Martin Hayes: How I smashed my fiddle and stopped drinking

The fiddle player on smashing his violin over a musician’s head, and letting go to record

On St Patrick’s Day 1988 on stage in Chicago, Martin Hayes smashed his beloved fiddle over the head of his blameless musical partner Paul McHugh. “A moment of deranged fury,” says Hayes.

It seems very out of character. Hayes is a wise, zen presence in the world of Irish music and a seasoned collaborator with the likes of Triur, The Gloaming and The Common Ground Ensemble. He is speaking to me over Zoom from the home he shares with his wife, Lina, in Madrid. “The senate is right there,” he says, pointing in one direction out of his window. “And the royal palace is there,” he says, pointing in a different direction.

Hayes is carefully spoken and eloquent. He sits facing me onscreen with his mop of curly hair wearing a navy work jacket. It would be hard to imagine him capable of an enraged, slightly comical act of destruction if he hadn’t written about it himself in his excellent musical memoir, Shared Notes.

“The whole Irish community of Chicago knew about it and they’ve been very good in keeping the secret,” says Hayes. “For a violinist or a fiddle player to break their precious instrument, it’s not just even the financial value, it’s the emotional connection I had with that instrument ... At that moment in my life the fiddle is in pieces in a case and I am basically in pieces as well, because my life from 18 to that point had been a comedy of errors or failure or misadventure of one type after another. It was time to wake up.”

Hayes was born into “a niche of a niche” of traditional music on a farm on the side of Maghera mountain in northeast Clare. His father, PJ Hayes, and his uncle Paddy Canny played fiddle with the Tulla Céilí Band and Hayes learned from them and joined that ensemble in his teens. He explains how that tradition fits into the wider world of Irish music.

“Maybe it’s the difference between delta blues and rockabilly. You can’t imitate delta blues, you can only feel it, and if you don’t feel it, you can’t make it... If you listen to the playing of Tony McMahon or Tommy Potts or Junior Crehen or Paddy Canny or Bobby Casey or Willie Clancy or Micho Russell or any of these characters, apart from the obvious, ‘I play my instrument, I play it well’ you’re hearing a deeper resonance, a deeper kind of soulfulness that doesn’t have a real outlet in the commercial world.”

His love of this music meant he was very close to his father but slightly at odds with his contemporaries. “I was off in this weirdo world and I didn’t have any companions in secondary school who had an inkling of what I was doing, or where I was at. So I began to have contempt for being a teenager or for being in school and having to listen to other adults.”

‘I was off in this weirdo world and I didn’t have any companions in secondary school who had an inkling of what I was doing’
‘I was off in this weirdo world and I didn’t have any companions in secondary school who had an inkling of what I was doing’

It was also a musical tradition that was  being passed over for something else. “The more astute listeners, quote unquote, are moving on to The Bothy Band to Planxty to all these other things. And the céilí band is kind of really been ditched as a vehicle, like it’s the echo of an older time.” He laughs. “But I’m in that vessel. So I’m floating off into the sunset already and I’m only just getting started.”

Furthermore, there was no sense among the older musicians Hayes idolised that music was something you could make a living at. From their perspective, he says, “there was no way to really play this music in a genuine and real way and do it as a career. I kind of internalised those ideas so when I found myself playing music [for a living], I felt like I had fallen.”

In the absence of a clear musical path, Hayes floundered. He joined Fianna Fáil – “one of the very few young people who had any involvement with Fianna Fáil at the time”. He “flunked out” of business studies at the National Institute of Higher Education in Limerick. He set up an unsuccessful frozen food business. “I’m running out of options,” he says. “So I end up being in Chicago in 1985 working in construction.”

In Chicago he took his first forays into professional musicianship with the singer Paul McHugh, but it felt in no way connected to the music he loved.

“This was dinner club music made for Irish-Americans and it had everything from Bing Crosby tunes to rebel songs,” he says. “I had to look dextrous and fast. Nobody was interested in the feeling of what was being expressed… It was like the lowest common denominator of musical entertainment for an audience uninterested in anything other than the food they were eating. It was soul-destroying.”

‘Some of the finest music I’ve heard came from the humblest of hands’
‘Some of the finest music I’ve heard came from the humblest of hands’

He was drinking too much as a way of coping. And that’s why, eventually, things came to a head – poor McHugh’s head, in fact. The fiddle-smashing incident was a shameful but pivotal moment for Hayes. At the time it felt like the culmination of 10 years of failure and frustration. He stopped drinking and began searching for a purer musical experience.

“I discovered a way of being in Chicago and a way of thinking,” he says. “I became a vegetarian, meditating, eastern-thinking, out there, long-haired ‘something’ in Chicago, that had nothing to do with small farming in east Clare, with Fianna Fáil... I kind of broke free of all of those things.”

First album

Hayes’ eponymous debut album in 1993 is where he first gathered all the pieces of his youthful musical experience and put them back together in a meaningful way. He began working regularly with guitarist Dennis Cahill and an array of other musicians and groups. He helped organise the Masters of Tradition Festival in Bantry. In 2011 he returned to the intergenerational musical experiences of his youth with the widely acclaimed Irish/American ensemble The Gloaming.

There is an age gap of 30 years between the youngest and oldest members of that group, he observes. In Shared Notes he talks about first meeting Gloaming piano player Thomas Bartlett when Bartlett was just a child fan. “It’s a strange, intergenerational kind of world. I feel like I’m living in the world of my father’s people and friends.”

Why is collaboration so important?

“To the degree that I can read music, it’s a kind of a self-learned poorly done exercise where I can basically learn a tune from a manuscript,” he says. “I come with no formal capacities. I don’t play piano where I can explain chords for a band. So I seem completely ill-equipped to collaborate but I collaborate nonetheless. And one of the things I like about it is the uncertainty, is the little bit of fear that has to be challenged every time... And it’s an exercise in honesty, where one has to reveal what one can’t do as much as what one can do.”

Hayes writes and talks beautifully and inclusively about the experience of making music. “Some of the finest music I’ve heard came from the humblest of hands. If one is listening, and patient, there are moments when that musician transcends, where they trip into another reality… There’s a moment, I think, when we let go of ourselves, and when we stop being self-conscious and when we commit fully to the thing that we’re in and we let go of our fears and concerns and insecurities and we become transparent and true... So, the question is, what does it take for anybody to consistently access that moment?”

How does Hayes find studio recording? “I have gotten better over the years about letting go in the studio,” he says. “For me the more records you make and more YouTube videos are out there and the more stuff that’s floating around the world, the less you have any control over the legacy of what you do, so the more you go, ‘Oh, f**k it, just play.’…

“I don’t spend a lot of time fixing errors. A lot of the time with all those Gloaming records I barely listen to the mix afterwards… I’m sometimes not sure what’s actually on these albums.”

Is he serious? “I’m deadly serious… Thomas lives as an album producer… I say, ‘Have at it... I’m done.’” He laughs.

Martin Hayes on The Pure Drop (1992). Photograph: RTÉ Archives
Martin Hayes on The Pure Drop (1992). Photograph: RTÉ Archives

He recalls a session for the project Triúr with Peadar Ó Riada and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, where he assumed they were just working things out, not officially recording.

“Peadar says, ‘I think we’ve got an album there’… and I thought, ‘God, he can’t be serious.’ But he was. And you know what? It was fine. And you know what’s fine about it? It’s completely natural and real. And it’s completely who I was and who Peadar was and who Caoimhín was, in an unmediated, warts-and-all way... If you’re going to be honest, you have to let the flaws out, you have to let the weaknesses be seen. Vulnerabilities have to be seen.”

The lockdown has been difficult for performers like Hayes. When he doesn’t play for a while “an emptiness” comes into his life, he says. But over the course of the past year he has taught people online and doing a monthly livestream performance for his Patreon subscribers. “That brings me great joy.”

Hayes collaborates widely and reads widely and places the music of his youth in the context of everything he learns. He has read the Upanishads, the poetry of Rumi, books on Jewish Kabbalah, physics, history, politics. The fiddle his father gave him, which he once smashed, has been restored and can be heard on many of his records.

“I’m not going to exist in a borrowed worldview of any kind,” he says. “I’m willing to find truth in any direction I want to look. At a certain stage, I’m left with my fiddle in hand, and the music of my early childhood and my family deeply in my heart. I want to walk into the world courageously and see if the thing I’m carrying can actually float a boat out there and if I can just survive by creating the joy of music...

“I’m like a spiritual wanderer in the desert now, with just the fiddle. Growing up, I thought, ‘Boy, only a fool would do something like that’. I eventually become that fool.”

Shared Notes by Martin Hayes is available from October 14th. Martin Hayes live in conversation and music is at the National Concert Hall on October 12th, and in Glór, Ennis on Thursday, October 14th. nch.ie, glor.ie