Sunday, 22 November 2009

»» Elphin, Co. Roscommon

Thinking back to the first occasion I met Kevin Conneff, I was brought back to Elphin, Roscommon and the Fleadh held there in 1963. It was "only" a county fleadh, but we were mad for the music and made the trip from Dublin, as we did to remote spots all over Ireland through the 50s and 60s, supporting the music wherever it was to be found. I traveled with Mick Christle to Elphin--another Drimnagh man--the great cyclist who with his brother Joe Christle led many Irish nationalist causes, including the Rás Tailteann, the all-Ireland cycling competition.

Then again, so many decades later in 2008, I was back in Ireland for a wonderful concert as guest of the Frank McGann festival in Strokestown. On the final evening as the festival wound down, I was relaxing at the hotel, when I received a message from Patsy Hanly--flute--inquiring if I would attend the final session of festivities at Hanly's bar across the street. Having just played many great sessions over the weekend, and just on the heels of playing for sets with John Lynch and the Kilfenora Band, Theresa and I were having our last meal in Ireland of the trip when the invitation came.

There were scores of musicians, and it was great music. As the night wound down, there were four of us left standing, playing into the small hours. Three great masters of Irish flute: Frank Jordan, Patsy Hanly and Roger Sherlock and myself closed the place.

85 years of age now by this time, Frank Jordan leans over the table and says to me, "I haven't played with you since 1963." When I asked him to remind me of the first time we had met, he said "Elphin" and it all came flooding back. When the session was finished at 1:30 in the morning; I was heading for Shannon for a flight leaving only in a few hours; and I gave a hug to Frank, as we were heading out saying "let's not leave it another 45 years before we meet again."

Thursday, 19 November 2009

»» Fingal's first concert

This is a picture of our group Fingal, with Randal Bays, Dáithí Sproule and myself as we played our first concert as an ensemble at Traditions in Olympia, Washington state. It was at a great folk music venue attended by discerning listeners, who were very appreciative and warm to us.

»» Seán and Myself Recording Roll Away

In 1978 I invited my Mother to visit with us in New York and at that same time Seán was touring the states with the Chieftains. Seán had arranged to have his wife Marie, daughter Deirdre and their two sons Pádraic and Darach join him in New York and this would mark the first gathering of our "clan" outside of Ireland. I had been working on recording my album "Roll Away the Reel World" and my Mother saw this as a golden opportunity to have her wish come true which was for the two brothers to play, for once, a few tunes together on a record. At the time Seán was very busy.

On the morning of the recording, as I prepared to leave for Connecticut, my Mother persuaded me to drive into Manhattan in chance of finding Seán while he was in town. United again, all the Keanes headed for Connecticut and on the way we discussed possible tunes, enough for four tracks. Amazingly we recorded each track on the first take. We hadn't played serious music together since 1965-'66 and it was clear that we had the same interpretations and settings of the tunes as it all came flowing back to us.

»» Ryan's Fancy at Disneyworld

I accepted an invitation from a very prominent Canadian based Irish folk group "Ryan's Fancy" to become a member and contribute to their music line-up.

In 1979 I moved to Canada and to a new address at The Head of St. Margaret's Bay on the south shore if Nova Scotia. We toured all over Canada but were better known as a group from the Maratimes. I recorded a few LP's with them and during that time we hosted our own C.B.C. "Superspecials" on network television. It's members were Denis Ryan from Newport, Co. Tipperary, Fergus O'Byrne from Dublin and Dermot O' Reilly from the same area of Dublin as myself. Unfortunately Dermot died at his home in St. Johns, Newfoundland on February 17th. 2007. R.I.P.

This photo is the result of a happy ending to an international incident that involved Ken Taylor who in 1979 was the Canadian Ambassador to Iran when he helped six American hostages. They had escaped and sought refuge at the Canadian embassy when Ken Taylor, with help from Joe Clark, Canadian Prime Minister, issued Canadian passports to fool the Iranians into believing they were Canadians in a covert operation called "The Canadian Caper".

On an invite from the American government, Ryan's Fancy was selected to record a one hour "Superspecial" at Disneyworld Florida produced by C.B.C. television.

»» My Mother with Liam Óg O'Flynn

I have related before how much my Mother loved the music and here she is playing at a session in Co. Sligo, at age 75, with one of her favorites--Liam O'Flynn--and the late Peg McGrath (1948-1995). Her opportunities for playing during those times would have long past but with a gentle word or two of encouragement, and she was ready to oblige.

Some relations from my father's side in County Clare

Photo of my Grandmother, Ellen Spellacy Keane, her daughter, my Aunt "Baby" and her daughters Margaret and Anita. My Grandmother was a Spellacy from Kilmaley, Co. Clare (Cill Mháille, Chláir). Her daughter Baby was a fine concertina player and notice her little daughter Anita who would later marry John Garry, also from Lavalla, Ballynacally (Baile na Caillí) and from a very musical family. They have a grown-up daughter Sheila Garry who is a well known fiddle player with beautiful CDs to her credit and is a past member of "The Kilfenora Céilí Band". The other two brothers of the Garry's are my dear friends Mike and Jimmy who live here in New York and are also related through their Mother's side to Sharon Shannon.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Loyal Friends, Dublin 1991, Paul Brady and Kevin Conneff

Both of these guys have something in common with me and that is their loyalty. If they say something they really mean it. I first got to know Kevin in the early 60s, as I attended different fleadhanna around the country. One of these in particular was in Elphin, Co Roscomon in 1963. The fun was mighty as I set about painting the town red and every other color over that weekend. That's where I met Kevin for the first time. Each time I meet Kevin, he jokes "remember Elphin!" and we just laugh. As I remember Elphin, there are so many memories, I'll post them (the ones I can!) separately here.

In those days, Kevin had founded a great club in Slattery's of Capel Street called the Tradition Club. He went on to master the bodhrán and a fine repertoire of songs, to become by 1976, a member of the Chieftains.

Occasionally, when I return to Ireland to play a concert, it's Kevin who shows up to give me support.

Paul and I go back to the early 60s to the time of the Folk Revival. Paul Brady was a member of The Johnsons, who were becoming famous in that era, and had a regular spot in Tallaght at The Embankment, once a week. There guests would include Paul--solo--myself, and Joey Walsh bodhrán. Paul sang songs from across many traditions. I remember "The Flower of Sweet Strabane," as was often sung "I Gave My Love a Cherry." I asked him to back me one night, and he said he never backed reels and jigs before but that he would give it a try. This was beginning of a long musical friendship, and to this day Paul credits me with introducing him to Irish traditional music.

Paul shared an apartment at the time with Mick Moloney in Rathmines, and I was more often there than at my own home four miles away in Drimnagh. My mother never knew about this other address, and would wonder where I had been all night, as I screeched to a halt outside 92 in my Volkswagon. I can see her looking at me now, with raised eyebrow, but I knew how to smooth things over, and make the best of it. And so, just before crashing for the morning after a long night of music, I'd open the car door for her, and drive her down Mourne Road to church for the mass she attended every morning at 6am--just as I was getting in.

In 1991 I was invited to play at the Dublin Folk Festival, but there was a scheduling conflict with Paul, who had another gig open for him in London. He was sorry that he could not play with me. The current great guitar player, Mark Kelly, from Altan, obliged and we ran through the tunes in my room before going to the venue where the concert was to take place. We got the call that we were up next and headed for the stage. While standing in the lobby, among old friends, the door behind me flew open and hit me in the back, and this this wild looking man burst through and said "James! we'll take no prisoners!" Paul had managed to swing a last minute flight from London, and we explained to Mark about our friendship and feelings for old time's sake. And Mark was gracious to agree to let Paul take his place, and accompany me. It was a last minute change-up, but Paul, Kevin and myself took the stage. It was like being at the Embankment and the Old Sheiling again.

Mulhaire & Miltown Malbay 1957

The year was 1957 and the very first Co. Clare Fleadh Cheoil had begun in Miltown Malbay just on the heels of the greatest All Ireland Fleadh that had been held the previous year down the road in Ennis.

By this time, my brother Seán was 11 years old and playing great, and I was making my own way, trying to figure out the box. The tiredness was beginning to have its toll on us from all the walking around town and navigating our way through the crowds. I remember Dad buying us comic books and we found ourselves a seat on the sidewalk under a street light outside the door of Friel's Bar. Angela Crehan Crotty has since mentioned to me many years later, that her father Junior remarked at the time about "how well the two Keane lads behaved as they read their comics." As usual there was music being played in Friel's kitchen and Dad managed to maneuver us right into the middle of it.

There was a large crowd gathered in the kitchen around the musicians who were some members of the Tulla Céilí Band--Paddy Canny and Martin Mulhaire. It was a significant moment, as it was shortly before the band was to leave for an American tour and recording session.

Besides the gentleman we all know Martin to be, we also know him for his great box playing and his composition of tunes such as "Land of Sunshine," "Mulhaires #9" and "Carmel Mahoney Mulhaire." The latter tune he wrote for Carmel Mahoney and I am sure that this great piece of music surely helped win her heart.

We seldom meet but when we do, it's always a great and worthwhile reunion and it brings me back to Miltown Malbay 1957.

Thinking of My Father

My Father was a very unassuming, quiet man who loved nothing better than to play the fiddle and bring my Mother, Seán and myself to sessions and Fleadhs all over Ireland. I was actually present as a five year old toddler at the the Fleadh in Athlone in 1953, and every Fleadh after that until 1966 because of my Dad's efforts. His yearly vacation always fell on the first two weeks of August, the timing was perfect, and after the All Ireland in Ennis in 1956, we never missed a Co. Clare fleadh either.

I brought my Father to America for a visit in 1971 and arranged to borrow a fiddle for him to use during his stay. My partner Michael "Jesse" Owens and myself had a nice gig playing at Candlewood Lake in Connecticut and I rented a fine house way back in the woods. Some mornings as Theresa prepared breakfast we would take the fiddle and box and head to a favorite rock we had found and play for the raccoons and birds until we got the shout from Theresa to come for the food. At night, I would invite my father on-stage and he enjoyed playing a few tunes with us.

Theresa and I arranged to be on the flight with him to Ireland when he returned home and that gave me another month in his company. Having had a great visit it was time for me to return to New York and we had a very emotional parting as I could not oblige him when he asked me not to return to the states. It was very hard to return to my life abroad.

As was the tradition, Mother and Father headed to Longford after Christmas, for the Wren Dance held each year at the original homestead of my Mother's people, the Hanlys of Curroole, Newtowncashel Co. Longford. Besides some great local musicians such as James Hanly, Dan Kelly and Peter Carburry--to name but a few--we would also have musicians visiting from such far away places as east Galway and Co. Westmeath, that had included Joe Cooley, John Joe Gannon and Willie Reynolds.

It was December 29th, the day was advancing and my Father made several requests of my Aunt Brigie about bringing the cows down from the fields for evening milking. It was much too early but in the end she agreed to get it done, and so my Father, Brigie and her son James headed for the fields. The process was one of the daily rituals on the farm, and Brigie requested that Dad and young James stand guard at a gap at the end of the field by the road, to stop the cattle from going through it as she herded them down that way. As she headed off into the distance to round the herd, Dad spotted a baby lamb with it's wool caught in the briars. The animal was bleating and struggling to get free, and my Father leaned over with his tobacco knife to free the lamb, and as soon as he did, he just fell over on the green grass and died.

The shocking news got to me in New York that morning and I was devastated, having only said my goodbyes to him after our long time together in America and Ireland a few months before. It was my misfortune to encounter bureaucracy as I tried to return home, and it was impossible for me to fly back again to Ireland for the funeral.

Playing music during 1972 was nothing but pain for me, because no matter what tunes I played, I was reminded of my father. I tried to avoid playing tunes that reminded me of him, and it was impossible, and there were disastrous nights when I would be on-stage and the music would remind me of him and I would shed tears in the club as I continued to work at the music.

I had my legal situation resolved six months later and returned to Dublin for his first anniversary. I talked with him at his grave, and always play music that reminds me of him.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Remembering Checkpoint Charlie

These memories come to mind on this the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was fifteen years old in 1963 and it was shortly after President Kennedy's visit to Berlin that Mick O' Connor, myself and several dancers were on a tour of Germany, on behalf of Conradh na Gaeilge, representing Ireland at a World Youth for Peace Rally. We had played in Koln and Stuttgart when we received a surprise invitation to visit Berlin.Permission was also granted to visit East Berlin and as we were crossing over at Checkpoint Charlie Mick and I decided to have a little fun with the American soldier and speak in our school Irish. Didn't fool him as he called after us " Enjoy your visit Paddy". During the day we played for our dancers on the street and the very shy people really enjoyed it. We were obliged to exit by midnight and found our way on a train going east instead of west.Having figured this out we got off the train and were greeted by several fully armed East German and Russian soldiers.One of the dancers got a little too smart with the soldiers and the rest of us had to wait several hours until they decided to release him.

The Lecture by Dr. Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin called The Indomitable Céilí Band

As part of the Catskills Irish Arts Week, Dr. Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin gave a talk entitled "The Indomitable Céilí Band" and he decided to ask certain musicians to sit in and play as a band. Four of us had, in the past, played with famous bands of the early céilí band era--The Castle, The Tulla and The Kilfenora.

In the front row--from left to right--are Siobhán and Willie Kelly, Patrick Ourceau, Martin Hayes, Randal Bays, Sean Cleland and Catherine Mc Evoy; and in the back row are Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, Martin Mulhaire, Tim Collins, myself and Brian Mc Namara. Brendan Dolan is on piano, out of frame.

Here is something that is relative to this photograph. I bumped into Patrick Ourceau and Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin while visiting with the late Barra Ó Donnabháin who lived near me in New York. While having a chat, Kieran Hanrahan's name came up and I told the story from many years ago at the Milwaukee Fest in the early 70s about the time Kieran turned to me in the van coming from the airport and inquired about my Co. Clare background. His mother had warned him, if he met me, to let me know that we were related and also to Paul Roache , the flute player, who is his first cousin. Gearóid chimed in to say that over the course of the last two hundred plus years various branches of our family tree have occasionally intertwined and so by extension... How nice to find my long lost musical cousins. With relatives like these we should form our own céilí band.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

My Father and his Brother Walking Down O'Connell St in the 1950s

This is my Father Patrick and one of his brothers Mick. It was Mick that was somewhat responsible for me playing the box. He was a member of the Garda ( police ) at Stores St. Garda station and had purchased a Hohner Double-Ray accordion to help pass the time at the barracks. He then decided that 92 Errigal would be a more friendly venue where he could store (hide) the box under the sofa and would play it when he came to visit on weekends.During the week I had a free hand as I taught myself to play , starting with one finger, being very careful to put it back exactly as I had found it. This picture of them was taken as they walked past Cleary's department store on O'Connell St. during the late 50's.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Early Castle

This is a photo of the very early stages of The Castle Céilí Band. A rough guess regarding the date of this picture would place it between 1961-'62. I'm there on the left, that's Seán on fiddle, Seán Burke, Mick O'Connor, Con Hayes and Johnny Mac Namara from left to right. We all attended Drimnagh Castle Secondary School and that was where the name of the band came from. At thirteen I was very happy to be with a band as we played for a céilí at the Hollybrook Hotel in Clontarf. That hotel was years later to become the home for the Clontarf C.C.É. There was a photographer from the Sunday Press there that night and a picture of Seán and myself and this one of the band showed up in the Sunday morning paper. Having just looked at this photo again I am reminded of my mother putting me on the "stand" to investigate "how did those porter bottles that appeared in the picture come to be on the top of the piano?." After a lengthy trial, peace returned to "92" when the verdict came in: Innocent!

The Keanes of Errigal Road

This is a family photo of my Father Patrick, my Mother, Mary "Molly" and Seán, my Brother. That's me on my Mother's knee. Both my parents were fine fiddle players and their hearts and souls were in the music. My Father was from a place called Lavalla, Ballynacally, Co. Clare. He grew up in a house full of music and his sister "Baby" had great style on the concertina. My Mother was from Curroole, Newtowncashel, Co. Longford. Her maiden name was Hanly and two of her brothers Peter and James were great musicians. My Father came to Dublin in his late teens and got a job working shift-work for Clondalkin Paper Mills; and as a young woman my Mother worked for The Ormond Hotel on Ormond Quay Dublin. They instilled in us their love and respect for the music and my memories are as bright today , as if it were only yesterday, of the hundreds of great sessions with all those legends of the music that came to visit the Keanes at 92 Errigal Road, Drimnagh.