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

Style; Intonation; Tempo; Ornamentation; Bowing; Other; Conclusion

The four main styles generally recognized are those of Donegal, Sligo, Clare and Sliabh Luachra: descriptions of both Clare and Sliabh Luachra are relevant in considering Patrick Kelly’s playing. The excerpts below are from Fintan Vallely’s ‘The Companion to Irish Traditional Music’.

Clare: The slower tempo of the Clare style allows the player to concentrate more on the melodic aspects of the music. The bowing is more fluid, and extensive use is made of left-hand ornamentation such as rolls. Frequently a distinction is made between the music from the west of the region and that from the east. The West Clare style is well represented by the playing of Bobby Casey, Junior Crehan, John Kelly, Patrick Kelly and Joe Ryan.

Sliabh Luachra: On the Cork/ Kerry border near the source of the river Blackwater, Sliabh Luachra is renowned for slides and polkas. The direct and rhythmic style of playing these has influenced the playing of the other dance tunes. As the music is frequently played for the dancing of sets, it is lively and exuberant. Ornamentation is achieved mainly with the left hand, while the bow-hand provides the characteristic rhythm. A particular feature is the use of open strings to provide a drone-type rhythmic effect.[36]

Patrick Kelly’s playing shows characteristics of both the West Clare style, as one would expect, and of a Kerry influence, if not the Sliabh Luachra style per se. For the purposes of discussion I will consider the hallmarks of a North Kerry style as being similar to the description of Sliabh Luachra music above. George Whelan’s influence has been noted, and likely accounts for the presence of slides, the use of drones, and the rhythmic approach to jigs in Patrick’s playing. Within the West Clare style, Patrick drew a distinction between his region and the Miltown area.

Would you say there’s a difference in the music of West Clare from this side down and from Miltown up?

There is, mind you. There is a difference in the style of music, because Thady’s style and mine were completely different altogether. He had music from a great player up there, he called him O’Donnell, and O’Donnell had great music because Thady had great music. Everything he played was good.[37]

Of the difference between the two West Clare styles, one presumes a greater Kerry influence in the Kilrush area, given the geographic proximity. Scattery Island and the presence of Whelan 1880 reinforce the theory. Given that boats went both ways across the Shannon, it is likely that a North Kerry style would have influences of Clare as well as Sliabh Luachra, creating a geographic continuum from Sliabh Luachra to North Kerry to Kilrush to Miltown. Critics of the concept of regional style argue that this redefinition of regions could continue ad infinitum until every parish and every house had its own brand of music, at which point it would become a meaningless distinction. While that argument holds some merit, and individual exceptions to regional style are numerous, the idea still helps us assess and understand someone’s playing. Patrick Kelly was a creative and unique fiddler, but looking at what he did with the tunes in the context of the music that was being played around him allows us to see his individual genius all the more clearly. And I think it’s a lovely thing when the lines get muddied: Patrick stands as one of the defining players of the West Clare style, yet bears clear influences of Kerry. It is, after all, a small island.

In looking at an individual approach to music, I would posit that there are four main aspects of fiddle playing that define a player’s style: bowing, ornamentation, intonation and tempo. Bowing includes not only the direction of the bow and choice of slurring, but also the quality of attack and other considerations employed to produce desired tone quality; ornamentation includes rolls, trebles, cuts, slides and squawks; intonation the choice of tuning on certain fluid notes, particularly the F and C, and the tuning of the fiddle; and tempo the speed at which the tunes are executed.


All recorded examples of Patrick’s playing are below concert pitch, ranging anywhere from a half step to slightly more than a whole step below A440. The fiddle is particularly warm and resonant at such a low pitch, and the use of drones and double-stops particularly effective. Of the fiddlers also named as being representative of the West Clare style, Bobby Casey and Junior Crehan also tuned down, while Joe Ryan and John Kelly played at concert pitch. Patrick’s choice of intonation was fluid, particularly with the C natural/ super-natural sounded by the second finger on the A string. In ‘O’Connell’s Farewell to Dublin’, Patrick uses a wide range of color on the prominent Cs in the melody, giving the tune much of its expressiveness and draoicht.

O'Connell's Farewell to Dublin

This motif is repeated throughout the tune, and is treated in a number of ways, with the moveable C being droned against an A played by the fourth finger, against the open D, and decorated with rolls or “squawks”. The C is treated in a similarly fluid manner in ‘The College Groves’ and ‘The Frieze Britches’, among other tunes. Fs tend to be the next note treated with fluidity: I came across no examples of tunes with a true F natural, but Patrick does play his F# a touch flat. Indeed, most major thirds are played flat, another characteristic of a West Clare “sound”. These characteristics were shared by Casey and Crehan, but are found as well in the playing of Denis Murphy, continuing to muddy the line between Clare and Kerry. “The Waiver” also tuned his fiddle low by a half-step, with a fluid treatment of C’s and F’s, and a resonant wildness in his playing. Patrick frequently used his fourth finger to sound a unison drone against open strings, often sliding the fourth finger up from a flattened position to emphasize the note. As often, the fourth finger would remain a touch flat, creating a resonant dissonance. Examples are from The Frieze Britches, on the E, and ‘O’Connell’s Farewell’, with the slide very prominent on the ending note of the phrase.

Music example


Patrick played reels between 96 and 100 bpm[38]: a relaxed, Clare tempo and very close to Bobby Casey and Joe Ryan. Denis Murphy, by contrast, played ‘Kennedy’s Favourite’ at the healthy clip of 118 bpm on the ‘Kerry Fiddles’ album. Patrick played jigs a bit faster than his reels, with ‘Gillan’s Apples’ at 110 bpm and ‘Banish Misfortune’ at 108. This is a touch faster than Casey’s rendition of ‘The Gallowglass’ at 104. ‘Denny Mescall’s’ and ‘Mickey Callaghan’s’ slides are both played by Patrick around 114 bpm: comparable to Denis Murphy’s playing of ‘Rathawaun’ and ‘Chase Me Charlie’, but considerably slower than prevailing trends in Sliabh Luachra. In ‘Johnny O’Leary of Sliabh Luachra’, Terry Moylan notes that many of Johnny’s slide tempos are between 150 and 160.[39] Patrick’s approach to the slides, and the Clare approach generally, would be somewhat different from how they are played in Sliabh Luachra. This from Matt Cranitch:

In Sliabh Luachra, slides are played with more of a rhythmic emphasis and urgency, due no doubt to the influence of the set-dancing. Also, they appear to be played a bit faster. Over the years from listening to Clare musicians, and even more recently to people like Michael Tubridy, I am reinforced in my opinion that they approach these tunes somewhat differently.

Patrick was aware that the older players tended to play more slowly, and recalled that Denny Mescall lost popularity with the dancers because he played too slow. “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.”[40]


More ornate than Mrs. Crotty’s spare playing, less adorned than someone like Bobby Casey, Patrick had a wide range of ornaments at his command: rolls, trebles, cuts, double-stops, slides, squawks, and quadruplets. Of these, the use of double-stops to create added resonance, slides to emphasize prominent notes, and squawks to create wildness are the most emblematic aspects of his playing. When double-stopping the added tone, invariably lower than the melody note, is not bowed for the full duration of the melody note. Patrick taps these notes with his bow, lifting off of them while continuing to sound the melody, in a way that allows the fiddle to resonate. Sliding into a fourth finger unison drone is a common feature of Patrick’s playing, again with the drone not lasting the full duration and with the fourth finger often being slightly flat and dissonant to the open string. By squawks, there are times when Patrick would seem to make the fiddle bark with a combination of increased bow pressure and shifting of the fingered note. ‘O’Connell’s Farewell’ is a good example of these techniques, with the G and C notes in bars 2 and 3 being ‘squawked’, and the E an example of a sliding double stop with the fourth finger.

Music example

Patrick’s use of quadruplets in jig time has been noted above, and was a spectacular feature of his settings of ‘Banish Misfortune’ and ‘The Frieze Britches’. In both tunes the notes of the ornament are the same, and are bowed in a sharp, staccato fashion. The first bar of the following example is the ornament as played by Patrick; the second shows the standard melody that it replaces.

Music example

In addition to the quadruplet figure, Patrick used trebles extensively in his jig playing, usually doubling the second quaver of the group, as in this example from ‘The Frieze Britches’.

Music example

Patrick used rolls relatively sparingly; when he does his rolls are a very rhythmic device, giving the impression of three separated notes, almost like a treble. The fingering of the ornament is the same as the standard: a fingered note graced above with a cut, lifted and put back down. But where other players may treat a roll melodically, allowing you to hear the five distinct notes of the ornament, Patrick’s are rhythmic, with the ‘flick’ and the ‘hop’ not sounding melodically, just interrupting the flow of the melody note. In certain instances, as with ‘The Foxhunter’s’, the final note of the roll is replaced by the open string, for a distinctive effect.

Music example

Cuts are used frequently to separate two notes of the same value, as in bars 7 and 8 of ‘Gillan’s Apples’.

Music example


In ‘Gillan’s Apples’ Patrick demonstrates not only the effectiveness of alternating between separate and slurred bowings, but in alternating the attack and pressure of the bow to create different sounds. At the beginning of the A part, Patrick plays with short, choppy strokes, likely executed near the frog to achieve a punchy, rhythmic sound. In the turn of the tune, Patrick uses a smoother bow attack and a slurring pattern that contrasts strongly with the opening approach to the tune.

Music example

The wide palette of tone color is heard throughout Patrick’s playing; also characteristic from the above example is the placement of a slur across a beat. According to Caoimhin O Raghallaigh, slurring across the beat is the “essence of all Munster fiddle playing,” and is compensated for by applying extra bow pressure at the beat, a “wah” to create subtle emphasis. The opening bars of ‘The College Groves’ show Patrick slurring across the beat.

Music Example

Such slurs are frequent throughout Patrick’s playing, accounting for much of the swing.


Patrick preferred to play tunes singly: “He hardly ever followed in to a second tune. He nearly always stopped after playing the one tune.”[41] The only published exception to this is the medley of ‘The Salamanca’ and ‘The Milliner’s’ on ‘Ceol an Chlair’: interestingly, on some private tapes loaned me by Séamus Mac Mathúna Patrick follows another reel in D, unidentified, with ‘The Milliner’s Daughter’. On the same tapes, Patrick pairs ‘The Sporting Pitchfork’ and ‘The Rambling Pitchfork’. Outside of these, all of the tunes are played singly,[42] which seems to have been the standard in the locality. Again, this has connections to the aesthetic of dance playing, where musicians would play one tune per figure. Mrs. Crotty, strongly rooted in dance playing, also played the great majority of the tunes singly. Tom Kelly reckons the influence of Martin O’Dea, the priest who preserved the home recordings of Patrick, led Mrs. Crotty to create the medleys she did.

Now this fellow Martin O’Dea that I was telling you about. He brought Mrs. Crotty to Dublin to make her first record, the 78 with ‘The Reel with the Birl’ and ‘The Wind that shakes the Barley’. But you see as it was with all the old musicians, and as it was with my father on that tape there, they all played single tunes. But he had her told, you’re to play two tunes after one another without a stop. Father Martin had her told, and she started after leaving here, practicing, and they were in the Curragh of Kildare when she got it. I often heard him telling that.

One of Patrick’s most striking pieces was ‘The Foxhunter’s’, played with the fiddle tuned EAEA, from highest string to lowest. Though cross-tuning is common in other fiddle traditions, particularly those of Scotland, French-Canada and the Appalachians, it seems to be an anomaly in the Irish tradition. Changing the tuning of the strings makes the fiddle particularly resonant and full, something that Patrick’s setting of the tune uses to great effect in the second part of the tune, bars 9-16. The opening E of that phrase is sounded by the open string, not the first finger as in standard tuning, and continues to ring while the notes are fingered on the A string. Of the transcriptions below, the first is notated by pitch while the second is notated as fingered that fiddler may see where open strings come into play. A hallmark of cross-tuning where it appears in other traditions, particularly in American old-timey (Appalachian) playing, is putting the high part of a melody an octave lower, where it’s growly and driving. It’s an easy device, as the fingering is exactly the same on the lower two strings as on the higher: the third, fourth and fifth parts of the tune are perfectly suited, as the melody remains on the two high strings. Usually this would happen a number of repetitions into the tune to give it new lift. But it’s a facet of the tuning that Patrick doesn’t explore: indeed, only 12 bars of the 40 use the third string at all, and the lowest string remains untouched. Even without using the lower strings in the melody, changing the tuning of the fiddle has a huge impact on the resonance of the instrument and the nature of the tune. As with the slides, we can only surmise as to the origins of ‘The Foxhunter’s’ and the use of cross-tuning. Patrick had the tune from his father Tim, which suggests that it has its roots in the Kerry of George Whelan.

‘The Foxhunter’ he wouldn’t play that often. He could play several sessions and he’d never play ‘The Foxhunter’, because he always tuned the fiddle up to do it. So, except at the end of night and someone would ask him to play ‘The Foxhunter’ and then he might play a couple of tunes after with the fiddle still tuned the same, the same tuning.[43]
The Foxhunter's

The Foxhunter's


Every time I listen to it I always think that you could have a good 20 years work just listening to that hour or whatever it is of Patrick Kelly. It’s pretty much a lifetime study; you listen to it and you get a certain level of appreciation for it. You come back a month later and you hear a whole new side of things, and you come back a year later and you realize you haven’t heard it at all. It’s music of infinite depth. That old music of great quality, you keep going back to it.[44]

Ne’er a truer word was spoken. In the course of this research I have been immersed in the music and the world of Patrick Kelly, yet every time I listen to him anew there’s something I hadn’t caught before. It is lovely stuff, this making aeroplanes out of scrapheaps.


Aeroplanes out of Scrapheaps