Musical partnership across two continents

Friday’s concert in tribute to Séamus Creagh, left, includes Aidan Coffey, right.

The collaboration between Aidan Coffey and the late Séamus Creagh was founded in Cork and survived for many years over long distances, writes Pet O’Connell

WHEN accordion player Aidan Coffey arrived in Cork as a student in the 1980s, Séamus Creagh had “rock star” status on the city’s traditional music scene.

Creagh’s seminal 1977 album with Jackie Daly had put the Westmeath fiddle maestro front and centre of the trad revival. For Coffey, 16 years his junior, playing with Creagh was on his list of priorities in the years following his move from his home in Bunmahon, Co Waterford.

“When I came to Cork first there were four great fiddle players that I identified that I wanted to play with: Matt Cranitch, Séamus Creagh, Vince Milne, and Connie Connell,” said Coffey. “I played with them all and I was very privileged. I really admired those four musicians.”

But having first met Creagh at a session, their musical partnership looked to have come to an abrupt halt, only months after it began.

“Séamus was down in Cork since the late ’60s and had recorded this amazing album with Jackie Daly in the 1970s — they were like rock stars,” Coffey recalled. “I met Séamus around ’87-88 and we started playing together in a regular weekly gig up in the bar of the Windsor Hotel in MacCurtain St. That only went on for a few months and Seamus got invited over to Newfoundland.”

Creagh ended up settling in the Canadian province, teaching, playing, and recording with local musicians. A decade after his untimely death, Newfoundland’s annual Féile Séamus Creagh bears witness to the esteem in which the musician and singer is still held in his one-time home. Coffey too was asked to join the contingent of Irish musicians who travelled to Newfoundland to perform at its ‘Soiree’ festival, but fate steered his musical career in a different direction.

“I was invited the same time that Séamus went over, in 1988, but it was exactly the same weekend that I was also asked to join De Dannan, meeting Frankie Gavin and Alec Finn up in Galway,” said Coffey, who would spend seven years with the trad supergroup.

“I never reached Newfoundland as a result, and I really regret not getting there,” he said. “Newfoundland has a lot of connections culturally with Co Waterford because there was a lot of emigration there — and the Waterford accent is fairly strong over there!”

He has no such regrets about his decision to join De Dannan, along with fellow new recruits Colm Murphy, Joe McKenna, Mary Bergin, and singer Eleanor Shanley.

If he failed to get to Newfoundland, Coffey saw a lot of the rest of the world while touring with De Dannan, playing in 30 US states, in Australia, China, Japan, and across Europe.

“It was great fun,” said Coffey. “And I was still playing with De Dannan and based in Cork when Séamus came back in 1992. I met him at a concert in UCC and Séamus said he had a weekly gig in the Spailpín Fánach, so we resumed playing again and played away there every week until about 2004-2005.”

The renewed partnership saw the pair record an album, Traditional Music from Ireland, in 1997, recorded in Baile Mhúirne over one weekend during Éigse Dhiarmuid Uí Shúilleabháin. Their regular musical collaborator Seán Ó Loingsigh played bouzouki, his accompaniment added later in studio.

Coffey and Creagh took this multi-stage recording further in 2002 for Island to Island, combining Creagh’s two musical loves in a meeting of the tunes of Ireland and Newfoundland.

“Myself and Seamus put down our tracks in Cork and the tape was sent over and back. The recording was done in both countries, but without anybody meeting each other,” said Coffey.

Though he admits to finding studio recording “very artificial”, Coffey had cause to go down the remote route for a different reason for his most recent album, The Corner House Set.

The much-publicised De Dannan split had seen Gavin and Finn go their separate ways in 2003, each continuing to perform under different versions of the band’s name.

Though he had left the group himself in 1995, Coffey, now a professor in the biological sciences department at CIT, still had an old handwritten note from Gavin, offering to record with him.

That note proved crucial in the eventual reconciliation of Gavin and Finn at the 2017 Cork Folk Festival, only a year before Finn’s death last November.

“Frankie had offered to help me out with a record, years back. If I was ever doing an album, he would help me out, free of charge. I got around to it in 2015, and I still had the note from Frankie, so I took him up on it,” said Coffey.

“I rang Alec independently, because I did want a bouzouki backing on it. Alec said he’d be delighted.

“They were happy to record and the easiest way to do it was not to have them meeting each other, because they had to sort out whatever differences they may have had. I loved playing with the two of them and Alec’s bouzouki is just amazing with Frankie’s fiddle playing, so they were two musicians I wanted to have on it.

“I put the album together and a year after it came out they came down and did the launch together. It was their first time playing on stage in 14 years when we did that launch — William Hammond organised it — October 1, 2017, at the folk festival was the reunion of the lads.”

Cork Folk Festival director William Hammond is fear a’ tí for a tribute concert on the 10th anniversary of Séamus Creagh’s death this Friday, March 15, at CIT Cork School of Music. Coffey and piper Eoin Ó Riabhaigh are on the bill, with Jackie Daly and Matt Cranitch, Greenshine, Siobhan Peoples, Beanie O’Dell, Amelia Baker, and Caoimhe and Eimhear Flannery. Tickets: www.proc.ie

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