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Aeroplanes out of Scrapheaps: Patrick Kelly from Cree by Brendan Taaffe

Appendix 5: Séamus Mac Mathúna Interview, Brendan Taaffe 2004

I heard it being said that they felt that nights were being organized to support republican causes, but it was a damnable thing to decide, both for the government, which was a fianna fail govt at the time, the govt that was supposed to be all Gaelic Ireland and all that, that they should, with the strong encouragement of the clergy, bring in this law that would end the house dances. Now any house dances that happened after that, sometimes they were organized quietly, and there might be a big night, but people often had a bit of a dance at the Christmas. I remember the last one in our house, in ’46 or ’47 or thereabouts, and certainly by the ‘50s there was very little in the way of house dances happening. And that’s the trouble with recollections from that era, you aren’t talking about what was happening even 5 miles away, 10 miles away, you’re talking about what was happening in the immediate part of the parish, but I was aware that there were bits of nights.

Now there used to be, Lent was very strictly observed in rural Ireland, maybe in all Ireland for that matter, and any kind of commercial dances in halls were out, so what happened quite a lot, say parochial halls, there were quite a lot of plays done, and at plays there would always be local musicians, filling in. I recall numerous nights in Cooraclare as a young fellow, the likes of Solus Lillis, Jer O’Sullivan, Tommy Carey, and a whole lot of people only slightly older than myself, would be playing. Paddy Breen if he was home. I don’t think Patrick played at such functions very much – I couldn’t be sure now. I certainly don’t recall it. The first time I heard, apart from hearing there was a Patrick Kelly who played, and was good. The first time I heard Patrick Kelly’s music was when I was age 22, 1961 or thereabouts, when Sean O Riada did his series Musical Heritage. I was working in Ennis then, in fact, and going to Fleadhs and all the rest of it, and here was this man playing lovely music. I made kind of contact, and then I didn’t have a car until 1965. Oh yeah, I actually met him at the Fleadh in Kilrush in ’63, because he knew O Riada and the group were playing at the Fleadh. He must have known they were going to be there, and I was giving a hand at the concert, and the next thing was this small man slipped in the back and was talking to Sean, and Sean said, play a few tunes. Patrick took out the fiddle and played quite a lot. So then when I did get a car and a tape recorder, I left Clare in ’66, but I called to him, maybe two or three times a year and played and talked. His main interest in life was music, so he would have been listening to anything that was on the radio, and he’d be impatient to start talking. In the ‘60s he would generally be sitting by the fire, but by the ‘70s, the last five or six years, he was usually in bed. But he would immediately start talking about, somebody had played the Salamanca, and the conversation would go on from that, about what was happening and who was playing. There was one night I was going along from his house to Miltown, and I dropped him at Thady Casey’s, and he was delighted.

Before that, he didn’t get out much.

No, I would have only been four miles away, on the far side of Cooraclare. I’d have heard that there was a man that plays. The thing was the musicians you were aware of were the ones that would be playing in the village, like, when there’d be a concert. You’d be able to get on, hoping you’d be asked to play with them. Solus Lillis, Mrs. McInerny, Baby John Lillis, these people would be playing. My recollection was that Patrick didn’t figure much in that line. We did hear that when Ciaran Macmathuna came around, I think he came to Kilmihil, and this would have been in mid ‘50s, that Patrick played for him. I don’t think he played very much though. Again, there would have been a huge queue, you know what I mean, everybody wanted to get on the radio. It was the great honor at the time. Ciaran taped a few tunes from him, but probably not very much. Sean O Riada’s father, you see, came from West Clare, from the parish of Kilmihil, and I think he had learned some music, either from Patrick himself or from Patrick’s father. I’m not quite sure now, but there had to be some connection, because Sean, it was on his father’s advice that he had sought out Patrick Kelly. I’d have to say, I think he was at his best playing jigs. When he was going well, his ability to execute variations and that very spontaneously, and effortlessly, it seemed to happen more when he was playing jigs.

On ‘The Salamanca’, it’s labored enough. I think in his playing of jigs, there’s a lot of – he’s motoring very well, things are coming easily. Even the Frieze britches now, he seems to be going damn well on it. The tunes in single jig time that he played, he seemed to have more fluency with them as well. I think I remember him saying that his father had a particular bowing, or maybe it was George Whelan, for quite a lot of tunes, and to some extent he followed that, maybe from his father. But that gradually he stopped doing it. Like you’ve heard his ‘Banish Misfortune’ for instance, well I suppose that would be his most spectacular piece. But his playing of a couple of the jigs, even on that new one, and indeed of his playing .

What strikes me is that the level of variation would be smaller than contemporary players, but his settings are unique and lovely.

Well you see, I suppose – ‘The Milliner’s Daughter’, I thought he was labored enough on ‘The Salamanca’, but especially on the second part, he more or less tipped through it not at his ease. Whereas with ‘The Milliner’s Daughter’, he was belting away again fairly handy,

Do you have a sense would he have gotten these different settings from a source, or would he have heard a tune and squeezed it around?

It’s difficult enough to say. I would think that he would have got the settings from his father or from Denny Mescall, but that the finished thing would have had a fair bit of himself, too. Because he did comment now about, for instance, Denny Mescall that he played tunes exactly as he got them, and that would have been a criticism. And I would think that from the fluency with which he played some of those jigs in particular, that he was putting a fair bit of his own creative thing into it, just from the kind of momentum and vehemence, if you like, that was in the tune. They were very fluent. Compared to a lot of his reel playing.

I thought he was in better form for the stuff I recorded, which would have been ’66, ’67, than he was for the stuff he recorded for Sean O Riada, which would have been a few years earlier. You see, he suffered from a weak chest, struggled with his health a fair bit, and he wasn’t going out so much.

He was a small man, you said.

He was, a small man, and slight. His sons, now, would be bigger men. Patrick would only have been about five foot four, and slight. When he played a tune he wanted to talk about it, and so the whole set dancing thing wasn’t his line at all. I remember, I had heard people complaining that Patrick Kelly was there and they were waiting for him playing, but he’d spend five minutes in between each figure talking about the tune. And this wasn’t going down well at all because the dancers, you may have noticed, a lot of them aren’t particularly interested in the music at all. It’s a case of getting each figure going, whereas Patrick would be talking about where he got that particular version of a tune, and the way someone else had it, and he did a lot of that. So he come into there on the tape with that Denny was kind of chased out of the house dances, because Denny played the old music slow, and this set dancing had come in with the gramophones. Coleman’s music was probably a bit livelier than the style of music they played, in terms of lively music for dancing.

What do you know about George Whelan?

Funny now, he came across from Kerry anyway. I’m pretty sure it was Kerry. There was a Batt Scanlon, and he did this book of music of tunes he learned from George Whelan and with a name like Batt Scanlon I took it for granted, Patrick had never met him, but he thought he had seen him once at a Feis back in West Clare in the ‘20s and that this man was home from America and there was some bit of a fuss about him and Patrick thought it might be him. But a few years ago I got a letter from somebody in Kerry who wanted to know had we any information about Batt Scanlon, who had originally come from Kerry. Scanlon is a fairly common West Clare name, and Batt Scanlon – I knew of a few Batt Scanlon’s back around West Clare, so I took it that he was from there, but it would seem that he was a Kerryman. To the best of my knowledge George Whelan was a Kerryman. I think Patrick said he was blind in fact. And that he would have come across back around 1880. There were certainly 5 or 6 tunes in 12/8 time. Patrick played at least four of them – Denny Mescall’s and Anthony Frawley’s.

Appendix 4

Aeroplanes out of Scrapheaps