Two years ago, Gerry Murphy was living in Abu Dhabi when, tuning into RTÉ radio, he heard the unmistakable strains of tunes painstakingly preserved by his grandfather 80 years previously.
More than 3,000 miles from North Cork, Gerry’s thoughts turned back home, where RTÉ’s Kieran Hanrahan was broadcasting an edition of Céilí House from Buttevant to mark the launch of the Shandrum Céilí Band’s debut CD.
The North Cork band, on the crest of a wave after back-to-back all-Ireland Fleadh victories, had included on their album The Dawn three quadrilles collected by Gerry’s grandfather, fiddle player John ‘Boss’ Murphy.
From Churchtown, not five miles from Buttevant, Boss Murphy had in the 1930s transcribed by hand around 300 tunes from the local repertoire, preserving them for posterity.
In his collection were not only the jigs, reels, and hornpipes that constitute today’s definition of Irish traditional music, but schottisches, flings, mazurkas, marches, and quadrilles, the dance tunes fashionable across Europe in the 19th century but since fallen from favour.
“My grandfather’s music would have been from the late 1800s to the 1930s, and earlier too, because his father William Murphy was also a traditional fiddle player and no doubt he was influenced by him,” explains Gerry.
‘Boss’ Murphy played regularly at house dances, stages, and sessions, his music also strongly influenced by tunes he learned at Buttevant’s now-demolished military barracks.
In the immense barracks complex, which once housed thousands of soldiers before and after duty on the Western Front in WWI, he found a musical melting pot, listening to bands rehearse and following the Buttevant Military Band’s Sunday marches to Churchtown and Liscarroll.
As house dances and their music waned with the advent of public dance halls, Boss Murphy began compiling his manuscripts of tunes, many from memory, “a fantastic achievement for someone who had no formal musical training,” adds Gerry.
Following Boss Murphy’s death in 1955, Gerry says the manuscripts were kept “on top of a wardrobe in my family home in Churchtown, with his fiddle. We always knew they were there when I was growing up.”
That was until 1985, when Dr Colette Moloney of Charleville, researching for her UCC music degree, was lent the manuscripts by Boss Murphy’s son Jack, her work later forming the basis of a 2003 book The Boss Murphy Musical Legacy.
A copy of her book was given to Buttevant musician Alan Finn, who with fellow members of the Shandrum band, decided to put the tunes to use.
Alan, whose grand-aunt Mary Cremins featured among the musicians in the Murphy book, selected some of the quadrilles for the band’s debut CD and Céilí House recording.
“Gerry Murphy heard us play them on the radio and he contacted me, wondering would we be interested in recording an album exclusively of tunes taken from the book,” Alan recalls.
“I said no problem, we’d be more than delighted.”
The resultant album, The Boss Murphy Legacy, proclaims its North Cork roots in jigs such as ‘The Rakes of Dromina’ and ‘Walls of Liscarroll’ but reflects the wider Murphy repertoire.
“You have the usual jigs and reels, and then the more unusual schottisches, flings, and quadrilles, some of them lost for years, and it’s nice to get them revived,” says Alan.
“Even the versions of the jigs and reels are not the versions that are played today — the main body of the tune is there but there are different bars in the middle.”
With sheet music, but no recordings to work from, Alan interpreted the tunes to suit the band.
“A lot of the tunes I transposed to different keys to give them a bit of a lift. None of the tunes on the album would be considered céilí band tunes, and with the different versions and styles of tunes, it’s a fresh approach.”
A music teacher who has already started passing on Boss Murphy’s tunes to his students, Alan is confident schottisches and flings are heading back into the North Cork tradition.
Boss, says grandson Gerry, would have been thrilled. “He spent two to three years of his life writing down this music.
"He did it because he thought traditional Irish music was dying and in the hope that somebody might take it up.
"The idea that a band from North Cork would record this music at a world-class level, would I think be beyond belief for him.
“This will be an important CD from a heritage point of view, not just for Churchtown or Cork, but in terms of Irish traditional music.”