Manus McGuire - Taking green grass into bluegrass


Manus McGuire would be entitled to give his profession as working in the import-export business. Like most musicians, the fiddler who makes his home in County Clare and who will be one of the attractions at January’s annual tribute to the father figure of Irish music in Glasgow, Jimmy McHugh, McGuire travels a lot.


And on these travels, tunes go with him - in both directions. Back in the early 1980s when he and his older brother, Seamus, made their first album, the Humours of Lissadell, in Connecticut, they became known for bringing the waltz back into Irish music through their fascination for the dance tunes they’d picked up in Canada.


More recently, through his work with the group he co-leads with button-keyed accordion master Paul Brock in the southern U.S. especially, McGuire has been capturing American musicians’ attention by playing them tunes that originated in Ireland but have fed into the Appalachian tradition and thus into the bluegrass repertoire.


This has led to no less a figure than bluegrass superstar mandolinist Ricky Skaggs first inviting McGuire, Brock & co to his home in Hendersonville, just outside Nashville, and then into the Skaggs family studio, where the Irish band recorded their superb latest album, Green Grass Blue Grass with bluegrass luminaries including guitarist Bryan Sutton, bassist Mark Fain and Skaggs himself.


“We’ve been working a lot in America over the past few years, doing three and sometimes four quite sizeable tours a year,” says McGuire, “and a lot of the concerts we do are in universities and colleges in the southern states, doing what they call music appreciation workshops. We met Ricky through a mutual friend and started spending time with him any time we were in the Nashville area, and it was really interesting to play tunes with him because he’s from West Kentucky, where a lot of Irish settlers went even before the famine times, and he’d recognise things we were playing from having heard them played by old Irish-American fiddlers. The bluegrass connection has been a great boost for us because it’s introduced us to a whole new audience.”


McGuire became immersed in Irish traditional music at home in Sligo, where the family had moved from County Offally. His mother played violin, his father played piano and his sisters played harp and piano, and when older brother Seamus took up the fiddle, ten year old Manus followed suit.


“Seamus actually studied classical violin but my father would coach him in traditional music and I wanted to be like my brother and play this music I was hearing,” he says. “I didn’t take the classical route – I learned by ear although I did learn notation later – but there were all these great fiddlers who had come from Sligo and landed in New York just at the time in the 1920s and 1930s when the recording industry there was latching onto the expatriate market. Players like Michael Coleman, James Morrison and Paddy Killoran became hugely influential because they were recording artists, and I learned a lot from listening to them.”


Ceili bands and fleadhs, the music competitions that have been the backbone of Ireland’s traditional music strengths, gave him playing experience in his teens and when he left school he followed Seamus into medicine. Then when his brother moved to Canada, Manus was able to visit him on holiday.


It was on one of these trips that they recorded The Humours of Lissadell, named after a reel written in honour of the holiday retreat from which W.B. Yeats drew much inspiration. Shortly afterwards, Seamus met and had a great tune session with De Dannan accordionist Jackie Daly and this led to the McGuire brothers forming the popular band Buttons & Bows with Daly and guitarist Garry O’Briain. Meanwhile, Manus had become besotted with Shetland fiddle music and he took tunes from there as well as Cape Breton, into that group and the forerunner of the Brock-McGuire Band, Moving Cloud’s repertoires.


On his way to Shetland on one occasion Manus stayed over with Jimmy McHugh in Glasgow and although they weren’t close friends, McGuire remembers the older man as a great source of music and just as importantly, the background to that music.


“Jimmy was always very helpful any time I contacted him,” he says. “I like to know the story behind a tune before I play it so that I can put the necessary expression into it and Jimmy was very knowledgeable about that sort of thing. He was the sort of person you could rely on to guide you through the finer points of a melody, too, and it’s a great honour to be invited onto this concert that they have every year in his memory.”


From The Herald, January 7, 2015.


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