Chris Brennan Hagy is one of the area’s best-known Irish fiddlers. She is devoted to teaching, retaining and sharing the tradition, and a longtime fixture at area Irish music sessions—including the Mermaid Inn in Chestnut Hill, where she is the leader.
You might think she came by her love of Irish fiddling naturally.
On the one hand, it seems like it was preordained. Music has always played a part in her life, dating back to her childhood on Long Island.
“I was a member of the Saint Bridget’s Marching Fife, Drum and Bugle Corps, the Golden Lancers, from when I was 5,” she recalls. She played in the band until she was about 16.
She also took piano lessons for four years. “I wasn’t the best of the seven kids or the worst,” she remembers, and eventually, after much complaining about practice, her mother allowed her to quit.
Hagy’s mother was of Norwegian descent, born in South Dakota, and her dad was born in Plainfield, N.J., the son of an Irish immigrant. Like so many children of Irish heritage, Hagy took Irish dance lessons. Not explicitly musical, but in the same league.
“The building where we used to dance is gone,” she says, “and I don’t wonder because there were 100 children in the basement of the parish hall. We’d be down there doing our threes and sevens and banging around. When they took down the parish hall, I figured, too much step dancing, obviously.”
Later on, at 13, her mother bought her a guitar. She taught herself as so many do, using the Mel Bay method, learning chords and fingering out of a book. “Back in college, I played wine cellars and with two or three friends performed Joni Mitchell tunes.”
Still, there was something of a lapse between her early musical years and her later years as a fiddler.
It wasn’t until Hagy’s daughter Tegan was a year and a half and she started taking her to Suzuki violin lessons that she began to catch the bug. “I started lessons with her because the Suzuki Method is, you have a teacher, a child and a parent. It’s known as the Suzuki Triangle,” Hagy says. She did well, and the teacher encouraged her to take Suzuki teacher training, “and so I did.”
Irish music didn’t kick in until later, when she began taking Tegan to Irish dance lessons at the Philadelphia Irish Center (now the Commodore John Barry Arts and Cultural Center).
While the kids practiced, parents had to sit out at the bar. She remembers having a conversation with another parent, Kay Gering, who said, “You know, I’ve always wanted to learn Irish fiddle, and I said, I play a little violin. So, we went upstairs to what’s now the Tyrone Room, and I taught her how to play the violin.”
Finally, (through the encouragement of the late Charlie Maris) she and Kay started attending the Friday night ceili. She and Kay standing in the back, they joined in little by little. She started taking lessons with John Kelly. “Mrs. Kelly would put on some tea for us and he would teach us. I remember the first tune I learned was ‘Off She Goes.’”
And off she went from there.
The next year, she and Kay found themselves playing on a float in the Philadelphia St. Patrick’s Day parade. “The girls were dancing, and Mrs. Kelly had crocheted our hats and fingerless gloves. Kay and I were sitting there with Mr. Kelly, who was dressed up as Saint Patrick, along with (the late) Kitty Kelly, played on the float. So that’s what started it.”
She joined the Philadelphia Ceili Group and took more lessons, and for several years organized the Ceili Group Festival workshops.
Today, she continues to teach Suzuki—and has done that for 34 years now. But one of the pursuits for which Hagy is best known is The Next Generation, or Next Gen, a loosely organized program designed to draw in young people and teach them traditional Irish music on a variety of instruments. Hagy, Kathy DeAngelo and Dennis Gormley oversee the group.
“Kathy, Dennis and I have been doing that for I don’t know how long, but it meets every second Sunday at the Irish Center,” she says. “We teach for free, and whoever can play an instrument can come. We even welcome adults to come and learn a tune, have a snack, play a session.” Many of those kids have gone on to compete in the regional Fleadh (a competition organized by the Irish cultural organization Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann). A few have tested their mettle in Comhaltas’s world championships and remain quite accomplished musicians in their own right.
“It’s been great,” Hagy says of her years with Next Gen. “I feel honored to be part of a family’s life. It’s a joyful thing.”
Hagy’s journey now has taken her from novice to teacher, from child musician to adult. For her, the joy of fiddling is endless. Watch her play, and you see her eyes close, a slight smile on her face. “You can just go into yourself,” she says. “It’s better than a Calgon bath. It takes you away.”