Fast track for musical award-winner


She has been described by this newspaper as "just about the best tin-whistle player this century", a sentiment that is echoed throughout the Irish/international traditional music world. Mary Bergin of Spiddal, Co Galway, is TG4's new National Traditional Musician of the Year, along with fiddle player Meabh O'Hare of Belfast.

Last week she was as intent as ever on fulfilling her hectic schedule, one that involves classes in schools and colleges in and around Galway, and a Music Network pilot project with senior citizens in day and resident care in the Midland Health Board region. This past weekend she and fellow members of her group, Dordan, travelled to Belgium for a gig in a castle. This week she's back to the tuition again.

Born in Dublin into a musical family, Mary was encouraged to play from the age of nine. She took to the tin whistle and developed an innovative style. By her late teens she had won many awards, including the All-Ireland Championships.

As Fintan Vallely and Charlie Piggott record in Blooming Meadows: the World of Irish Traditional Musicians, published two years ago, Willie Clancy was a significant influence. She heard him playing at an Oireachtas concert in Dublin, and from then on her father encouraged her in this direction.

In the 1960s she began going to fleadhanna and joined fiddlers Joe Liddy and Sean O'Dwyer in sessions in Blackrock, Co Dublin. The Claremen's Club in Church Street and the Thomas Street Pipers' Club also provided lively sessions.

Mary entered tin-whistle competitions from the age of 14 and took up the flute when she was 16. Fleadhanna then were different, with more emphasis on socialising than on performance and points. "We'd find ourselves in some godforsaken halls, where the only place to practise beforehand was the jacks. We'd meet each other in there and chat and play away. We didn't really care who won or lost, and there were times when we would head home, happy, without knowing who had."

A founder-member of the all-female quartet Dordan some 10 years ago, she has recorded four albums with them. She has composed some of their music herself.

She has also played with groups such as Ceoltoiri Laighean and De Danann. And she has carved out a solo career, with her two solo albums, Feadoga Stain I and Feadoga Stain 2, in constant demand. During her extensive touring she has played regularly with her sister, Antoinette McKenna, and Joe McKenna, and she has been a guest on albums released by many other traditional musicians.

She has raised two children by herself since her marriage broke up. Colm (19) has just started university and Ailbhe (17) is studying for the Leaving Certificate this year. Both are well grounded in music.

She tends to teach by standard, rather than age, and has given encouragement to thousands of students - including this reporter. However, she feels passionately about the absence of venues for teenagers who reach a certain level.

"They are too young to be playing in pubs, and why should they have to?" she asks. "Yes, there is Scoil Eigse and the summer schools, the Willie Clancy in Clare, in Tubbercurry, Co Sligo, and Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim. But there needs to be much more support for efforts outside the pub scene during the rest of the year."

For a time she and some friends organised Sunday-morning sessions for the young musicians, "to try and keep them young for as long as they are, rather than throwing them into the adult music world too early", as she told Vallely and Piggott.

There are the contests, of course. "They have their place, in terms of the experience that they offer, and they were a necessity in the 1950s when a standard had to be raised. But there has to be more than that in terms of social contact," she told The Irish Times. "Competition has a harshness and cruelty about it for young kids starting off."

Mary performs herself, along with Meabh O'Hare, for the TG4 award next month at the Opera House, Cork, as part of the Cork Arts Fest 2000 from November 13th to 19th.

Also performing will be her peers, including members of Dordan, De Danann, Joe and Antoinette McKenna, Mick Hanly, Fiddlesticks, North Cregg, Steve Cooney, Karan Casey, Tommy Peoples, Mike McGoldrick, Dezi Donnelly, Liz Carroll, Cathal Hayden, Johnny Ringo MacDonagh, Joe Csibi, Eamon McElholm, Conor Byrne, and more. The award winners will be announced by Mr Pol O Gallchoir, TG4 ceannasai, and they will both be presented with specially commissioned pieces of sculpture by John Coll, and cheques for £5,000.

A documentary on the work of the Connemara writer and founder of the Clo IarChonnachta publishing company, Micheal O Conghaile, is to be broadcast on TG4 next Sunday, October 15th.