Co Longford - Ireland's richest source of traditional music manuscripts

Aidan O'Hara

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Aidan O'Hara

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Chairman Cumann Ceoil Chonmhaicne

Certain counties get lots of attention for the richness of their traditional music heritage and deservedly so. But here in Longford we are no less rich in our musical heritage.

It can be argued that at one time we were far ahead when it came to the spread and teaching of music in written form.

Consider this amazing fact:

There are eleven collections of written music - manuscripts - in Conmhaicne (an ancient region traditionally comprising all of Longford and much of Leitrim).

If we had even just one or two collections it would be remarkable; but eleven altogether with many hundreds of tunes in some of them is phenomenal and unique in Ireland.

KERNAN THE RENOWNED FIDDLEMASTER

My great-granduncle, fiddlemaster, Thomas ‘Blind’ Kernan (c1807-87), was a major figure in the music scene of Longford and Leitrim. The surname was often written Kiernan and McKernan.

It is estimated that there may have been at least 300-500 fiddle players from Co Longford who were taught the fiddle in the period 1825-1975, the majority of whom can trace their fiddle lineage back to Kernan.

It is only in recent years that this amazing fiddlemaster has started to receive the recognition he deserves, thanks to two men in particularly: musicologist and fiddle player, Longford man, Fr John Quinn, P.P. Gortletteragh, Co Leitrim, and musician and fiddle player, Conor Ward from Annaduff, Co Leitrim.

Conor has made a study of Kernan and his music and was awarded a Ph.D. for his study Thomas Kernan and the fiddle traditions of the Conmhaicne region ... 1844 to 1973 in which he attests to Kernan's pivotal role in the development of traditional music as we know it now. See https://eprints.dkit.ie/734/1 /Conor%20Ward.pdf

Fr Quinn has also written about Kernan's importance regionally and nationally.

KERNAN IN FOLK MEMORY

In the Convent of Mercy, Ballymahon, Schools’ Collection, 4 March, 1935, Sr M Clement records in Irish the following which I have translated:

“An old fiddler by the name of Séamus Ó hAinlighe (James Hanley), Cor Ubhaill (Corrool), Cur na Dumhcha (Newtowncashel), died 30 years ago in the Poor House, Ballymahon.

He was an accomplished musician. He had been a scholar of Máighistir Mac Tighearnan’s (Master McKernan). He also played the flute and taught fiddle playing to the youth of the area.”

James Hanley was the great-grandfather of the well-known fiddle player, Sean Keane of The Chieftains.

The custodian of what is probably the finest private collection of manuscripts of Irish dance music is musicologist and fiddle player, Longford man Fr John Quinn, P.P. Gortletteragh, Co. Leitrim. Among his extensive collection is a teaching manuscript of Kernan's from the years 1844-46 used when teaching a young Michael Leonard of Abbeyshrule.

In 1962, carpenter and fiddle player Pierce Butler (1910-2000), found a fiddle manuscript of ‘Blind’ Kernan’s hidden underneath the roof of Rooney’s pub in Abbeyshrule, Co Longford. Obviously, Kernan was not always blind, and was able to write music for much of his life. His signature and that of his student, Michael Leonard (1835-1886), appear throughout the document.

The Leonard-Kernan manuscript is one of the oldest of its kind in Ireland and is now in the possession of Fr Quinn. Kernan adapted older tunes to the form in which we now find them and Fr Quinn has collected many of them, hundreds of them now in the repertoire of fiddlers and musicians everywhere. They can all be found online on websites such as the session.org and itma.ie

FIDDLEMASTER BERNARD ROGERS

Kernan's nephew, Bernard Rogers (1856-1907) of Drumlish - my granduncle - was a star pupil of Kernan's and he, too, taught the fiddle in the area. His name is found in Colonel Rogers Favourite and Master Roger's Reel.

The latter tune was recorded by Frank Quinn and Jim Clark by their Smiles and tears of Erin Orchestra in 1934. Both men were from Drumlish and studied under Rogers. 'Patrolman' Frank Quinn (1893-1964) was the most recorded of all Irish traditional fiddlers in America.

Bernard Rogers's sister, Anne, my grandmother, was married to John O’Hara of Loughan, Drumlish. Her son was Jim O’Hara, my father, and he told me that Bernard’s fiddle hung on the kitchen wall at home and that his mother would not let anyone touch it.

“It was the death of him,” she would say, referring to the fact that Bernard had “a strong weakness for the drink” a fondness acquired from the many occasions in homes, taverns and the ‘big house’ where his services as a musician – and those of his uncle’s – were required. It was an occupational hazard for all musicians.

Patrick James 'Packie' Dolan was born in Ballinamuck, Co. Longford, the eldest of 9 children. His father John, a small farmer, played fiddle and taught Packie. The area in which he was reared was well known for its music.

Fiddles and flutes were most common but uilleann pipes, tin whistle, accordion and concertina were popular also as well as singing. Packie was one of the noted Longford fiddlers in New York that included Frank Quinn, John Clarke and Paddy Reynolds.

Cumann Ceoil Chonmhaicne

Cumann Ceoil Chonmhaicne was set up in August 2016 to make the historical manuscripts, field recordings and commercial recordings of Longford musicians available to the public through publications.

The custodian of what is probably the finest private collection of manuscripts of Irish dance music is musicologist and fiddle player, Fr John Quinn, PP Gortletteragh, Co Leitrim. There may well be more manuscripts in Longford and Leitrim hidden away in attics, perhaps and he would love to hear about any still out there.

Joe O’Callaghan founded the Craobh Rua Céilí Band in 1956. He was the father of Patricia Masterson and Anne O’Neill, both of whom are prominent in the work of Comhaltas in promoting an awareness of the fiddle tradition they inherited. Patricia and Anne both serve on the committee of Cumann Ceoil Chonmhaicne - see https://www.facebook.com/ Cumann-Ceoil- Chonmhaicne- 173507553066437/