Deserved recognition for Kerry couple at 'Oscars of trad music'

Nicky and Anne McAuliffe pictured in Killarney. Picture: Don MacMonagle

Co Kerry couple Nicky and Anne McAuliffe will get a lifetime achievement award at this weekend’s Gradam Ceoil, writes Pet O’Connell.

If they were looking for maximum value for their lifetime achievement award, the Gradam Ceoil TG4 adjudicators would appear to have found it in this year’s recipients, Nicky and Anne McAuliffe.

With nearly a century of teaching between them, the Co Kerry couple have imparted their knowledge of traditional music to three generations of fiddlers and whistlers, accordion, concertina, and flute players the length and breadth of Ireland and beyond — and they’ve no notion of slowing up anytime soon.

“When you hear ‘lifetime’ they’re probably telling you something in a nice way,” laughs Nicky, ahead of their trip to Belfast for Sunday’s live televised awards ceremony at the Waterfront Hall.

“But it’s nice; this is the big one; It was a huge surprise when I got the phone-call from TG4 — I thought somebody was having me on.”

Their lifetimes in music have seen countless scores of students beat paths to the doors of the schools and village halls in which the McAuliffes have taught, their ranks once including 2014 Gradam winner Bryan O’Leary. But unlike their pupils, neither Nicky nor Anne received formal classes themselves.

The musical expertise which has taken them from the Mansion House and Áras an Uachtaráin to America and Australia, comes instead from decades spent soaking up the tunes and techniques of those who carried on the tradition before them.

Anne learned to read music and play the fiddle at home in Lixnaw from her father, Jack Sheehy.

“He was able to read the music, which was kind of surprising at the time, and we had O’Neill’s book always in the house,” she recalls.

“There were always musicians coming to the house as well, and I’d be trying out the accordion. There wouldn’t have been any classes officially, but Comhaltas was starting up at the time when I was finishing primary school in Lixnaw and we went to sessions every month and met the local musicians.”

From Lyre, near Castleisland, Nicky had two musical parents “and we had a little country dance hall near us, way out in the sticks in Cordal, and my father used to play in the hall for the polka sets.

“He played the melodeon, so that was always in the house and I used to be messing around with it. I learned to play a few simple polkas, but the whistle was my first instrument maybe playing a biteen better. I learned ‘Fáinne Geal an Lae’ in Loughfouder National School and the teacher used teach us singing scales,” he says.

Growing up in Sliabh Luachra music country where Kerry borders Cork and Limerick, Nicky soaked up music from all available sources.

“A musician, Tom Connor, used to come around. He was known as Tom the Piper and he used to work for people as a labourer. I’ve a few slides from Tom, we call them the Brosna slides,” he recalls.

“The set dancing would be on that time, the house dances, biddy dances, and wren dances and you’d be hearing polkas, slides, and jigs and hornpipes — not many reels. What they’d do is play Miss McLeod’s reel about 40 times, but they were able to dance the reel alright — they were great dancers.”

Reels, though, were one of the attractions Nicky found in old gramophone recordings which introduced him to outside musical influences.

We had an old wind-up gramophone and I remember hearing the great Sligo fiddlers and they appealed to me. I didn’t know they were Sligo fiddlers that time, but later on I found out this was Michael Coleman and Paddy Killoran. They were the first introduction I had to music from outside the local area.

“I was always listening to a neighbour’s radio — we had no radio at home — and you’d hear musicians from up the country,” he says, adding that the radio also allowed him to hear Kerry fiddlers such as Paddy Cronin and Denis Murphy, recorded while living in America.

“I was able to pick the tunes up by ear, and I’d be bringing them out bit by bit on the whistle, because you’d have no teachers that time.”

Anne, meanwhile, was cutting her teeth musically with Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.

“Comhaltas started in 1960 in Kerry and there were always great concerts at the fleadhs. The first concert I ever went to was in Ballyheigue for the county fleadh in 1960 and Joe Burke was there, Séamus Connolly, and Pádraig O’Keeffe,” says Anne, who, like Nicky, went on to win Comhaltas all-Ireland medals both as a solo musician and with the Brosna Céilí Band.

Diarmuid Ó Catháin, Reachtaire na Mumhan and later president of Comhaltas was, she recalls, the “driving force” behind the fleadh concerts, ensuring reigning all-Ireland champions performed before Kerry audiences.

Ó Catháin was later responsible for establishing music classes under the auspices of Kerry VEC, where Nicky and Anne were appointed as teachers.

Anne gave up her shorthand typist’s job at Kerry County Council and went on to teach music not only across the Kingdom but in villages including Cullen, Dromtariffe and Baile Mhúirne for Cork VEC.

She was also involved in the foundation of national folk theatre Siamsa Tíre in Tralee, where she and Nicky have coached musicians for decades.

Nicky, renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge of music history, tunes, and musicians, can pinpoint exactly when he taught his first music class.

“I started in Gneeveguilla on the 15th of March 1970 and I’m still teaching there,” he says. “When it started it was in Jim Thady Willie’s hall — it was a great place for dances as well — a little corrugated iron hall, Tis still there, by the school.”

While tunes and teaching styles have changed little in those five decades, he says, Irish traditional music has in that time achieved a higher level of respect educationally.

“In the old days you went to UCC for a BMus and you studied classical music and the European composers and that was the end of it,” he says.

With trad now elevated to degree status and featuring on Junior and Leaving Certificate syllabi, he says: “It’s come a long way and it’s got recognition, from Seán Ó Riada up through Micheál Ó Súilleabháin, who must get credit.

“He brought a degree in Irish traditional music into UL and now people see they can get degrees and teaching jobs through it.”

Nowhere is that respect more evident than at the glitzy Gradam Ceoil ‘Oscars’ of Irish traditional music, where the life’s work of an unassuming Kerry couple will on Sunday be accorded richly-deserved recognition.

Gradam Ceoil, TG4, Sunday, 9.30pm

Gradam Ceoil winners 2019

Musician of the Year: Catherine McEvoy

Young Musician of the Year: Conor Connolly

Lifetime Achievement: Nicky and Anne McAuliffe

Singer of the Year: Thomas McCarthy

Outstanding Contribution: Brendan Mulkere

Musical Collaboration: Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill

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