Fiddler and original member of Chieftains


Martin Fay Born: September 19th 1936 Died: November 14th 2012Martin Fay, who has died aged 76, was a founding member of the Chieftains and played fiddle with the band for almost 40 years.

An academically trained musician, he made a major contribution to shaping the Chieftains’ musical identity. And with Paddy Moloney, Seán Potts, Michael Tubridy and Davy Fallon, and the various line-ups that followed, he helped create an international audience for Irish traditional music.

Paddy Moloney this week said that Fay’s playing on slow airs was “beautiful” and that his ability to pin down airs along with his fiddle tone were “magical”. “His memory and music will always be with the Chieftains.”

Hothouse Flowers singer Liam Ó Maonlaí said that Fay added a classical sheen to traditional arrangements, “allowing the work to cross over and back to the urban listener and reawaken the wild soul of the people”.

Born in Dublin in 1936, he was the son of Joseph and Ann Fay, and grew up in Cabra. Both parents were musically inclined. His mother, a dancer, was also a good pianist, while his father’s party piece was an Al Jolson-style routine.

His mother introduced him to the piano, but he switched to the violin after seeing the film The Magic Bow, about the life of Paganini. He studied at the Municipal School of Music, and during school holidays played with the house band at Butlin’s holiday camp in Mosney, Co Meath.

He subsequently played with the Gaiety theatre orchestra, and later joined musical director Seán Ó Riada at the Abbey. Up to then he had no interest whatsoever in a career in Irish music; he preferred classical music, and his ambition was to perform as a soloist at Carnegie Hall.

But Ó Riada, classically trained and a former jazz musician, persuaded Fay of the possibilities of traditional music and recruited him into the “folk orchestra” Ceoltóirí Chualann. The ensemble enjoyed success with two series broadcast by Raidió Éireann, Fleadh Cheoil an Raidió and Reachaireacht an Riadaigh, and later provided the soundtrack for the film version of The Playboy of the Western World. Albums for Gael Linn followed, the best known of which is Ó Riada sa Gaiety, the group’s farewell concert recorded in 1969. In the meantime, in 1963, Garech de Brún invited Paddy Moloney to form a group to record a one-off album for his company Claddagh Records.

Poet John Montague, then a director of Claddagh, suggested the collective title Chieftains. It was the first of more than 30 albums that Fay recorded with the band.

After a year off from the Chieftains he was back for an Edinburgh Festival appearance in 1968 that helped launch the band on the world stage. In 1974 their music for the Oscar-winning score of Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon, on which his playing featured prominently, brought further international recognition.

Consequently impresario Jo Lustig booked the band into the Royal Albert Hall for a St Patrick’s Day concert in 1975. It sold out and Lustig convinced the Chieftains to turn professional.

Fay quit his job as purchasing officer at Unidare in Finglas to devote himself fully to music.

The Chieftains toured all over the world, recorded, made radio and TV broadcasts, and featured in films, ballet and theatre productions. Having conquered China in the 1980s, the band began an association with Galician piper Carlos Núnez in the 1990s.

There followed ventures into other fields – rock, country, jazz and orchestral – leading to albums with James Galway (In Ireland, 1987), Van Morrison (Irish Heartbeat, 1988) and Ry Cooder (The Long Black Veil, 1995) as well as collaborations with Mick Jagger, Sinéad O’Connor, Sting and others.

But the Chieftains always maintained a strong core repertoire dating from their early days, which emphasised Irish traditional music and reflected the individual preferences of the band’s members.

Fay said that as far as ” superstar collaborations” were concerned, he could take them or leave them. “I think audiences should come to a Chieftains show expecting to see the Chieftains and if there is something thrown in, well and good.”

Known for his Dublin wit, he was good company on tour. Reflecting on his career, he said that he had enjoyed a great life with the Chieftains and loved the music they made, or “most of it, anyway”.

He was particularly happy to have become a professional musician – and to have played Carnegie Hall.

He stopped touring in 2001, and last played with the Chieftains in 2002.

He is survived by his wife Gráinne (Gertie) McCormack, son Fergal and daughter Dervla.