Timmy the Brit tells Pet O'Connell how we went from being a butcher in London to becoming a stalwart of Cork's set dancing and folk scenes.
“I WENT down to Dan O’Connell’s pub one day in Knocknagree. A woman called Eily Buckley saw me sitting down and she took me up and threw me round the floor. I didn’t know what the hell had happened to me, but that was the Sliabh Luachra set, and it changed my life.”
The rest, as they say, is history. The eureka moment for London-born butcher Timmy McCarthy, whose accent earned him the nickname Timmy ‘The Brit’, was also a turning point in the wider popularisation of the traditional set-dances of the Cork-Kerry border, of which he was to become an unlikely champion.
The son of Cork city parents, Timmy was already the driving force in the foundation of Cork Folk Festival when he danced his first polka in Knocknagree.
“That’s how it started,” recalls Timmy. “As the Cork Folk Festival grew, if I wanted to book musicians I used to have to go and meet them in situ, so I went down to Dan O’Connell’s pub to book Johnny O’Leary and Mikey Duggan for the forthcoming folk festival.”
The sets that swept him off his feet that day, and the intergenerational mix of the dancers, made a deep impression on Timmy.
“I thought it was gobsmackingly beautiful, because I’d never seen a set before that was so inclusive,” he says. “There was no age left out. It was teenagers up to octogenarians.”
Timmy became a regular visitor to Knocknagree, where as well as figures of the Sliabh Luachra and Jenny Ling sets, he also gleaned pearls of set dancing wisdom from pub proprietor, the late Dan O’Connell.
“Dan O’Connell’s philosophy, I’ve inherited. He had a very simple way: Stay behind the people in front of you; in front of the people behind you; opposite the people opposite you, and you do it on bloody time.
That means that if you’ve an old couple in front of you and the book says you have to get back militarily to the geographical place you started off, you don’t push them out of the way, you dance according to their comfort zone. I think that philosophy was wonderful.”
His interest piqued, Timmy dug deeper into the tradition and found that many dances of the Cork-Kerry area had fallen out of fashion, some ceasing to be danced at all.
He delighted in researching dances such as the Black Valley Square Jig, the Coolea Jig, Borlin Valley Polka Set, Tuosist Set, and Mealagh Valley Jig Set, and found himself in demand as a teacher.
“I never set out to teach set dancing but people asked me to teach. I had a passion for the music of Sliabh Luachra, Corca Dhuibhne, Múscraí, and the dances that went with it,” says Timmy, who later settled in Baile Mhúirne.
“I set out to connect and re-teach all those old sets that were dead in the villages where they were, and have people dancing their own sets. People would ask me to teach them sets, so I used to make a deal that each week they were to go to the people that had the local set, learn it, or bring the people up to teach it to me, and I’d teach it back into the local community. We saved an awful lot of sets that way.”
While collectors recorded and archived the sets he helped to re-establish, Timmy kept the tradition alive on the dance floor. “As each person died, Dan O’Connell, Dan Keeffe, and all of them, I became increasingly aware that I was becoming the guardian, and I took that responsibility on.”
Timmy, who for years organised a ‘Cork and Kerry’ set dancing weekend, also brought the area’s music and dance to audiences in North America, Canada, Russia, and Poland, teaching in Sardinia, Austria, Bavaria, Denmark, and Norway.
Among those he inspired along the way was also William ‘Hammy’ Hammond, who was to follow in Timmy’s footsteps as Cork Folk Festival organiser.
The festival, founded in 1979, sprang out of a folk club Timmy helped establish in Douglas. His gift for connecting and enthusing musicians also saw him forming the ‘Folk Fáinne’, a nationwide association of clubs.
He also organised events at Cork’s ‘set-dancing nightclub’, the Sráidbhaile that was part of a Grand Parade Hotel complex that also housed the city’s other dance emporium, Sir Henrys.
It was Timmy the Brit who introduced Hammy to set dancing at the Gables Bar at the start of the 1980s.
Now a seasoned set dancing teacher himself, Hammy admits: “Anything I know, I picked it up off Timmy. He infected me with the grá for it straight away.”
He recalls Timmy teaching classes of up to 70 people at the South Parish Hall, and the Model School on Anglesea St as he brought the dances of the villages to the city and its folk festival.
“He’d bring up the people from Knocknagree and Baile Mhúirne to show the real dancing, so that’s where we met for the first time Dan O’Connell, Johnny Leary, Dan Keeffe and some of the older dancers. And then Timmy would return the visit, so we’d all hop on the bus. Up into his van.
“He had an old meat wagon for delivering. He was a butcher at the time, off High St.”
Butchering was Timmy’s original trade, providing him employment with O’Flynn’s Butchers in the city upon his move to Cork.
His repatriation 55 years ago fulfilled the hopes of his mother Kitty, from Fairhill, and father Ernest, from Blackpool.
They had given him a taste of London-Irish culture in the brief years before their premature deaths left him in the care of religious orders in England.
“My grandfather Timmy Roche, who I’m named after, was a champion All-Ireland step dancer, in 1922 I think, with a dance called The Blackbird,” says Timmy.
“My mother insisted that I do step dancing, and to be honest I hated it because you used to have to wear what I thought was a dress [kilt].”
This introduction, albeit to a different variety of Irish dance, may however have informed his later interest. “I think it helped, because the wheel turns. I came home because it was my parents’ dearest wish to come home to Ireland — that was their dream, but they couldn’t come and they were dead by the time I was nine. It wasn’t to be, and I was taken into care,” reflects Timmy, who has nothing but praise for the tutelage of the Salesian and Marist nuns who “brought out the best in me”.
Half a century in Cork has softened only slightly the accent that earned Timmy his nickname, which he says stuck after piper Eoin Ó Riabhaigh “couldn’t remember my name” and shouted for ‘The Brit’ instead.
Ó Riabhaigh is among a stellar list of musicians and singers, most booked by Timmy for the folk festival over the years, who will pay tribute at a concert in his honour at the Oliver Plunkett in Cork near the end of this month.
The likes of Jimmy Crowley and Stokers Lodge, Con Ó Drisceoil, John Spillane, Séamus Begley, Greenshine, Jackie Daly, and dozens more will be joined by Timmy on box and bodhrán, and his multi-instrumentalist son Tony McCarthy.
The list is a who’s who of the Cork Folk Festival and Timmy, now in his 70s and recovering from a recent illness, is deeply moved by the tribute.
“When I see the line-up for that concert... people know me as Timmy the Brit, but they were the people that made me feel I’m home, I’m Irish.
“I’m just overwhelmed. I don’t deserve it, but what a compliment. I’ve had a fabulous life and this is an amazing, gobsmacking tribute... that’s all I can say.”
The Timmy the Brit tribute concert takes place at the Oliver Plunkett in Cork on Sunday, April 29 from 1pm to 5pm. Tickets €20 from www.proc.ie, The Corner House, or ProMusica.