An Irishman's Diary
The Dublin fiddle player Tommie Potts was a man of many influences. In the sleeve-notes for a recently released centenary collection of his work, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin lists some of them.
Among performers, he admired Caruso, Kreisler and Bing Crosby. His favourite composers included Bach and Beethoven. He also enjoyed Neapolitan love songs, Hungarian gypsy music, Moore’s Melodies and Gregorian chant.
But the selection of individual pieces that Ó Súilleabháin remembers Potts mentioning in conversation is even more impressive: “Toselli’s Serenade, Chopin’s Funeral March, Liszt’s Rhapsody No 2, White Christmas, Black Eyes, Little Girl, Mambo Italiano, and the Ora pro nobis response to the Litany of the Saints in the Forty Hours Adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Roman Catholic Liturgy!”
How much of this rubbed off on the fiddler’s own repertoire, and in what ways, are questions that would keep traditional music’s forensic detectives busy. So busy, in fact, they might have to cut back on their main line of work, torturing themselves about whether tunes are genuinely traditional or not, for a while.
But there are occasional clues, like a letter in which Potts explains how he attempted to use a Chopin variation as lead-in to a reel called The Pigeon on the Gate. Also, among the tracks on the centenary CD is an interview snippet in which the fiddler confesses a fondness for the melancholic key of D Minor, adding that he’s noticed the same habit in “Rachmaninoff”.
In any case, questions of influence aside, there’s one thing on which the experts seem to agree. For good or bad, Potts played the fiddle like nobody else. It wasn’t to everyone’s liking. To those who did love it, however, his playing could be a transcendental experience. “He wasn’t just a great traditional fiddle player,” wrote Tony MacMahon in a 1988 obituary. “He was a man wracked by passions which poured into every plaintive note played, animating and lighting up the music and the spirits of those of us who were blessed to sit at his feet.”
The son of a Wexford-born piper, Tommie himself grew up on one of Dublin’s most famous streets, the Coombe. The house doesn’t have a plaque. But perhaps more fittingly, it’s immortalised by a tune: No 6 the Coombe, written by Sean Potts, a nephew of the fiddler, who played tin whistle with the Chieftains.
And whatever about lighting up his audiences, ironically, Tommie Potts’s professional expertise in life was putting fires out. During his early years he was a member of the Dublin Fire Brigade. As such, he was part of the team that fought a catastrophic blaze at nearby Pearse Street one night in 1936.
The fire started in an Exide Batteries factory, causing explosions that collapsed buildings.
Potts had a narrow escape, but three of his colleagues died. They were given a State funeral and 80,000 people lined the streets.
For all his brilliance with the fiddle, Pots didn’t make a living out of it. He was perhaps too much an individual for that. But in the words of yet another member of the dynasty, Sean Óg, he was also a “shy, complex and introspective figure,” as much listener as player.
He recorded only one album: The Liffey Banks (1972). So the music on the centenary collection is drawn from tapes made in various locations. And despite their multiplicity, the 47 tracks do not include the tune for which he is most famous, The Butterfly.
A modern-day standard for trad musicians (the Bothy Band’s rollicking version is especially well known),The Butterfly is generally credited as a Potts composition.
Mind you, the aforementioned detectives have been on the case, finding the fingerprints of two, older slip-jigs, Kick the Peeler and Barney’s Goat, at the scene. So it may be more arrangement than composition.
Either way, the story goes that Potts was in his garden one day (pottering, no doubt) when he saw a butterfly and was inspired to express its movements in a tune.
That would have been in Walkinstown, where he lived as an adult, and where he was wont to tell visiting musicians that composers like Beethoven and Rachmaninoff were “just like ourselves, we’re all playing the same eight notes”.
He could have added another celebrated composer to the list. Rimsky Korsakov had probably never been to Walkinstown. But it will hardly have been lost on the arranger of The Butterfly that the Russian once had a very similar idea and, albeit using a lot more fiddles, turned it into the Flight of the Bumblebee. email@example.com