At 81, alive to the wonder of trad music

ONE does not associate traditional music with Waterford in the way one does with the heartlands of Miltown Malbay or Cúil Aodha, but the thriving trad scene in the city reflects the healthy state of the genre in Ireland.

This weekend, Waterford hosts the John Dwyer Trad Weekend, the only traditional music festival in Ireland named after a living musician. Now in its third year, the weekend, under the umbrella of the Imagine Arts Festival, honours Dywer, who has played a significant role in the traditional music scene in the region.

A former garda, born in Castletownbere, Co Cork, and now living in New Ross, Co Wexford, the fiddle player is also a composer and his many tunes are played at sessions all over the world. In 2010, he was named the TG4 composer of the year. Not bad for a man who has no formal musical training.

“My father was a fiddle player and he gave me my first lesson on the fiddle when I was 11. He taught me one tune by air, not from notes, and I worked away on my own then, after that, I didn’t trouble him any more. I was keen on picking up tunes and he had lots of tunes, so I just kept them in my head. I didn’t read music at that stage. I loved listening to him. He didn’t always play; he might put the fiddle aside for a month, depending on how busy he was, and when he’d play, I was fascinated.”

Dwyer, 81, joined the gardaí in 1955 and trained in Dublin, where he met other traditional musicians who nurtured his talent. “I always liked playing with good musicians. We were always interested in picking up new tunes and playing well was always the greatest satisfaction. I met lots of really good musicians, like Tommy Potts, John Kelly and Joe Ryan. Musicians coming to Dublin were made very welcome there. I was transferred to New Ross in 1973, but I’ve mainly played with musicians in Waterford. I had a great relationship with them, and it’s been my base for tunes. At the drop of a hat, musicians would get together, nothing organised.”

Dwyer is hugely optimistic about the future of traditional music, and he mentors and plays with younger performers. “About three years ago, Edel Fox, a brilliant concertina player from Miltown Malbay, came to Waterford and she has been a great influence here. Traditional music is in a healthy state in Waterford and we’re all in it together.”

How does it feel to have a festival named in his honour? “It’s very humbling, and a great honour,” he says. Dwyer adjudicates some new compositions at the festival, but is mainly interested in playing with other musicians at sessions.

There is an extensive session trail throughout Waterford city at the weekend. This Friday, Dwyer will perform at The Reg in Waterford with musicians including Seán Ryan, Conal Ó Gráda and Caitlín Nic Gabhann. The headline event on Saturday in Dooley’s will feature Mairtín O’Connor, Cathal Hayden and Seamie O’Dowd.

Dwyer is never short of invitations to play, here and abroad. He shows no signs of slowing down and enjoys the social aspect of performing. It’s good for his health. “It’s fantastic, because you don’t think of the passing of time when you’re involved in the traditional scene. You get asked to a lot of the festivals.”

The John Dwyer Trad Weekend takes place in Waterford city from October 17-19, as part of the Imagine Arts Festival. See www.imagineartsfestival.ie.


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