Caitlin Finley is getting set for another trip to the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann—otherwise known as the world championships of Irish music—in Tullamore, County Offaly, in late August.
Those who have heard Caitlin play usually are surprised at the level of skill in one so young. What’s more surprising, aside from her musical virtuosity, is her level of maturity. She’s a junior in high school, but, like so many of the kids who play in local traditional Irish music session, she seems more comfortable than most in the company of adults.
Part of that is just Caitlin. But let’s also give credit to session musicians. Adult session musicians are generally welcoming to anyone with talent and interest, but they seem especially nurturing when it comes to kids. After all, it’s not a tradition if it isn’t handed down, and they seem to know that.
We recently posed five questions for Caitlin, who did exceptionally well for herself at the Mid-Atlantic Fleadh Cheoil in Pearl River, N.Y. Here’s what she had to say.
Q. You took third in fiddle and first in banjo. You’re in a trio that also took first place, and the Pearl River Ceili Band, which you’re also in, won the 15-18 competition. Tell me a bit about competing in so many categories. It doesn’t seem to have hurt you any, although I suppose that the third in fiddle means you wouldn’t be eligible to compete on that instrument at the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Tullamore in August.
Does competing in so many categories make you an overall sharper competitor, do you think, and maybe increase your competitive edge in all instruments? Or do you think there’s the possibility that maybe you consciously or unconsciously focus on one instrument over another?
A. Well, competing in so many competitions was certainly a challenge, especially because we had to arrange practices for the ceili band and trio, and the other kids all live in New York. I didn’t have much time to prepare because I’m a junior in high school, and AP Physics has taken over my life.
I think that because you have to concentrate on solely three tunes in preparation for the fleadh, competing on more than one instrument and in more than one category gives you a break sometimes. For example, if I was practicing banjo and got tired of practicing my solo tunes, I’d just move on to the ceili band or trio tunes to play something different. And even though I wasn’t practicing my solo tunes, it was still preparing me for the solo competition just because I was constantly playing.
At the same time, I had twelve tunes to really work up instead of only three.
As for switching back and forth between fiddle and banjo, I don’t know if it either benefited or hurt me. Although the technique for each instrument is completely different, I think that they complement each other. I don’t know if I focus on one more than the other.
I know that the fiddle is really my primary instrument and my favorite to play, but I still probably focused on each equally because when you’re tired and don’t feel like practicing, it’s possible to play the banjo on the sofa without much movement, whereas the fiddle’s a little more physically demanding. Oh, and for fiddle, even though I got 3rd, there’s a pretty good chance that I’ll still get to compete in Tullamore because the 2nd placer probably can’t make it, in which case I’ll be able to take his place.
Q. What tunes did you play in your competitions? And did you pick them yourself this time, or did you have a bit of help?
A. For the fiddle competition, I played the slip jig Gusty’s Frolics, a hornpipe called the Lass on the Strand, and a reel that I call Tom Steele’s (it’s also known as Hand Me Down the Tackle). On banjo, I played a jig that I don’t know the name of, but I got from a recording of traditional Donegal style fiddling. I also played a version of the Blackbird that actually doesn’t sound very much like the more common version that everyone knows, and a reel called Andy Davy’s, which is currently my favorite banjo tune. I had some help from my fiddle teacher, Brian Conway, in deciding on the tunes for the fiddle competition, but he actually doesn’t play the jig or the hornpipe, which probably made it a little harder for him to help me out with variations.
For banjo, I picked the tunes myself, although I learned the hornpipe and the reel from my banjo teacher, Eamon O’Leary, and I had some help the night before the competition from my friend Dylan Foley with picking them out.
Q. I take it you’re planning to compete at the Fleadh Cheoil. You’ve done that before, so you know that this is not a trip to the beach. There are expenses and some crazy planning to do. How are you and your fellow musicians from the trio (Blaithin Loughran and Dylan Foley, it looks like) and the ceili band planning to get there? I know it’s early days yet, but are you thinking about fund-raising?
A. We actually are in the beginnings of starting to plan fundraisers. There’s going to be a big one up at Rory Dolan’s in Yonkers sometime during the summer, which is an annual fundraiser. All the students of Rose Flanagan, Margie Mulvihill, Patty Furlong, and others who are competing at the Fleadh Cheoil will perform, as well as the teachers. Other folks from all over will donate their time to help us raise some money (last year Eileen Ivers and Jerry O’Sullivan performed). Rory Dolan’s provides food and drinks and lets us keep the gate. Also, each of the kids make a basket to be raffled off.
This year we’re also going to try a fundraiser in Philadelphia. My parents and I will be organizing this. Currently it is scheduled for June 20th. We’re going to try to bring down as many members of the ceili band as we can to play a ceili at the Irish Center and some of the parents, like Rose Flanagan and Margie Mulvihill, will play as well. It should be a lot of fun. I’ll keep everyone updated on both fundraisers.
Q. You’re in the 15-18 age group, which means that, by the standards of a lot of our local musicians, you have not been playing all that long. When did you start, and why? What inspired you? Why fiddle and banjo?
A. I’ve been playing for somewhere around eight and a half years. I started playing the fiddle when I was eight. I don’t really remember asking to learn the fiddle or my first lessons, but I’ve been told that I really wanted to play because I was an Irish dancer and saw a lot of fiddlers at feisanna. There’s also the fact that all of us (my siblings and I) have to play some musical instrument, at least in a school program, until we graduate from high school. I don’t think I’ll be quitting after high school, though. I also went to every one of the Mick Moloney concerts at the IHouse at UPenn from the time I was born, my parents played old records of Irish music around the house, and I danced constantly, so I had music in my head. I originally started out playing classical but then moved to Irish almost immediately, both with my first fiddle teacher, Chris Brennan Hagy.
I got my first banjo about two and a half years ago. My fiddle teacher at the time, Brendan Callahan, encouraged me to get one because he said it would help with some of the technique involved with playing the fiddle, mainly being able to press down the strings all the way with my left hand. Brendan actually gave me my first banjo lesson. I’ve never stopped playing it since; it’s a pretty addicting instrument, actually.
I always enjoyed playing music, but practicing was like a chore and I didn’t like going to sessions. I remember the time, though, that I finally fell in love with the music. The summer before I went into 9th grade, my parents and I spent three weeks in Ireland.
We visited family and traveled around, and then we went to Willie Clancy Week in Miltown Malbay, County Clare (where local musician Fintan Malone is from).
I took fiddle classes for a week with Jesse Smith, who is one of my favorite fiddle players, and I met a bunch of kids from all over who played Irish music as well, including two from Italy, one of whom, almost three years later, is still my best friend. It was complete immersion in the music for a straight week. After I came home, I went to as many sessions as I could. I’ve never slowed down and I love it more than ever.
Q. I imagine there are not all that many students in your school who would know one end of the Irish fiddle from the other. How does this interest of yours go over? Is it something you talk about? What’s the reception?
A. Irish musicians are definitely a rarity at my school. My school’s probably around 70 percent Jewish, so most of my friends have never heard Irish music or, if they have, it’s only because they’ve seen Riverdance or Celtic Woman or something along those lines. At school, I’m the Irish girl.
Being Irish is so much a part of my identity, that I end up talking about it a lot, everything from history to music. At this point, most kids know I play Irish music; it’s a subject that comes up every time I’m asked what I did over the weekend.
I think that in 9th grade, a lot of my friends thought it was really weird and just tolerated it, but at this point, most kids think it’s really cool. I have kids asking me to burn them CDs of Irish music, my closer friends all know what a session and a fleadh are, and have seen numerous Comhaltas Live videos, and earlier this year in English class, when my teacher announced that we would be reading “A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift, everyone turned around and looked at me. Just last week, I brought in my banjo to English class to play, to celebrate both a unit we had just finished on cultural identity, and one of my teachers favorite lines from The Great Gatsby: “the stiff, tinny drip of the banjos.”
I’m glad that at this point in school people look at the fact that I play Irish music as something that makes me unique, but doesn’t change my personality. It’s just a part of who I am and everyone seems to recognize and understand that.
Other local Pearl River winners include:
Jacqueline Hartley from Egg Harbor Township
Kathy DeAngelo student Reanna Barakat
15-18 age group.
Katherine Highet, another DeAngelo student
Senior men’s singing in Irish as well as first in English
English singing ages 15-18
Josh’s dad Jim Ely
Singing in English
Josh’s uncle Mike McElligott
Singing in English