Paddy Glackin - Upholding the true fiddle tradition


Don't give up the day job is the time-honoured put-down for performers who don't cut the mustard. It would, however, be a brave heckler - not to mention a foolhardy and, yes, a deaf one - who uttered these words in the direction of Paddy Glackin.


Any such advice would also be pointless since, despite being one of the great upholders of the Irish fiddling tradition and a man spoken of in awe struck terms by fiddlers across the Celtic music spectrum, Paddy has no intention of giving up his day job. The original fiddler with the Bothy Band is currently weekend editor with RTE Radio 1 in Dublin and gets out to play as often as he wants for as long as he wants.


Truth to tell, unlike most of his peers in the 'Bothies' and the musicians who followed in the wake of the 1970s revival who have mostly gone on to careers where tours of here, there and everywhere are routine, Paddy was never enamoured of being a full-time musician.


"It just wasn't for me and I certainly never wanted to do the album, tour, album, tour thing," he says. "I can see the need for doing it, but I always found it a little false. When I go out to play, it's on my own terms. I look forward to it and I really enjoy doing it. But if I had to do it X times a year, I'd become a lot more cynical - and I'm cynical enough as it is."


For Paddy, there's more to playing traditional music than playing it as a professional performer. Careful lest he be seen to regard himself as a musical historian, he remains passionate about the idea of communication in music.


"It's not just about the notes or the words of a song, which are hugely important, of course," he says. "Giving people a context is also very important. Knowing where a tune is actually from, as well as the story behind it, can define its tempo, the embellishments you might add, the rhythm you play it in."


Paddy's love of fiddling and of the Irish tradition was instilled early. His father, Tom, a Dublin policeman originally from Dungloe in Donegal, played fiddle and Paddy and his brothers, Kevin and Seamus, followed suit, Paddy from the age of six.


"In those days in Dublin you didn't tell people you played the fiddle and you certainly didn't tell them you played reels and jigs because there was no social context," he says.


While classical violin lessons gave him an important technical grounding during his primary school years, the classes that gave him real insight into the styles he would later pursue happened more informally at home. Tom Glackin was friends with many musicians, including Seamus Carroll, Larry Redigan and Frank O'Higgins, who used to visit the Glackin household on Wednesday afternoons for a session.


A native of Cork, Carroll had also visited the United States and played with many outstanding fiddlers over there and he was particularly encouraging and helpful, showing the young Paddy the techniques and approaches involved in Sligo-style fiddling. Another fiddler, John Doherty, made a lasting impression on Paddy, reinforcing the Donegal style that Paddy learned from his father and would later "hoover up" on field trips, and through listening to fiddlers such as the great Sean Maguire and Clare-born John Kelly, he began to master a variety of Irish styles and amass a large repertoire.


If all this study and mixing with older players paints a picture of some musical equivalent of a bookworm, it shouldn't because at the same time Paddy was discovering a love of sport, Gaelic football and hurling in particular, which remains with him today. He still wouldn't talk about playing Irish music to the kids where he was growing up but as he grew older and began to mix with people his own age from other parts of the city, he realised he wasn't alone.


By the time he left school for college, Dublin's traditional music scene was vibrant, with sessions happening all over town and gigs there for the taking. Paddy fell in with accordionist Tony MacMahon, flautist Matt Molloy, uilleann piper Paddy Keenan, brother and sister Micheal O Domhnaill and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill, and the great alchemist of Irish music, Donal Lunny. Their group, Seachtar, became better known as the Bothy Band, one of the leading triumvirate of bands, alongside Planxty and De Dannan, which energised Irish music in the 1970s.


Paddy spent an enjoyable eighteen months with the Bothies before opting out along with MacMahon, who moved into broadcasting. After working as an archivist and as Traditional Music Officer for the Irish Arts Council, Paddy moved into broadcasting, too, joining RTE initially as a sports producer and presenter. That's the day job. At night and on leave, in the years since leaving the Bothy Band, he has continued to be regarded as one of the greatest fiddlers in Ireland and has become one of the few people who can list work with Van Morrison, Paul Brady, Kate Bush and American composer John Cage (Paddy toured Europe and America with Cage's Roaratorio) on their CVs.


He's never regretted leaving the Bothy Band. Indeed, when his replacement, the legendary Tommy Peoples, broke his hand, Paddy stepped back in and has continued to be friends with and play with his old colleagues. Although not what you'd call over-recorded, he went on to make one of the outstanding albums of its time, Doublin', with Bothies piper Paddy Keenan. Donal Lunny produced and played on Paddy's superb In Full Spate CD. And since guitarist Micheal O Domhnaill returned to Ireland in 1997 after many years living in America, he and Paddy have become musical partners, recording the appropriately named Athchuairt (it's Irish Gaelic for Reprise) album and touring as widely as America and Israel - in small doses.


"The thing about Micheal and myself is that, besides playing in the Bothy band together and not wanting to tour endlessly, we have so much in common," he says. "Our fathers came from the same, Gaelic speaking area of Donegal, and our mothers from the same part of Dublin. When Micheal was running around collecting songs in Donegal, I was running around hoovering up tunes there. He sang Scots Gaelic songs; I played Scots tunes. He was the first presenter of the television programme The Long Note, I was the third. And we're both absolutely passionate about sport. When we go out on a gig, it helps if there's a good golf course nearby, and if there's a football or hurling match on in the afternoon, so much the better."


They also have similar views on music. For Paddy, Irish - and Scottish - music has become too much concerned with ensemble performances of high octane tunes for a music that is essentially, he believes, a soloist's tradition.


"It's even spread into informal situations," he says. "You go to a session these days and it's a case of let's get in and play at two hundred miles an hour. There'll be twenty-five fiddlers and you can't hear yourself, let alone anyone else. It's wonderful that all these people have come into the music, and they genuinely love it, but that sort of thing's not much of an attraction for me.


"I don't have a problem with groups. Technically, the standard of musicianship you hear there is phenomenal, they've broadened the music's appeal and it's great that, these days, there's a lot more musicians able to earn a living playing this music. But I do passionately believe that the music we play in Ireland, and Scotland too, is a solo instrument tradition and, certainly in Ireland, there are just not the same opportunities to perform as a soloist. When I play, I'm not only remembering where the tune came from, I'm very conscious of pipers such as Seamus Ennis and their phrasing, or if it's a song air I'll be thinking about the words, and I don't happen to think that you can convey all that within an ensemble."


It's the emotional content that he fears for particularly as he regards traditional music as in danger of becoming a commodity, and with the passing of people such Jimmy McHugh, the patriarch of Irish music in Glasgow whom Paddy regarded as a beacon for traditional musicians, younger players are missing out on the personal links to the music's roots.


"It's a different age. People come to the music in a different way now," he says. "Our generation went to musicians and learned from them - and you could go to a player like John Kelly in Dublin, spend all night talking, never play a tune and yet learn so much from his stories. Nowadays there are CDs, the internet, people don't say, Here's a tune I learned from so and so; they say, Here's a tune I wrote. That's just the way it's evolving - and people have always written tunes, I know - otherwise we wouldn't have them, but I do miss the contact with musicians.


"I'm fascinated with the whole musical tradition. It's not all about the performance of the music on a stage. For me, that personal contact is very important. When I meet musicians I'm just as interested in speaking with them as listening to them play. It's about getting to know them and what shapes their music, what they're communicating. It's not about technique, its about where the music comes from and the social aspect, spending time together - that's where the real buzz comes from."


From The Living Tradition, January-February 2003


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