Paddy Glackin: For the Fun of It
Paddy Glackin has made a habit of approaching the music on his own terms. As the Bothy Band’s first fiddler, he had as good a start as one could hope towards a successful professional career but chose, instead, to keep Irish music as “a fascinating hobby”. Though full-time performing musicians are more prominent in the public eye, Paddy’s is an important model to keep in mind: for most of us, playing music is a component of life but not the only part, and even while holding down a job, Paddy has made important contributions to the world of Irish music. The Bothy Band, clearly, reshaped the musical landscape, and his recordings with Paddy Keenan (”Doublin’”) and Jolyon Jackson have been very influential. We spoke during the 2002 session of Gaelic Roots, at Boston College.
How did you get started playing the fiddle?
I was born and raised in Dublin, but my father was from Donegal. I was exposed to the whole Donegal thing early on, not only music but language as well – so that would have been a big influence on me. But I grew up in Dublin and therefore was exposed to a lot of other types of music, other styles of traditional music, shall we say, particularly of fiddle playing. There was no Donegal music in Dublin when I was growing up. None whatsoever.
Did your father play?
My father played, but that was the only exposure I had to it. We would go to Donegal on holidays and I would meet John Doherty and people like that. That was the main influence, but I was also influenced by other great players who lived in Dublin at the time. There was a man by the name of John Egan who was a flute player, and John was a source of great encouragement to me. John Kelly, James’ father, was hugely encouraging.
Thinking about the regional styles—do you think there’s a Dublin style?
No, absolutely not. Kerry, Clare, East Galway, Sligo and Donegal, they would be the main regional styles. And when you say Donegal, you have to think there’s a broader Ulster style of playing that people tend to identify that as being a Donegal style. People are sometimes a bit loose in their use of language. In terms of style, we tend to forget that people’s definition of styles is usually based on the music of very, very strong individuals—Doherty for Donegal, or Denis Murphy for Kerry, or Patrick Kelly in West Clare. People speak in very, very general terms about Donegal music and say that they don’t do any finger ornamentation, and that’s wrong. John Doherty used finger ornamentation, Neilidh Boyle used finger ornamentation. They favored bowing ornamentation a little bit more, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t use their fingers. You see it written in books—ornamentation only with the bow—but it doesn’t hold up.
So what do you see as the hallmarks of a Donegal style?
What defines Donegal fiddling for me would be, number one, the bowing of it, would be the rhythm of it, would be the sense of tonality of it, and as well as the actual variations and settings of the tunes.
What do you mean by tonality?
If you compare it with the southern part of the country, it tends to be slightly sharper, the rhythm and tonality of it is a little bit harder, and there’s a wildness in it that other traditions don’t seem to have.
I’ve noticed that Donegal fiddlers will go up into third position more than others?
Well, the reason being is that that’s the repertoire, the type of tunes that they play. And they liked virtuosity and embraced it more than fiddle players in the southern half of the country. That’s the only explanation I can give you for it, really. Obviously playing Scott Skinner would have had an influence, and in particular I know John Doherty had a huge regard for Scott Skinner’s playing. He would have heard Skinner’s 78’s. And the seasonal migration between Donegal and Scotland had a strong influence on the music. People would go away for nine months of the year and when they’d come back for the harvest they would have picked up songs and tunes.
Because there was more work in Scotland.
Well there was no work at home. It was poverty, it was a very poor county. In Donegal they would regard Glasgow as their city much more than Dublin. There wasn’t a house in Donegal that didn’t have someone in Scotland. All my uncles worked in Scotland, my father worked in Scotland, that was the way it was. So they would have brought these tunes back and people like the Doherty’s, being the traveling people that they were, would have picked up the tunes in one locality and brought them to another locality.
Thinking of Ulster and the different religious communities, was the music limited to one community or did both communities participate?
I can’t give you an answer because I really don’t know. I would imagine both communities were playing it because the divisions within our society only became so polarized in the last twenty-five years. I remember prior to the troubles, and indeed in the early part of the troubles, encountering people from the opposite tradition to our Gaelic tradition who had the same songs, the same tunes, who played fiddles, who played pipes, flutes, the same music— it was just that one side of society was claiming it as theirs and it became kind of a badge. There were great players—we’d meet them at various festivals and nobody ever asked a question as to which side of the fence you were on. But as the years went on it became claimed by one side over the other.
With your strong family connections to Donegal, I would place you as a tradition bearer rather than someone who comes to the music from elsewhere. Do you think that gives you any different responsibility?
I don’t feel any responsibility as such. What I do feel is very privileged. I feel a huge privilege that I was able to get this music directly from the likes of John Doherty, that I knew the man so well and that we were very, very good friends. To my dying day I’ll always be grateful for the stuff I got from him. But I don’t feel any particular responsibility—the only responsibility I feel is just to play it. Society has changed so much. I live in a city; I don’t live in a small place where people can come to me. Our way of life is different. People pick it up through hearing tapes and such, and that’s the way it is—the process has changed. The one downside is that they don’t get to know musicians because they don’t get a chance to talk to them. You can’t divorce the two of them—that’s the big pity for me, because part of the mystique of John Doherty wasn’t just the way he played the fiddle, it was talking to him. It was the man, it was having fun and having a bit of craic. Part of John Kelly’s mystique was that he had an incredible sense of humor, so you would spend a lot of time in these people’s company and you mightn’t play a tune. You could be there for hours and never even think of playing, you’d just be having a bit of fun, and that’s a very, very important part of the whole operation.
When you were growing up in Dublin, how much music was there around?
There was no traditional music really. It wasn’t the thing for a young guy growing up in Dublin to play the fiddle, so I grew up with this dark secret. Nobody knew about it. I’d just be brought to these music clubs when I’d be on summer holidays and I’d meet people like John Egan and John Kelly and I got to know them on a Wednesday night in the Church Street club, or the Piper’s club on a Saturday night. I was mixing with people who were a good bit older than me. I did play football and everything else that boys do, but there was this dark secret lurking there that I played the fiddle. This was in the sixties, and one of the problems for me was that it was very hard to identify with the music, there were no people my own age doing it. My brothers are younger than me, so they weren’t in the picture. There was nobody of the same age, so I was learning this thing in isolation.
So what was the incentive to keep going with it?
Well part of the incentive to keep going was my father’s perseverance, to be quite frank with you. I probably would have given it up because I had no sense of its relevance. You’d sit there dutifully and you’d listen to other players, and you just listened to them. It paid off in the end I suppose, but I had nobody of my own age to see where this thing stood in the scheme of things, where you might talk about a tune or talk about a player and get a bit of perspective on it. As well as to find out that you weren’t some kind of a freak.
When did that change?
That changed, I’d say, in the seventies. I got to know some guys of my own age. It was starting to become a little bit popular and it was great to have people of the same age where you could sit down and play a tune and you didn’t feel you were on your own. I went to fleadh cheoils and met fellows from other parts of the country who were same age as me and we played in competitions together. It was good to feel that there were other people doing it.
When did you get involved with the Bothy Band?
From day one – I was the first fiddle player. ’74, I think. We were all knocking around together and Paddy and myself used to be doing bits of playing together. Paddy Keenan, Mícheál Ó Domhnaill and myself were all in and around the same age. We used to go to all the different clubs in Dublin at the same time, and there was a really vibrant scene back in the early 70s, so we played a lot together. We were asked to put a house band together for the 21st anniversary of Gael Linn so Matt Molloy and Donal Lunny came down to play with Paddy, Mícheál, and myself. It all came out of that. I was with the Bothy Band for the first 18 months and then Tommy came in after me and Kevin came in after Tommy.
So what was it after the 18 months?
I really wasn’t into the idea of being on the road. It still doesn’t appeal to me. The band was at a stage where they were making decisions about what they wanted to do and I decided to opt out. I played with them after I left a few times, so there was no falling out, there never was and we all still play together all these years on. There was absolutely no animosity or anything like that, it was just the way it was and we’re all still very, very good friends.
The Bothy Band is often referred to as the group that changed the face of traditional music and started a huge boom in popularity. Every group that comes along is compared to the Bothy Band. As part of it, do you have any reflections on all the reflections people have on you?
Obviously the music had an impact. One thing we did have at the time was that we were all young and had a lot of energy. I think that energy came through. We defined the music we had in a very energetic way. An awful lot of bands made the mistake of thinking that was the only thing that we did have and have copied that energy. But within the band you had players like Matt Molloy and Paddy Keenan who were sensational players. It just happened that there was a good chemistry between the six of us—we got on great and we were energized by each other in a very positive way. There was a lot of common ground we shared in terms of background; Mícheál and Triona’s people were from Donegal, 12 miles from where my father’s from. Matt and I had lived in Dublin at the same time. There was some sort of thing in the melting pot that worked, there’s no doubt about.
What did you move on to after that?
Well, I continued playing. I made a record with Paddy Keenan, and I did an experimental record with this guy Jolyon Jackson and then I just kept playing away. I didn’t do any recording for a while, for about ten years, but I kept my hand in. The album with Donal, In Full Spate, is a good story. I hadn’t played with Donal for a good few years and I got a phone call in O’Donoghue’s pub. I happened to be in O’Donoghue’s, which is a pub I wouldn’t frequent much in Ireland, but I happened to be in it one day, and somebody phoned. Somebody said to me Donal Lunny’s on the phone, and I said well tell him Paddy Glackin says hello. And then Donal says to ask Paddy if he’s coming down to Liberty Hall to play a tune, there was a gig on for the miners in England. It was the Thatcherite era and they were closing all the pits down. I hadn’t played with Donal for years, but then we started playing around here and there, very quietly because he’s very busy with his other musical projects, and then we did the album. And then I moved on from that and did an album with Robbie Hannan because I like playing with pipes quite a lot. After that I did the one with Mícheál because it just seemed like a sort of natural thing to do.
It’s not been a full time thing for you?
Oh no, I’m in charge of all weekend radio programs in Irish national radio, that’s the day job. That keeps me fairly busy, but it does allow me the freedom to go and play a gig here and there. I don’t want to be in it full-time. The fun is that when I do get a chance to play with Donal or Mícheál we really look forward to it, but leave it at that ‘til the next time. It’s the right way to have it. The other guys have their own musical projects, so we just get together when it suits.
When you teach at Willie Clancy Week or Gaelic Roots, what are you hoping to pass along?
Basically it’s to give people the context for the music. It’s what I said earlier on— when I was growing up I had very little context, and if you don’t have a context it’s very hard to relate to it. That’s the first thing, and the context has got to be between music, song, and dance. You have to try to get people to see the simplicity of it, that’s very important. If we can give people a sense of where music sits in the social life of people, what it means to them, they can see that not everything is about virtuosity and about notes.
Any words of advice for someone just getting into it?
The first thing to do is to not demand to much of yourself. Be prepared to give it the time it deserves. Don’t expect to know it all in the space of twelve months. It’s a life time pursuit, and it’s very, very pleasurable, but it needs to be treated with respect. One of the great things about it is that every time you go into a session you learn something. It’s an incredible thing—you build up a huge store of knowledge and you’re still adding to it every time you encounter the music. Francis O’Neill said Irish traditional music is a fascinating hobby, and that’s the way to be. I would also say to people not to be all the time trying to hoover things up. It’s better to be able to take it easy and get to know people in an easy sort of way. As I say part of my thing with John Doherty is the fact that we spoke, every bit as important as the playing, in fact, more so in some ways. People coming to it need to take their time, and decide that for someone who’s taking it up at 21 or 22 or whatever, they’ve quite a lot of ground to catch up on in terms of the absorption of it, but I think that you can have a really good time doing it if you’re prepared to go easy and not force the issue. There’s a niche in it for everybody. It’s not an exclusive club, and the day it becomes that is the day it will die. Find a level you’re comfortable with and enjoy it.
The first couple of years I was playing I was trying to suck up everything all the time, and it just became kind of tiring.
It just becomes a commodity then. You’re better off getting to know a musician, and if you want to get a tune of them they’ll give it to you if they know you, and you build up a trust. That’s what it’s about, building up confidences and building up friendships. Musicians can be a bit defensive; if they feel like someone is sucking the blood out of them, then they back off. To come full circle I started off about not feeling a responsibility—if there is a responsibility the responsibility is not to be possessive of the music. It was given to us freely and we should do likewise.
What He Plays
What do you play for a fiddle?
I play a Kreutzer. It was made in 1957, bought for me in 1972 and that’s what I play. I have several other instruments at home but that’s the one I keep coming back to, and the one I enjoy playing.
(with thanks to Philippe Varlet for his help in assembling this list)
Paddy also appears on a large number of albums as a guest or supporting musician. I'm sure I'll miss some:
© Brendan Taaffe, 2005. All Rights Reserved.