Sunday, August 12, 2012

Great Fiddle Players of North Antrim.

John McLaughlin

John, or Sean as he preferred to be called in later life, was easily the most famous fiddler to come from North Antrim. He was from Armoy, and was known far and wide for his many recordings and even won the All-Ireland Senior Fiddle Competition on at least one occasion. 
When he was nine he acquired his first violin and was soon in demand for playing at local Ceilidhs. He learned much of his early music from Ballymoney Fiddler James Kealy.
During the 2nd World War Sean fought with the 1st Battallion of Royal Ulster Rifles.
After the war he came home to Armoy, but had to head to England again, looking for work.

In 1957, back home, he won the All-Ireland Senior Fiddle competition, which was in Longford that year. His opponents that year were Sean Gallagher from Donegal and Sean O’Laughlin from Clare. He was last to play and after playing, was asked to stand at the back of the stage while the other two competitors were asked to play again. The audience assumed that Sean had been placed third and that the other two competitors were being asked to play again to decide first & second place, but in fact Sean McLaughlin was the Champion, much to the delight of the crowd.
He was from Armoy and was a great friend of that other legendary Antrim fiddler Sean McGuire R. I. P. As well as being an excellent Fiddler he also composed a number of lovely tunes like ‘McLaughlin’s Dream’, ‘Golden Shadows’ and McLaughlin’s Lament’. He was a fine painter too and most local folk remember him by his nickname ~ 'The Shadow'.
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Joe Holmes

Joe holmes was one of Antrim’s finest ever Fiddlers, Singers and Lilters, who’s brother Harry, brought him a Fiddle home from France, after the First War, and many’s a good night they had round the fire at their Killyrammer home, before Harry sailed for Canada.

Apparently a regular visitor with Joe was an Armoy man by the name of John McAfee, who was a singer, and a Fiddler too? 
Joe’s house was a ‘Ceili-house’ and they regularly had a four hand reel, or a set of lancers stepped out nicely on their kitchen floor. Joe had two neighbour girls too, who sang a duet about a rich girl who fell in love with a sailor-boy.

Were you one of those Killyrammer girls, or does anyone remember who the two were, who sang this duet?
In those far off days, they had lots of special occasions, which were good excuses for a good Ceili of songs, music and dancing. Events like Lint-pullingsCountry-dancesChurns etc. Can anyone remember those? I’d love to hear what actually went on at a Lint-pulling or a Churn.
Another special event was the Christmas Rhymers, when a group went round the houses performing a little play. Joe usually played the Doctor, but there were other characters too, like Saint George of England, St. Patrick and the Turkey Champion.
Does anyone remember being part of one of those groups, or even just being visited by them?

On leaving school at 14, Joe’s first job was to carry the red flag in front of the steam-roller, and he would follow it around the countryside all week in a caravan, and take his Fiddle too. Some of his old Fiddle favourites included The Boys of Ballycastle, The Blackberry BlossomRoyal Charlie, Wellington’s Medal and Rodney’s Glory. I’m sure many
Fiddle and Fife men out there will recognise those tune names.
Joe left the roads and went to Flax-scutching, first for a wee mill beside Killyrammer, and then into Milltown Mill, in Ballymoney. However, as anyone who has been involved in that work will tell you, it is not very healthy, and Joe’s last job was out in the fresh air again, as a green-keeper for Ballymoney Bowling club.
Joe latterly lived at Chestnut Grove in the town, but sadly he died on January 5th, 1978, at the age of 71.

I received a lovely letter from a neighbour and close friend of Joe’s, a man who was born only 100 yards from Joe’s house, in 1938. In his early years, this gentleman was a regular visitor to Joe’s house, and he tells me there were always Fiddlers calling in ‘for a tune’. He particularly remembers one fine Fiddler by the name of Adam Elliott from Kilraughts. He also remembers them talking of a Fiddler by the name of McAfee, who would have been John McAfee from Armoy, but unfortunately he has no memory of the Killyrammer girls, who apparently regularly sang at Joe’s house.
This man, like Joe, did his own fair share of ‘Lint Pulling’, and he also worked for a time at ‘Henrys Mill’, and he remembers Joe’s brothers Davy and Jonnie, whom he described as being like Joe, “all fine men”. However, it seems he could never understand how Joe’s household could be bothered by so many folk calling round each night, for the music and crack. {N.B. Crack ~ a word from N E England, means fun}
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Stumpy McCloskey

Stump or Stumpy McLuskey of Cloughmills was a wonderful character who was obviously out of the same mould that produced Joe Holmes, for he was a delightful singer and great Fiddle player too. There is a school of thought that says the surname Glasgow {my own} comes originally from McLoskey, which is not surprising when you consider how many words have been clearly anglicised over the years in this area. I must say though, I have heard a tape recording of Stumpy playing and singing and I would be delighted to be associated with his family name.
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Jim McGill

Jim McGill was born in the townland of Ballinlea, which lies half way between Ballycastle and Bushmills, in the Causeway Coast region of north Antrim. He was a fine country Fiddler, and realising that no one was passing on the skills of Traditional Music to the younger generation locally, he decided to set about the task himself. For many
years he taught kids from all around Ballinlea, Ballintoy & Ballycastle, visiting them in their own homes and passing on the music he loved so much, in order that others would still be playing, when he was not around to Fiddle for the local Ceili, concert or Pub Session.

Sadly, Jim is no longer with us, but many of the kids Jim taught still play, and all are the richer for having had the the privilage of his tutoring, and the pleasure of his company. Because of all his great work with the local youngsters, I had no hesitation in naming my Music School in his honour.
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Michael McIlhatten

Another rare local character was Michael McIlhatten, yes, he was the man Christy Moore sang about, a legend around the Glens of Antrim, for more than just Fiddling too - 'Still' that's another story!
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Frank McCollam

[ I wrote this piece for the Irish Music Magazine. ]
That wonderful Hornpipe, ‘The Home Ruler’ is played & loved wherever there is Irish Music, which means everywhere. But, was it written by a Kerry man, composed in Clare, dreamed up in Sligo, or whittled out of bog oak in Donegal, any guesses? Well no, none of the above are true, it was in fact composed by a fine Fiddler, Frank
McCollam, of Ballycastle, Co Antrim. 
Frank, who also had a passion for gardening, Bees, restoring old clocks, and ‘going to the Moss’, was a member of the local Ballinlea Pipe Band, but in later years, put the pipes aside to concentrate on the Fiddle. He also played the Accordion, but it’s his Fiddle playing most folk speak of around here, and musicians used to come from all over

the place to ‘hae a tune wi’ Frank’. Indeed, that well known connoisseur of good tunes, Cathal McConnell was a regular visitor. It’s a fair old cycle from Fermanagh, so Frank, & his music, must have been well worth the jaunt. 
Frank himself, was well known all over Ireland, but two men whom he visited on a regular basis were Liam Donnelly, and Sean Ryan. Sean Ryan, a kindred spirit, and brilliant Fiddler himself, and Liam, who could read and write the music down, skills which Frank did not possess. Frank however had all the music he needed in his head, and if he was ever short of a tune, all he had to do was sit down and write a new one. 
When I first learned the tune, The Home Ruler, I quite naturally assumed, like many, that it was named with politics in mind. However, some years ago, I was chatting to Len Graham, another good friend of Franks, who put me straight. Frank in fact named the tune after his wife, Sally, and Frank’s daughter Catherine, later confirmed
this by telling me how all the men then, used to refer to their wives as ‘The Home Ruler’. 
The version I have for you here, I learned from another Ballycastle man, Franks star pupil, Chris McCormick. Chris learned his Fiddle playing, and of course this tune, from Frank, so this is the way Frank would have played it. A little different perhaps, from the very fine version recorded by Noel Hill & Tony Linnane some years ago, on their
brilliant LP. I’m sure there are many people who learned the tune from that recording, and no doubt they will be interested to see how it differs from the original concept. 
Frank often played The Home Ruler in a set with ‘The Hangman’s Noose’, another of his own hornpipes. Frank had John McNaughton in mind when he named this tune, for John, a Bushmills man, was found guilty in 1761, of murdering his lover, and sentenced to hang. However, when they carried out the sentence the rope snapped, so they had to hang him again. Legend has it that he was offered a pardon, but refused it, saying he could not go through life being known as ‘Half hanged McNaughton’. 
Personally speaking you can call me anything you like, just don’t stretch my neck! 
Another of Frank’s excellent compositions, the reel ‘Catherine Marie’, now often called ‘Kate Marie’, can also be heard wherever good tunes are played. This tune Frank named after his daughter, who now lives in Dublin, so if you happen to meet up with Catherine in one of Dublin’s fine hostelries, I recommend you buy her a drink, and toast
the life of a great composer, and fine musician from Ballycastle, Co.Antrim, - Frank McCollam.
by Dick Glasgow

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Dusty Rhodes

James Stoddard Moore, the local Poet Dusty Rhodes, was born in Cushendall in 1844, the son of an Edinburgh man (well all the best people are!) and a local lass. His parents died before he was fifteen, and soon after, he became a sailor and travelled the seven seas, worked as a Goldminer in California and was a soldier in India, Afghanistan and Malta. When he returned to Ireland however, he worked as a farm labourer around Cushendall & Ballintoy but as he grew older he became a tramp, which was very common in those days.
Most of his poetry was written during the years he wandered the local roads, and he would give the poems to local farmers in return for board and lodgings, or for a few shillings. Some were published in the Northern Constitution, the local publication which printed so much of Sam Henry's collected songs.
He lived with his second wife, for a number of years in Dunlop Street, Coleraine, but settled, after many years on the road, in Mill Street, Ballycastle, with his third wife, and died in 1939 at the ripe old age of 96.
He clearly had plenty to write poetry about, what with his foreign travels and romantic lifestyle, not to mention his long healthy life, and of course, his three wives.
Thanks to Sean Traynor, who wrote to tell me the following tale about Dusty:

"My Great Aunt was born in Prolusk in 1905. My Dad was born at Carnsampson in 1931, Ballycastle. When I was young he was always telling me off for playing my music too loud, saying that I would get the same treatment as what I thought was "Dusty Roads". One day when he was talking about his childhood I asked what the saying was
about and he told me that Dusty wouldn't stop playing his fiddle in a neighbours house ( I think at a wake) and he got chased from the house with a broom. I don't know if anybody else has mentioned the tale? "
If you would like to read one of Dusty's Poems, then visit my Rhymes page.
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Sam Stevenson

Here is an extract from 'A Tribute to Sam Stevenson', an article I wrote for my regular 'Moyle Tradition' column, for the 'Moyle Newsletter'.

"Sam was born, lived, worked, married, reared his family and died within sight of Slemish Mountain, and he was intensely proud of his Braid Valley. A County Antrim man through & through, he loved the violin with a passion, & as a Fiddle player was a founder member of the 'Antrim & Derry Fiddlers Association'. He was also a lifelong friend, & playing companion, of such other local greats as Sean McGuire, Jim McKillop, Dennis Sweeney, & perhaps his closest musical friend in his latter years, Meave McKeon.
Sam's love of the Violin went further than most, for he wasn't content just to play beautiful music on the instrument, he also went on to make Fiddles himself, & in fact his fiddles, Violas & Cellos are played all over Ireland, England & on the continent. Sam was so well known that enthusiasts from all over the world came to see him in his garden workshop, & when Terry Wogan went looking for a fiddle maker to feature on his series on Ireland, he came to Sam Stevenson.
Sam enjoyed entertaining with the Antrim & Derry Fiddlers, & although he really enjoyed playing Irish Music, he also loved Scottish Music with a passion. He had great respect for the skill & technique of players like McGuire & McKillop, but there was a certain twinkle in his eye when he talked of Shetland's own Willie Hunter, who was indeed a master of the Slow Air. Sam also loved to quote Fritz Kriesler, the great violinist, who once said 'Tone is in the man, a great instrument simply makes it easier'. 
He very generously came all the way to Ballycastle for me on one occasion, to demonstrate to my young students the art of Fiddle making, & his enthusiasm was infactious. Over the last few years of his life, he repaired dozens of local Fiddles & Bows for me.
At his service of thanksgiving, his son-in-law, John Dooris, was the organist and Jim McKillop played some of Sam's favourite music on Fiddle. A fine tribute to Sam was read out by his friend Michael Sayers, & even the minister, the Rev. W. Dickie, had a Fiddle tale to tell about Sam, & produced his own Family Fiddle, which Sam had skilfully reconstructed.
He was a great man who is sadly missed."
by Dick Glasgow 

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John McGill

John McGill lived at 71 Ann Street, Ballycastle, above the famous 'Hell's Kitchen' venue, and right across the road from another great Ballycastle musician, Frank McCollam. He was a coachbuilder to trade, and served his time in the early 1900's with Mr. Harry Porter of John Street, Ballymoney, but his hobby was making Violins. While
attending a cinema, he saw, in a news reel, (remember them! Pathe etc!) a Fiddle made of Perspex and decided to have a go himself. He took celluloid as his medium and built a Fiddle made almost entirely of it, salvaged from the wreckage of a Canadian plane, which crashed in Glenshesk in Dec. 1943, with only the neck, strings and belly rib being made of other materials. John also made Fiddles from Irish Lancewood, aircraft wreckage, tin and mahogany from old landaulets. He also built Banjos.
In his youth, John was a well kent figure with his Fiddle, at local country dances.
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Dan O'Loan

Here is another extract from an article I wrote for my regular 'Moyle Tradition' piece, for the 'Moyle Newsletter'.

Dan O'Loan, a Glensman, was a famous Fiddler in his day. He was not only a fine musician, but he had other strings to his bow, like being a Carpenter and excellent Fiddle maker, who also made Boats and Furniture. At the height of his musical career he also made a radio programme, which is now, unfortunately, lost in the archives.
Dan had nine of a family and most of his sons were musical, playing Fiddles and Banjos, however, as so often happens, the musical genes skipped the next generation, and as Angela Bonnar, Dan's granddaughter so eloquently put it, " ..the most musical thing in our house was a Singer sewing machine! Thankfully, the music emerged again with a vengeance, in the present generation, through the wonderful musical talents of Jayne & Riona Bonnar, great granddaughters of Dan. The girls were encouraged by their parents, especially Dad Danny, who, as a youth, was a member of a local Folk Group 'Fadge', who played the Pub Scene around Ballycastle & the Glens. 
Younger daughter Jayne's musical career began at the age of seven when she asked, out of the blue, for a Fiddle. It didn't take Riona long to follow suit, and thankfully Jim McGill was on hand to guide the girls carefully onto the first rungs of their musical ladder. After Jim passed on, the girls had a number of Tutors including Dennis Sweeney, myself, local classical tutors Kate Keenan and Mrs Darling, and finally the one and only Sean McGuire recognised their talents, and took the girls under his wing.

It's a pity Dan hadn't been around to witness the girls musical development, especially as they both now proudly play Fiddles made by Dan himself.
Dick Glasgow with student Jayne Bonnar
Here's a video of Sean McGuire & his Fiddle Orchestra, featuring a solo from Jayne.

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