There was a time, not so long ago, when everyone had an aunt or uncle with a fiddle or melodeon. My great uncle Dan Hewitt was a well-known fiddler in the town of Larne and as a child, I delighted in the Aladdin's cave of melodeons, fiddles, saxophones and clarinets hidden underneath his sofa, not to mention the harmonica residing in his top pocket that appeared to have a way of conversing with children all by itself. When Dan played the fiddle on Radio Ulster in the 1980s, “us weans” took it as read that he must be the most famous man alive.
As I was writing ‘Irish Dancing: The Festival Story,’ I picked up bits and pieces about the history of music: the ancient harp and pipe traditions of Gaelic times; fiddle schools emerging all around Ulster during the 1830s and 1840s; the popularity of instruments as they became more affordable and the subsequent creation of bands comprising banjos, fiddles and melodeons - the “pop bands” of their time. The encroachment of jazz music and gramophone records lead to the belief that live music might die out all together, so in the 1920s Irish folk music, along with Irish folk dancing, was added to the syllabus of the musical festivals.
Irish folk dancing, as it was called within the festival community of Irish dancing, became the most popular attraction of the musical festivals and it was fairly easy to find musicians to play for the dancers.
Two prominent musicians of the early festivals in the late 1920s and 1930s were Ballymena men James and Robbie Carmichael, uncles of pianist Rose Murray, who like so many other folk musicians, were Protestant. They played for dancers like Patricia Mulholland (also a respected folk violinist), Sam McConnell, Sally McCarley, Sadie Bell, Betty Greer and Marjorie Andrews. They travelled far and wide, including a trip with the Braid Linen Mill Irish Dancing team to perform at the Festival of Britain in 1951.
When Irish dance festival pianist Rose Murray called me from Ballymena last week to tell me she had read the Irish dancing book and to express her pleasure at seeing the names of her uncles and sister, the late Lily Agnew, I was in the midst of witnessing an online debacle on Twitteropolis. A number of tweeters were confounded that Irish dancing should be found in a town like Larne at all. Not only is Larne an important centre of Irish dancing, but the town has a vibrant cross-community folk music scene and a rich shared history of what is now known as “trad music.”
I called up my dad to ask him what he remembered of folk music in his time. There was Tam McKeen, grandfather of my brother’s friend, who played accordion and spoons. There was the “big tall buddy from Bryan Street,” and then Abram, “the oul boy from up the coast.” There was Fred Brennan from Glenoe, who played the fiddle and marched in Willy Hannah’s famous flute band. There was Tam Cameron, a younger fiddler who mainly played country and who was married to my mum’s cousin. There were the fiddle sessions during Orange lodge installations and then again after the Twelfth parade when folk returned to the hall for a hooley; traditions that still thrive in some country lodges today. There was also that time during the Troubles when the Argyle Temperance Flute band from the Shankill came to play at the First Presbyterian Church and got out the bodhrán and tin whistles to wind up the concert in a foot-tapping session.
Memories came ten to the dozen as my dad threw out names of County Antrim bands, not least the Irish Rovers, who popularised Irish folk music in North America, and every time I’ve seen him since then, he says, “I forgot tae tell ye about thon other buddy so and so.” Some other names are the McCullochs of Ballymena, Billy Rea from Gleno, David George McCrory from Glenarm, Jim Murray from 86 Waterloo Road (four doors up from my uncle Dan), John McMullan, Nel Andrews, Jean Carmichael, Jim McKillopp, Sammy Whan, Willie John Davison, John McCourt and Tommy Gault. Indeed, Tommy Gault’s grandson, Pete Bouma, today plays a fiddle made by Thomas George Scriminger, who was Tommy's cousin.
Music is still important in the Larne area with the likes of Jim McAuley, Dick Murray, Alex Kerr and the talented Conway family keeping the home fires of folk music burning. Billy Andy’s near Glenoe is the place to be on a Saturday afternoon for some good old-fashioned trad music and Mattie Moore’s in Cairncastle is alive with fiddles on a Thursday night. The Aroma Coffee House, right at the heart of the town centre, also provides live music sessions from time to time, bringing folk music to the frappuccino generation.
The folk music that my uncle Dan and his friends played was made up of traditional Irish and Scottish tunes, and rarely would anyone have cared to point out the difference. They also played the popular music of the late 1800s and early 1900s: Percy French tunes and music hall classics that are now received as traditional in their own right. Dan would have performed a folk set on his fiddle at the Plaza dances and then the saxophone or clarinet during the jazz sets. Like the festival Irish dancing scene, there was one community and no political agenda, even during Northern Ireland’s most trying times.
It’s ever more important to tell tales of our shared culture and heritage, the things that bring us together instead of dividing us, and to address Twitteropolis misconceptions. Whilst I have recently finished writing a novel that is infused with all of this music, my own musical knowledge is too limited to write a social history on the subject. I would most definitely read it that book though, especially if it included a wee line about my uncle Dan. It would be a book similar to ‘Irish Dancing: ‘The Festival Story,’ one that describes the cross-community heroes and heroines of folk music and one that celebrates the time when everyone’s aunt or uncle had a fiddle or melodeon.
Angeline King is the author of:
Irish Dancing: The festival story
A history of dancing in Ulster with a focus on the festival tradition of Irish Dancing. Click here to buy.
Contemporary novel. "An enjoyable coming-of-age tale with a Belfast twist" (The Irish Times)
Click here to buy
A Belfast Tale
Contemporary novel. “Uniquely, authentically and enjoyably Belfast" (Tony Macaulay, author of Paperboy.)
Click here to buy.
Children of Latharna
Stories for big weans and wee weans. "Lyrical and nostalgic; wistful and humorous," Ian Andrew, author.
Click here to start reading for free
History & folklore
Jean Park of Ballygally
Fiddles and Melodeons
Martha Taylor's diary
Jean McCullagh at 104
Ballymena & the McConnells
Arms in Irish Dancing
Catholics & Protestants in Irish dancing
Dancing in Victorian Ulster
Irish Dancing: The Festival Story
The Protestant in Irish Fiction.
The Protestant in Irish fiction II
Ulster-Scots in Irish Fiction
An author in Wonderland