The acclaimed East Galway-born fiddler Maeve Donnelly plays with deep passion and conviction, bringing out the beauty of Ireland’s old music and making it all seem new again.
We spoke to Donnelly in 2007 just before her Coatesville Traditional Irish Music Series appearance with Scottish guitarist Tony McManus. Donnelly returns for a concert at the Coatesville Irish Music Series Wednesday at 8 p.m. This time around, she is accompanied by the East Cork flute player Conal Ó Gráda.
The upcoming show gives us an excuse to dust off our 2007 Q and A. We’ll also link you to our review of that concert (short, but enthusiastic), together with Gwyneth MacArthur’s lovely photos.
Maeve Donnelly is that rarest of birds, an Irish musician whose parents are not players themselves. (Which would make them, um … kind of like the Muggles of the Irish traditional world.)
Somehow, in spite of her inauspicious roots, she has managed to muddle along.
She won her first All-Ireland Fiddle Competition at age 9. She won two more All-Ireland fiddle titles after that. She also picked up the National Slogadh Competition for Solo Fiddle and The Stone Fiddle Competition in County Fermanagh.
In a recent phone conversation from her home in Quin, County Clare, Donnelly explained how she made the journey from the Galway of her childhood and a house somehow not filled with fiddle-playing parents, aunts, uncles and cousins to emerge as one of the preeminent traditional players of her generation.
Q. How did you start out? How old were you?
A. I started very young. I was probably about 6 or 7 or so when I started playing. The reason for starting was, my two older brothers had gone to music lessons. Their teacher taught specifically Irish music.
We had a fiddle hanging on the wall at home. My other brother Declan had played fiddle, and so he had advanced on to another fiddle. It was no great mystique toward learning fiddle.
I got the fiddle put in my hand and a bow, and off I went with my two brothers to learn music.
Q. Not everyone who starts out on an instrument stays with it. Why did you?
A. I didn’t ever exactly like music lessons. I don’t think there’s a child who does. It was no great treat. My lessons would have started on a Saturday. I still feel like I had a big black cloud over me until it was over. I wasn’t great at reading music and I picked it up as best I could, playing by ear.
The way it happened was, we used to go to fleadhs as a family. We in turn were part of a bigger unit, and we played at fleadh cheoils all over the country. It was a special group of maybe 30 people. Within that group, everybody would go to the fleadhs. We would combine in different ways to go in for competitions.
A big proportion of praise goes to my parents, who put in a great sacrifice and weren’t pressuring us to get first place in the fleadhs. It developed as a social outing.
That (playing in fleadhs) made a difference. I was playing in fleadhs and competing from about the age of 9. At the time we would have traveled up to three hours back in the late 1960s. It was quite a journey to go to these fleadhs.
Q. Your parents didn’t play. It seems like everyone else I’ve interviewed who plays an instrument comes with a pretty deep family background.
A. I often think, would it have been nice to have had parents who were musicians? Sometimes it can be more refreshing not to have parents playing musical instruments at home. It’s better doing your own thing, and a challenge.
Q. Was there a point at which you felt like your playing had progressed beyond the routine of lessons, to where you knew that there could be something more?
A. I finished classes in my teenage years. At about that time, a whole new breed of festival started in Ireland. They were non-competitive workshops. The first one was Willy Clancy Week. That was my first introduction to learning music for a whole week, and having great fun and being immersed in it for a week. The first year I went there I was in a class taught by Sean Keane of the Chieftains. And I met a lot of pipers. I never met pipers. I met Seamus Ennis. It was an eye-opening experience. That was about 1974.
After that, I would go back annually.
Q. How has your approach to playing progressed since then? How did what you learn in workshops influence your playing?
A. It sort of organically grew. I enjoyed what I was doing. I also felt that I worked at what I was doing. I’m not claiming that it dropped down or I was gifted in any way. It sort of spurred me on to studying the music, to working at the music, rather than sitting and playing at sessions. I spend a lot of the just sitting at home and playing.
I think session music is a great form of practice and a great form of picking up tunes and great form of fun. As an exercise in improving your playing, I’m not sure I would agree. It depends on the session. At that level you just play as an ensemble groups. The individual part of the playing doesn’t come. But playing in sessions also gives you motivation to keep playing. Every time I go to a session, I always hear a new tune. It’s like a lifeline in its own way.
Q. What do you do when you aren’t playing?
A. My full-time job, and has been since I was 20, I’ve been a teacher. I teach in the area of learning support. I take children 7 to 12, children who have trouble with literacy and numeracy. Being a teacher means I have a long holiday time. I have more flexibility. I can take one week and I can tour.
- Ticket info for the Wednesday concert with Conal Ó Gráda here : http://www.ctims.info/