Living a Dream Come True
ck Conneely (© 2011 Con Kelleher)” src=”http://irishphiladelphia.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/20120823mickconneelypic1-300×300.jpg” alt=”Mick Conneely (© 2011 Con Kelleher)” width=”300″ height=”300″ />
Fiddler Mick Conneely won’t forget the first time he saw the pioneering Irish folk group De Danann live, every last detail permanently etched into his memory.
“I was 15. It was Sunday the 23rd of May 1982. It was the first time I saw them live, a concert my teacher Brendan Mulkere had organized, in Slough, a town south of London. It was dinner time. Me and my dad went. It was the ‘Star Spangled Molly’ tour, my favorite album. It was the only time I was starstruck.”
Conneely, born in Bedford, England, to Irish dad and fiddle player Mick and mum Lizzi, in a home where Irish music was ever present, had been playing fiddle under Mulkere’s tutelage since he was 11. Mulkere must have thought pretty highly of the young man’s abilities, because, Conneely recalls, “didn’t Mr. Mulkere drag me by the scruff of my neck up to the stage to play solo during the intermission?”
Conneely nearly passed out from fear, but the terror quickly passed as he started to play sets from the 1977 duet album, “Frankie Gavin & Alec Finn.”
Looking back, he says, “it was a brilliant exposure. For the first five minutes I was afraid for my life, but then the butterflies turned into something else.”
Gavin, he recalls, was mightily impressed that his young friend had chosen to play tunes from that album, which Conneely describes as his favorite, both then and now. “When I met the lads afterward, Frankie gave me a hug,” he recalls, still sounding like that starstruck kid. “I was on a high from it for years afterward.”
Conneely kept on plugging away devotedly at his fiddle, playing at sessions, ceilis and house parties, in time maturing into a young virtuoso. Then, in 1984, when Conneely was 17, his parents allowed him to accompany some other young musicians to the Willie Clancy Summer School Festival in the West Clare Irish traditional music hotbed of Miltown Malbay. He suddenly found himself surrounded by the royalty of Irish music.
“You’d hear music in a pub, with the likes of Frankie and Mary Bergin and Jackie Daly. It was just unbelieveable. You couldn’t dream it. I’d never been exposed to that level of music. It changed my whole life. 1987 was the year I knew I would be playing till the day I die. What I experienced in Miltown Malbay would never leave me.”
The members of De Danann didn’t forget about Conneely either, as he found out in 1991, when he was 24 years old. What happened then was musical kismet.
“I toured America with the band,” he says, a note of awe still in his voice. “Frankie had broken his arm or his wrist just before the tour, and I got a call from the tour coordinator.” At first he thought it was his childhood friend, now Lunasa frontman Kevin Crawford, playing a joke on him, but it soon became clear: This was no joke.
“That was unbelievable. I knew the tunes, there was no learning curve at all. Why I was thought of, I have no idea to this day, really. I was totally honored and blown away. Imagine being a guitarist and getting a call from Mick Jagger. I went over a boy and came home a man, musically speaking.”
So began a relationship with De Danann that has lasted years, as Conneely became established as Frankie Gavin’s stand-in. He did a couple of tours after that, and a couple of one-off concerts.
Conneely is on the tour that will take De Danann through Philadelphia on Saturday, September 8, for the grand finale concert of the 38th Annual Philadelphia Ceili Group Festival at the Philadelphia Irish Center in Mount Airy. He’ll join De Danann originals, bouzouki wizard Alec Finn and bodhran player Johnny “Ringo” McDonagh, together with the great singer Eleanor Shanley, accordion player Derek Hickey, and Brian McGrath on piano and banjo.
Of course, this incarnation of De Danann is absent Frankie Gavin. The band split up in 2003. Conneely says he doesn’t harbor any illusions that he can take Gavin’s place. “No one can really replace Frankie. He’s still my favorite fiddle player. He’d lift anyone’s soul.”
For now, though, Mick Conneely is happy to share the stage with the band that most inspired him as a kid. “Looking back now,” he says, “I realize I’m the luckiest guy on earth. I’ve realized many of my ambitions, which is rare. Some dreams do come true.”