of tunes and dances both he and his wife had offered. Besides introducing me to others in the area who had the gifts of tradition, he also arranged for a house dance. The gathering was held at a relative's farmhouse lost in the rolling hills of Tyrone. It was a warm event with bottomless cups of tea, good company, and the fullness of Irish traditions of hospitality, friendship, music, and dance and all that attends them. It was rich with the poetry of good conversation, the kind of gift that could make weather a constant and new entertainment.

It was at this house dance that I first heard the song "The Good Ol' Days" to which this verse belongs:

There were none of these dance bands you see on the stage.
Men roarin' and shoutin', a rattlin' rage.
But the sound of the fiddle you would hear every night
As they danced sets and Lancers from dark til daylight.

Later on that night, I realized the overall age of the people there. That realization came at a point in the evening when my hand was taken in hands that looked a thousand years old, as the woman who owned them tried to focus on me through watery eyes, squeezing my hand with enough strength and desperation of a child and gathering what air she could whisper, "There hasn't been a house dance around here in forty years."


Whenever I am approached with the old wive's tale concerning the necessary illiteracy of the "traditional' musician, my patience thins recognizing that oft-aired excuse for ignorance. In all my travels in Ireland, through every county in search of music and dance, the only illiterate musicians I ran into were young inexperienced foreigners. Every Irish musician I met found in "Irish Traditional Fiddle Misic" to pub short-hand (the letters A to G grouped to identify time signature, with various marks to identify octave and duration), to solfeggio (do-re-me, etc.) and many personal variants.

In most cases, the informants I collected from freely admitted learning some body of their repertoire from some kind of notation or printed source from O'Neill's and Roche's works to a quickly scribbled note on the back of a napkin or beer coaster. Denis Murpy learned at least two tunes from a form of notation used by Padraig O'Keeffe that was not something Denis could put in his pocket and walk away with. Denis had the chore of cutting turf [peat] for the home fires. As luck or devious plan would have it, Padraig happened by on his bike. After some conversation, the topic moved round to a tune Padraig had that Denis was wanting to learn. The slade [a specialist implement for cutting turf] became the pen and the dark wall of turf became the paper and Padraig proceded to cut the melody out the length of the bank of turf. Denis, with fiddle and bow in hand and sounding, paced back and forth memorizing the air before it was either too dark to read or his own consciousness pricked him back to the chore of cutting the turf for the hearth. That particular turf was going to warm the dancers two-fold.

It was also common for the radio, a 78 rpm, or other recording to be used as a source for new tunes in this century, though in most cases the largest body of tunes had been handed down by other musicians, relatives, and passers-through. Having a firm basis in a style makes it easy then to make use of any other source in learning the skeleton of a tune and then leaving that source behind and making the newly acquired tune one's own, translated into a style particular to the area and the musician. Nowadays, it is harder to maintain the beauty of regional differences in style and repertoire because of the influence of mass communication, and also because of organizations that put too much emphasis on standardization in the music, in promoting 'star-status' players through competitions, and a 'top ten' attitude toward seisiún [session] tunes.

It is true that developing the ear for the music is much more important than any ability with its printed forms. The tunes, as notated in "Irish Traditional Fiddle Music," are only skeletal; no meat on them and no blood flowing through their veins to warm them up and move them. The only way to acquire that ability – 'style' – is either to be born with it, to immerse oneself in it, or as an important part of the two previous: to listen well to a hell of a lot of it. If one is interested in developing a style out of respect for the existing tradition and is not fortunate enough to be born with it easily accessible around them, then a tremendous amount of patience and effort is needed on their part. Aside from listening to as much of it as possible, live and on recordings, you have to start the slow development as a musician through understanding the subtleties, limitations, and possibilities of the instrument of your choice from the basic scales and modes through rhythmic control, recognition, and variation while accumulating a body of tunes for your repertoire. You'll need to practice the various forms of ornamentation and variation you'll pick up through careful listening, study, and inquiry. Choose what you're comfortable with or fond of and leave behind what doesn't suit you. Styles range from those with little or no ornamentation to styles reminiscent of competition piping and crammed with rolls, crans, and other fingered ornamentation. The latter taken to its extreme is rhythmically lifeless but impressive from a 'show' standpoint, that is, "See what I can do to the music" by adding an unbelievable amount of sound into a given beat. This extreme lacks the surprise and spontaneity of the more playful and emotional ways with the music the traditional player exercises out of respect for a tune they are fond of, never sacrificing it fully but lovingly teasing the tune through subtler variations with a more economic use of ornamentation. It's like a Christmas tree: some people buy artificial plastic and spray it with artificial snow until it's no longer visible, then deck it with ornaments and lights until it's top heavy and flashy (what to me is gaudy). Others cut a tree, thinning it from the forest, or grow one in a pot and take great care making ornaments for it, carving wood objects to hide amongst the branches, decorating so that the tree is still identifiable with some ornaments hidden to be discovered on closer viewing, the scent of the tree adding as well to the experience.

Far more important to tradition than a large repertoire or a stock of fancy ornaments and twists is the spirit one brings to the activity. 'Tradition' in an older sense of the word, in its folk/social entertainment use, did not exist for monetary profit or recognition beyond a small circle of friends and acquaintances. It was a social event, a time of sharing. It was for the 'crack'. The sharing of tradition, its transmission, is more than the mechanics of dance or tune, or the memorization of the words of a song. It is emotion and history, involvement with soul. The spirit one puts into a tune, dance, or song is far more valuable to folk tradition than over-sytlized or over-ornamented performance.

In the Irish traditions of the countryside, there is always a place and patience for beginners – "If you can walk you can dance." It doesn't have to be in time. I find this trait of toleration in some forms of American dance, namely the New England contra dance tradition, where beginners are encouraged to participate, to become an instantaneous part of the tradition. Of course, there is always appreciation and respect for the accomplished, who are in most cases the teachers, the most patient and generous, the least pretentious (having no need to be). Only the insecure need pretend. Folk traditions do not belong to any single individual but to the community that adopts, fosters, and continues that activity.

The older people I was fortunate enough to spend time with in Ireland had some ability and skill in, and respect for, all facets of Irish tradition. It was difficult to categorize anyone into a slot such as musician, dancer, singer. They were whole, complete people, fully representing their heritage. It would be a good idea for anyone with a serious interest in the music to also pursue the dance and vice-versa. It would improve communication between these two facets of the greater whole. It is true that musicians who are also dancers are usually better able to dance a tune with their instrument, motivating the dancers on the floor and teasing them occasionally, appreciating the dance and being motivated by it as well – rather than just playing pieces and sets of pieces.

In the city, pubs of Ireland dance and song are seldon a part of the seisiún, considered by many to be an imposition on the music. The pub seisiún musician in many cases is unable to define a rhythm or execute a clean ornament, their playing being muddy and ill-defined, lost in the mass of sound of a speed-oriented jam. The older musicians often find it very difficult to play without the inspiration of the dance present to answer their music. These older musicians also possess a love and respect for singing and the other traditions – for pathos, humor, and story. In the now rare country house dances and sometimes in the country pubs in its most constructive setting, this tradition of music, dance, song, and story-telling is a tapestry with its many elements weaving in and out of one another with the main thread of social interaction and sharing holding it all together into a complete picture without affectation or sentimentalism. There is no critical focus made. Even if your man only knows one step or one tune poorly, he'll get plenty of "great stuff" and "good man" and "give us another." Among those older people participating, each holds a percentage of every element of this tradition whether it be of one song, a few stories, a bit of a poem, a few tunes on the harmonica or lilted, or a few steps from a friend. They each possess something of the many elements that add up to the complete 'tradition'.

Amidst humbling poverty, the Irish in the 1800s and early 1900s were nevertheless very rich in handcrafts, music, dance, lore, humor, and sensitivity. They had only each other to turn to for entertainment and survival. They developed into exceptionally talented and generous people. It is a legacy extending into our own time, especially evident in the older traditionalist of the Irish countryside who is above all else courteous and considerate, almost to a fault. If pushed, they step aside and often are abused or neglected in the process. Their tradition includes giving and sharing.


Cahill took great care in putting his fiddle away, an ear always to the music happening around him. "Are you through for the night?" I asked. He took hold of my arm, "If it's fast reels they want I'll find pleasure in listening."


It is an impossible task for a written collection of tunes to capture the subtleties of tradition or teach one how to feel the music. The ears are a very important source of education and they need all the exercising possible, but that isn't enough. The spirit needs educating too. The recordings that are in greatest circulation today are of the big-name groups and a few of the albums of individual musicians have more than a collection of tunes being offered on them. Fortunately, there are recordings such as Johnny Doherty's (on CCE, Gael Linn, and Topic labels) that realize the need for including some of the story and personality of the musician. Two of the best record companies for text and context are Topic and Shanachie. Written collections such as this one, and "The Northern Fiddler," also have made an effort to set the music in context. Listen to the whistle playing of Micho Russell and Josie McDermott, to the singing of Geordie Hannah, and you will get a sense of this soul of Irish music. In addition, books such as Henry Glassie's "Passing the Time in Ballymenone" (University of Pennsylvania Press), Paddy Tunney's "The Stone Fiddle" (Gilbert Dalton), John Maguire and Robin Morton's "Come Day, Go Day, God Send Sunday" (Routledge & Kegan Paul), and Thomas o Crohan's "The Islandman" (Oxford University Press) give depth to Irish tradition.


Before the Inis Shark people were resettled from the rich land of their island to the poor and rocky land of the mainland and learned to depend on the dole of their existence, they were hard workers and renowned over the lands west of the 12 Pins of Connemara to be dance crazed, to drop everything at the strain of a tune, real or imagined, to answer it with a few steps. The story I heard most often im my travels in West Galway, concerning these islanders, was of several musicians that found themselves on the island and because the 'crack' was so good were held over a fortnight. For the whole of those two weeks, the islanders and their guests went with little or no sleep so as to dance every night, from the dance to the rising sun and morning chores through the work of the day and back to the dance again and the fullness of tradition and community that accompanies it. The dance, music, and good company seemed to give them more strength to face their daily chores than a good night's sleep. If I hadn't had the story from so many different sources, including musicians, and if I hadn't personally experienced the revitalization a good house dance can give to one's spirit, I would have held the story an exaggeration, a myth. One man from the island whom I visited, a man in his 80s with a weak heart but a grand spirit, began to dance and lilt as we talked. I had to work hard to calm him down and get him seated again. On another visit to two brothers from the island, the three of us spent hours reconstructing dances with invisible partners, sounding the stone floor of their small cottage to each other's unsynchronized lilting, refusing to pause until we had it, then into it again.


Tradition is more than the mere memorization of a tune or song, the purchase of a record or book, or the winning of a medal. Tradition includes history, emotion and community, and when these are brought together there is an emergence of spirit that sustains and nourishes. It draws others back away from it. The spirit one brings to the music, no matter how rough the rendition, is the most valuable part of the tradition.


Danny "Dani" M. Hathaway is a musician, plays and teaches flute and tin whistle, and holds classes in Irish dancing. He has traveled along many of the backroads of Ireland, visiting and collecting tunes and dances. He and his wife Joan sponsor regular dances and seisiúns and keep their house open to musicians, singers, and dancers.


Used with permission of the author
and of Randy Miller, editor of Irish Traditional Fiddle Music, Fiddlecase Books, 1974 (1977, 2006).