Recognition at last for an unsung hero of Irish music


The contribution made to Irish music by a musician who had emigrated to England is highlighted by the release a new CD, writes Martin Doyle.

THE BARS and clubs of Camden have long been the stamping ground of London's rock musicians but back in the 1950s and 1960s, they were home, or a home from home, to a different scene, the cream of Irish traditional musicians, Michael Gorman, Margaret Barry, Felix Doran and Bobby Casey.

Emigration has always been a double-edged sword for Irish music, depleting the domestic market of players and listeners alike, but also offering musicians like Michael Coleman, the Sligo fiddler who left for the United States in 1914, the opportunity to record their music for the first time and to influence generations.

Coleman's records clearly made a huge impression on Bobby Casey, for while his playing style is rooted in the west Clare tradition, his repertoire and ornamentation reveal a strong Sligo connection.

Casey in turn, though he emigrated from his native Clare in 1952 with the uilleann piper Willie Clancy and spent the rest of his life in England, exerted his own influence on a generation of musicians. However, at the time of his death in 2000 at the age of 73, there were only two of his solo CDs in existence, Taking Flight(Mulligan, 1979) and Casey in the Cowhouse(Claddagh, 1991). His stature is clear, though, from his presence on such classic recordings as Paddy in the Smoke(Topic, 1968) and Ceol an Chlair, Traditional Fiddle Music from West Clare(CCE, 1977), with John Kelly, Junior Crehan, Joe Ryan and Patrick Kelly.

Now, remarkably, a previously unreleased and remastered collection of his music, The Spirit of West Clare, has been brought out on CD, thanks to the determination of Reg Hall, one of the folk heroes of Irish traditional music in London, who together with Bill Leader recorded Casey back in 1966 in Leader's kitchen in Camden Square and later in 1971.

Were it not for the enthusiasm and expertise of Englishmen like Hall and Leader, we would be left with only a few silent snapshots and not a rich soundtrack of an era when Irish music was thriving.

Hall was born in Kent in 1935, his only Irish connection a great-grandmother who came to Marylebone after the Famine to work as a dairy maid. Hooked on Alan Lomax's exploration of the traditional music of Britain and Ireland for the BBC, Hall went fishing himself, first in the backwaters of Suffolk and Norfolk and then in 1955 the watering holes of Camden Town, such as the Bedford, where he got to know and play with Michael Gorman and Margaret Barry. As well as recording with the likes of Seamus Tansey and Martin Byrnes, he wrote sleeve notes for a host of records on the Topic label, including the seminal Paddy in the Smoke, released in 1968.

Leader had parted company with Topic and set up his own label, recruiting Hall to help record Casey among many other Irish musicians, but the money ran out and it was never released. Leader moved to Leeds and gave Hall his tapes, but though he approached several labels, the timing or the market was always wrong.

Fast forward 40 years and Hall finally found a taker. He had collaborated with a friend, Dermot Kearney, on a CD by the Donegal fiddler Danny Meehan, and another by Bobby Casey's son Sean, when he told him about his hidden horde of Bobby Casey recordings.

Musician Kevin Crehan, whose grandfather Junior Crehan had taught Bobby Casey, having been taught himself by Casey's father Scully, paid tribute to Bobby's brilliance in an essay the year he died, praising the flamboyant exuberance of his playing, full of invention and devilment, which pushed at the seams of the slow, flat west Clare style through ornamentation, embellishment and intricate layering without resort to speed or sharpened tone.

"He influenced many, many people and didn't receive the reward or recognition his talents truly deserved. He banished sorrow and made light of misfortune every time he moved bow against string. When those pools of shimmering light catch my eye in west Clare, I will rejoice with a smile in the draíocht-filled breeze, as it brushes past me, through the reedy fields of Annagh and out over the Atlantic broad. The magician may be gone, but his magic lives on."

Hall, having conjured up a whole new collection of Casey's spells, takes up the theme. "The odd parish concert, the occasional broadcast on Radio Éireann and a few Fleadh Cheoil successes put name about a bit, but his real forte was playing his heart out for his friends in some quiet backstreet pub in Kentish Town for little fame and no fortune. He was a great artist who gave it away for peanuts. He is for many of us one of the greatest artists Ireland has produced."

Hall is far from finished with his excavations. He is working on a four-CD collection for Topic due out in September based on 1,200 recordings by Peter Kennedy, "the pioneer of recording Irish music in London", which will feature Margaret Barry, Michael Gorman, Bobby Casey, Willie Clancy, Seamus Ennis, Paddy Breen, Paddy Taylor, Paddy Tunney and Raymond Roland.

Kennedy, the son of the director of the English Folk Dancing and Song Society, recorded musicians for the BBC and for Folk Tracks, his own custom label which would run off copies on demand.

Hall has donated 400 of his own original tapes of sessions and interviews to the British Sound Archive, a branch of the British Library, recognising their tremendous artistic and historical value. He is also writing a history of Irish traditional music in London, adapted from his PhD, Irish Music and Dance in London: 1890-1970: A Socio-Cultural History, which was his way of celebrating a tradition that began to be diluted and decline when the outbreak of the Troubles coincided with the arrival of the fiddle-playing Swedish backpacker stopping off at the Favourite in London en route to Doolin.

Hall is keen to debunk what he sees as the myths of the Gaelic League, who reinvented Irish tradition, unaware that it was still alive and kicking in the west of Ireland. He believes the mistakes were repeated by Comhaltas, which grew out of the concern of traditional musicians in Dublin and Mullingar that the music was dying, apparently unaware that it was thriving in Sligo and Clare, not to mention London.

A decade ago, he compiled The Voice of the People, a 20-CD set celebrating the traditional music of Britain and Ireland for Topic. "Irish people, partly through mythology and nationalism, see Irish music as uniquely, anciently Irish, which of course it is, but Ireland is part of the British Isles, there's a huge crossover of culture and population and what's very clear is there's a common repertoire and practice," says Hall.

• The Spirit of West Clare is available on Bow Hand Records.