In Memory of Mike Rafferty

Mike Rafferty, playing at the Philadelphia Irish Center in 2006.

Mike Rafferty, playing at the Philadelphia Irish Center in 2006.

When Mike Rafferty played flute, it was with the unmistakable lilt and lift of his native East Galway. Named a National Heritage Fellow in 2010 by the National Endowment for the Arts, he was a bona fide national treasure.  Through his teaching, recording and performing, he passed along the tradition to new generations.

Mike Rafferty, who was certainly no stranger to Philadelphia-area Irish musicians and fans of Irish music, died last week at the age of 84. Local flute players likely will not soon forget what a rare honor it was to sit by his side and soak of knowledge from a master, as they did at the Tom Standeven-Liz Crehan Anderson Tional at the Philadelphia Irish Center in 2006.

Rafferty’s passing struck a sad note with many, many musicians who knew him well, including singer-songwriter Gabriel Donohue (himself no stranger to Philadelphia).

Here is Donohue’s remembrance:

A lovely man was Mike Rafferty.

I met Mike Rafferty on what I believe was my first weekend in New York. ( I met Joe Madden one block over on the same night.) I had gotten a room above Christy O’Connor’s apartment off of Mosholu Parkway and every night would have to pass Kingsbridge Road to get home. Unless of course I wanted to take the short cut that bypassed Durty Nellie’s, The Archway and the Old Brogue, which was earlier called the Bunratty. Andy McGann and Johnny Cronin would hold court there and it was a magnet for people who loved the pure drop, surrounded by tenements, bodegas and across from the armory. The Irish still held out in these neighborhoods where cheap rent was the main attraction and, secondly, the pub scene which anesthetized them from the despair brought about by having traded the bucolia of Galway and Mayo for the tar and cement of New York.

“Raff” showed up there on occasion and would play till the wee hours, his wife Terry documenting everything on her tape recorder. Her personal archives are a virtual repository of all the sessions he played over the years, I’m quite sure. She adored the man and obviously his music. No wonder his daughter Mary has accomplished so much as a fine exponent of East Galway music on the accordion. Mary also could not help exhibiting her adoration for the father who carefully and gently passed on his riches of music to his little girl. Her husband Donal also made his affection for his Da-in-law clear when he joined them both on many concerts and a couple of the later albums.

I made a few records with them in the mid-’90s, The first was the “Dangerous Reel.” I think the second was “The Road to Ballinakill.” It was great having them in my studio, to be getting the stories that went with every tune. And there were stories. Mike Rafferty was never just stringing notes together. He was weaving a tapestry with love, pure love. For the people who gave him the tunes, and the people who came play with him to learn or just listen. Some were new, as was “The Caucus of Secaucus,” written by Canadian Jean Duval; many were old and gotten from his dad Barrel Rafferty. Barrell lost his eyesight in mid-life, and Mike’s mother thought it might be because of the flute playing. That always got a good laugh. One thing for sure he had that barrel D sound prized by lovers of flute music.

Mike Rafferty was never just stringing notes together. He was weaving a tapestry with love, pure love.

I recall Mike Rafferty played a silver flute in those days and later he told me it was “mean strength and ignorance” that kept him playing it. He returned to the wooden flute eventually and it was then I believe his sound came into its own. This may be just my prejudice as I adore that instrument. Joanie Madden has found a way, through embouchure manipulation to mimic its sound on her lovely Miyuzowa instrument—and of course the ability to travel in all keys makes it more ideal for an all-rounder such as she. But the gentle East Galway music benefits I believe from that lovely dark timbre imbued by the, well, dark timber.

Speaking of the Maddens… I think of Mike’s love for Joe and his inability to talk about music without mentioning his best friend. They were cut from the same East Galway cloth and were visibly connected on so many levels through a sub-genre whose depth perhaps can not even be understood by younger players who never heard a curlew crying over the woodlands of Portumna, Woodford or Ballinakill. Or experienced this music before technology came into their homes and the carefully cultured boredom of long winter nights were usurped by TV and computer screens. It’s easy to find the tunes online these days, but you cannot recreate the feeling between the notes without the life experience which made the relevant to the older generation. Whether by their connection to the parish dances or to “The Old Fireside,” as Mike would say. Of course they do have their own relevance in modernity but it’s just different from what it represented to the people in those small rural communities.

Many times when I would run into Mike around New York he would quote the poem below which mentioned my little parish Kilconoiron/Clostoken, famous for very little but for “rough hurlers” (Father Charlie Coen would say) and being the birthplace of piper Patsy Touhy. It is no crude sporting tome, especially where it rhymes my parish with the esteemed poet Lord GG Byron. I hope Terry has a recording of him reciting it as I would cherish it as I do memories of this lovely, softhearted, gentle man, who had so many tunes going around in his head. A lifetime was hardly enough for him to play them.

The last time I saw Mike was in his backyard in Hasbouck Heights. We had a session in his garage. It was a farewell party for Mary and Donal and the kids on leaving for a new life in Ireland. Joanie and Helen Madden were there. Father Charlie, Mattie Connolly. Don Meade, Deirdre Connoly, Felix Dolan and Martin Mulhaire. He was in great form and really looked like he’d be around for a long time.

He’ll be sadly missed. Thanks to Mary and Terry who supported him in recording many albums, he left us lots of tunes.

Woodford Hurling team 1914

By Michael Power (Powerscross)

From Woodford town of old renown, went our sturdy team one day,

From the hillside brown the streams rushed down, Barkhill beside the bay.

We’re proud of you, brave hurlers true, we’re proud our parish bore you,

Throughout the soil of Erin’s Isle, you have beaten all before you.

Could I lines unfold like Moore of old, were I Thackeray or Byron,

I would sing for you the praises due, for twice beating Kilconoiron!

On the Loughrea train, one day again, we went with pride and joy,

To view our fifteen hurling men, in the town of Athenry.

We reached the station midst animation, of both the East and West,

From Woodford Bay to Claregalway, we were known to be the best.

But to decide it on the field we tried it, ‘neath Summer’s scorching sun,

In weather glorious we were victorious, now we’ve the County honours won.

The whistle sounded, the ball was grounded, Stanley found it and sent it high,

While opponents feared him, all men cheered him, on the Gaelic fields of Athenry.

He is straight and tall and admired by all, you could compare him to no other.

You could Ireland pick to rival Dick, our gallant captain’s brother.

With the Coens in back we fear no attack, from German, Greek or Turk,

Submarine or bomb, let Zepplins come, they’ll be manned by Conroy and Burke.

The Fahys three and Jack Grady, are worthy of our attention,

With Kelly and Page on the fullforward stage, the Gormans here we’ll mention.

Now we have named our team that was famed, in North, South, East and West,

On that bright June day, when all Galway did say, Woodford are again the country’s best.

If on those lines you muse, I pray you’ll excuse, if the composer has been unruly,

For in haste did he stitch these lines on the ditch, and as ever he remains yours truly.

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