ONCE a year, fiddle players old and young cluster around the statue of Sliabh Luachra master Pádraig O’Keeffe in the Kerry village of Scartaglin.
A sea of bows, rising and falling in waves, they fill the air with polkas and slides, hornpipes and jigs, under the stony gaze of a man whose influence on the area’s distinctive musical style is undiminished more than half a century after his death.
As the tunes of O’Keeffe flow through the fingers of participants at this year’s World Fiddle Day on May 21, those musicians are playing their part in the living tradition of Irish music, passing it from one generation to the next.
And those present in Scartaglin this year will make a connection with O’Keeffe in visual, as well as aural form. For posterity, a photograph is taken each year of the assembled fiddle players — from raw beginners scraping their first polkas, to academics and lifetime devotees of the Sliabh Luachra style of the Cork-Kerry border.
In decades to come, these pictures might even become a source of interest similar to that generated by the unveiling on Saturday of rare colour photographs of O’Keeffe, taken in 1957.
Dr Matt Cranitch, awarded a PhD for his research into O’Keeffe’s music and the Sliabh Luachra fiddle tradition, was instrumental in bringing these pictures to light.
He explains the origin of the photographs, taken by American folklorist Jim Griffith, who was accompanied by musician and music collector Séamus Ennis. “Pádraig’s fame had reached RTÉ and collectors came, including Séamus Ennis, who struck up a rapport with Pádraig.
“Terry Wilson, who lives in Clare, spent 10 years in Phoenix and met Jim Griffith, who recounted the fact that he had been in Ireland, and his meeting with Pádraig O’Keeffe.
“Seamus Ennis had brought him to Scartaglin and Griffith took colour slides, which were revolutionary at the time. He never developed that roll of slides, and he gave them to Terry Wilson.”
Following discussions involving Cranitch, accordion legend Jackie Daly, and World Fiddle Day Scartaglin’s driving force PJ Teahan, Wilson allowed the photographs to come full circle to where they were taken in Lyons’ bar, Scartaglin. The pictures will be unveiled by Daly this Saturday in the bar, still owned by the same family as when O’Keeffe, Ennis, and Griffith came together nearly 60 years ago. “It was in Lyons’ pub that they met,” says Cranitch.
“Pádraig spent so many hours there that it was referred to as Pádraig’s ‘office’, so this is a way of bringing it back home and it’s fitting that it should be on World Fiddle Day.”
Born in Glountane, 1887, O’Keeffe gave up a schoolteacher’s job and, “led a very bohemian life within the locality, teaching music and passing on the tradition”.
Although he inherited the native style, notably from his uncle ‘Cal’ O’Callaghan, “Pádraig put things on a much higher level because he was a real innovator,” explains Cranitch, “and in every manuscript he wrote, he specified the bowing”.
O’Keeffe’s illustrious past pupils provided insights into the travelling fiddle master’s style and self-devised musical notation system, among them Julia Clifford, her brother Denis Murphy, Johnny O’Leary, and Paddy Cronin, who passed away two years ago. His last pupils, Paddy Jones and Martin O’Connor, are attending this year’s gathering, while on May 20, Cranitch delivers a talk on Maida McQuinn Sugrue, who on emigrating to Chicago, performed with fellow O’Keeffe pupil Cuz Teahan.
“Pádraig O’Keeffe, Tom Billy Murphy, Denis Murphy, Julia Clifford, Paddy Cronin — they are the sources, and the continuum is being marked on World Fiddle Day. It’s a showcase of the music, a chance to exchange ideas. Music can be transferred by CDs and books, but there’s nothing like passing it on by personal connection.”
World Fiddle Day Scartaglin on May 21 includes talks on Julia Clifford, a fiddle recital, and presentation by RTÉ’s Peter Browne. Facebook: World Fiddle Day Scartaglin
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