Traditional Irish music is an aural tradition passed on from generation to generation by listening, learning by ear and without formally writing the tunes on paper. This is a practice that is still encouraged today and students of traditional Irish music are encouraged to pick up tunes they hear from others or to learn as they listen.
There are instances where the music notes can be made available for students and sheet-music for traditional Irish tunes have been printed.
One such book to be printed and made available in 2019 is the compositions of Eddie Kelly, a renowned fiddle-player, button accordion-player and music composer who hails from the Eyrecourt region of East Galway in Ireland.
Kelly was born in 1933, in a small village called Meelick which is a few miles outside of Eyrecourt and near the well-known town of Ballinasloe, Co. Galway. It quickly became known that Eddie had a special touch on the fiddle and "box" (a colloquial term for the button accordion) and few could match his adroitness and skill on either instruments. Much of his early 20’s was spent playing music in and around Eyrecourt particularly with the legendary fiddle-player and composer Paddy Fahey, who passed away very recently. There are many stories about the sweet and bewitching music played by these two virtuosos; seisiúns that are still talked about today.
In 1958 Eddie accepted a position as stockroom manager in St. Patrick’s psychiatric hospital located in Castlerea, Co. Roscommon and he moved there from his beloved Eyrecourt and the music of his native East Galway. He continued to play and perform throughout Ireland and was invited to be part of the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann US tour in 1985. He became heavily involved in the Roscommon / Sligo music scene and performed regularly, always the music from East Galway, particularly the compositions of his musical hero Paddy Fahey.
“It was such fun learning music from Eddie” says Éilís Crean, former pupil of Eddie Kelly.
“He could take a familiar tune and add in these simple nuances and motif’s and transform it into something unique and original. I was always fascinated at how he could do that” continues Crean.
In the few years before Kelly’s decline in health, he was a prolific composer. Yet this mild-mannered and self-deprecating musical genius rarely showcased his own compositions. He always showed deference and respect to the older musicians such as Paddy Fahey, Paddy Kelly, Paddy O’Brien (Co. Tipperary) or Seán Ryan (Co. Tipperary) by playing their music. It is because of this that out of his own twenty-one compositions, only three or four of them are widely played in traditional Irish music circles today.
And all that is about to change.
“Back in 2009, a year before daddy passed away, I spent an extended period at home in Ireland. During that time, I reconnected with some of the local musical maestros, Patsy Hanly, Frank Kelly (RIP), John Carlos and Vincent Pierce to name just a few. In my childhood years, we used to have Rambling House seisiúns in my home where these musicians and many others would come to play music, sing, dance and tell stories. These occasions were some of the highlights of my childhood, having a front-row seat to listen to the these incredibly talented musicians playing tune after tune, set after set. It was magical”.
Crean goes on to explain that after reconnecting with these local artists one night at a jamming session that John Carlos remembered that Eddie taught her for many years because he could hear Kelly's style in her music. Carlos’ son was also at the seisiún and it came to light that his generation had often heard of the legendary Eddie Kelly. However, no-one had ever heard him play; he had never made a formal recording.
Later that week, Eddie made a surprise visit to another seisiún to reconnect with his long-lost student. It was a poignant reunion because now the roles had been reversed.
“I came to hear you play” were the first words he said to her when he appeared at the door to a dumbstruck Crean.
“It was the strangest thing, it was just like I was back there in his sitting room playing music and trying to get the notes right. And I could see it was the same for him”
Kelly still brought the fiddle with him and sat in as all the musicians quietly and reverently made room for him and furnished his needs.
The veneration and respect for this master was palpable in the room that evening. It alighted on the music and conversation like a soft veil. And so also did the Love.
“Looking back on it, I see now that I used to always challenge Eddie during those lessons, quizzing him about why he did this or how do you play that note. And he loved it! And I fell right back into that synergy again. I chastised him that he never taught me any of his compositions and that I only became aware of his compositions years later when I became an adult. I urged him to listen to my version of a tune and to confirm if I had the correct version. That was the defining theme of my lessons and learning with Eddie. I had to learn the correct version of the tune. That was paramount, more important than anything else.”
Crean goes on to describe a magical few moments where after a lapse of almost twenty years, Kelly picks up the fiddle and plays a few bars of his most well-known composition The Lonesome Fiddler.
“That note is a B natural not a B flat” He said emphatically.
"It has been recorded wrong all these years. And that’s the note that makes the tune. And I want you to play it correctly” He finished in a determined voice.
Crean had received her orders and she took them seriously.
Two days later, a package arrived in the post addressed to Éilís Crean. When she opened it, she discovered that it contained all the sheet-music for the remainder of Kelly’s compositions. It had been sent by Eddie himself, twenty-one compositions in all.
“I spent many years mulling over how best to record these compositions to make sure that I accurately represented what Eddie was saying through these compositions.
On New Year’s Eve 2015, I made a resolution to begin the work to record these tunes”
In July of 2017 Searbh Siúcra was released, featuring all of Eddie Kelly’s twenty-one compositions and some old favorites as well to. From the Irish music world, Crean is joined by John Doyle, Mike McGoldrick John Regan and Kevin Burke. Jeff Taylor and John Mock, iconic musicians from the Nashville scene in the USA also join her to add their special touch to some of the more unique tunes composed by Kelly.
2019 will see the launch of the book entitled The Life and Music of Eddie Kelly, The East Galway Irish Music Tradition as interpreted by Eddie Kelly. This book contains never-seen-before photographs of Eddie and his musical comrades dating back to when he was a young man in his 20’s. It also contains the sheet-music for all his compositions. The book is made special because of the many interviews from various musicians such as Joe Burke, Eileen O’Brien and Jimmy McGreevy to name but a few. Each of these musicians share a story and memory of Eddie Kelly and they talk about the East Galway Irish Music Tradition.
The book and album together are set to add an inestimable contribution to the preservation of traditional Irish music, particularly the East Galway Irish Music Tradition.
To pre-order the book, send an email to Eilis@theirishgift.com
The Searbh Siúcra album is available on www.theirishgift.com. Éilís first album, The Lonesome Fiddler which features the tunes that she learned under Eddie’s tutelage. She is joined by John Doyle, Kevin Crawford and Dermot Byrne. The legendary Kenny Malone from Nashville provides the percussion.
Both albums are also available from iTunes, GooglePlay, CDbaby