Entertainment Festivals

Sunday 22 April 2018

The three kings: The legendary Sligo trio who still inspire trad musicians

How three Sligo musicians, regarded by many as the best Irish fiddle players ever, are still having a profound influence on the trad scene. Eleanor Kennedy talks to some of the men keeping their legacy alive

Declan Folan
Declan Folan

When you talk about the last century of Irish traditional music, it's impossible to do so without significant reference to the Sligo Masters.

There is a lot James Morrison, Michael Coleman and Paddy Killoran have in common.

They were all born in south county Sligo. They all emigrated to the United States at a time when Ireland's sovereignty was at large and all three settled in New York.

But today, perhaps the most pressing commonality of them all is that Morrison, Coleman and Killoran are still regarded as the best fiddle players to ever grace Irish traditional music.

"The reason Sligo is talked about so much is because of the three musicians who went to America at the right time and got recorded," said Martin Enright, Chairman of the Sligo town Comhaltas branch.

Martin, who is also co-ordinator for the James Morrison festival, is a historian with a love of traditional music. He was part of a team, led by Micheál Ó Domhnaill, to produce a film on the trio, The Sligo Masters, released last year and which will be screened at this year's Fleadh.

"It was the time of the old 78s," he said, referring to the 78rpm records made between the late 1800s and 1950s. "These were sent back to Ireland and they had a massive influence."

Between 1921 and 1936, Michael Coleman recorded approximately 80 of these records, including one of Paddy Clancy's jig.

Many, many years later a four-year-old Declan Folan got his hands on this record.

He turned to his mother and told her he wanted to play the fiddle.

"My mum had loads of old 78 records," Declan said. "I remember two in particular, one was the Owenmore Céilí Band and the other was Michael Coleman.

"I was four when I heard it and I said to Mum I was going to be a fiddle player. If it hadn't been for Michael Coleman I would not be a fiddle player today. The likes of him, James Morrison and Paddy Killoran had a huge influence on me."

Declan added: "Coleman was so talented. He wouldn't alter the whole tune but he would alter bits and pieces. Lord Gordon's reel would be one of his most famous tunes. It was originally in two pieces but when Coleman got his hands on it, it was up another three parts and his bow technique was just unreal."

The attributes of what is today known as the Sligo fiddle style can be heard on the Masters' old records.

This fast, flamboyant and highly ornamented technique is still practised by traditional musicians today, including Folan and Téada's Oisín MacDiarmada.

Oisín, who is a two-time All-Ireland champion on the fiddle, said: "The music is very real for me, especially as I live in Sligo.

"The distinctive style is why people think of Sligo as being so engrossed in Irish traditional music. It is part of the soundtrack of being a Sligo musician I think, but their influence is heard all over the world too."

Martin Enright agreed.

"Very much so," he said when speaking of Morrison, Coleman and Killoran's influence around the world. "I know of players from Alaska to Australia who have heard these records.

"Every time people go to concerts, without thinking they remember these tunes. While trad musicians will play some of the more modern tunes at concerts today, they will still always revert back to these old tunes."

And while Oisín and Declan can count themselves lucky to have these three fiddlers as their influences, there is no doubt they themselves are influences for an even younger generation of trad musicians.

They have both turned to teaching at Scoil Éigse, an annual international summer school which takes place the week preceding Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann.

Oisín said: "I have been tutoring since 1996. Teaching for me is a mixture of needing to keep the music alive and also getting pleasure from sharing my knowledge.

The standards are very high but you will find little bits they might have overlooked so we can help them fill in the gaps."

Declan added: "A lot of the younger musicians today have the history and recordings of Irish music on the likes of YouTube. The level they are now playing at is absolutely incredible. The standard is so high, especially in Sligo, where there is a selection of unbelievably talented young musicians."

This year marks 100 years since James Morrison emigrated to the United States. The Fleadh is placing a special emphasis on him as they did to mark Coleman's emigration last year.

Oisin MacDiarmada will be involved in a special commemoration at IT Sligo's Knocknarea Arena where he will be teaming up with renowned musicians from Ireland and the US, including Frankie Gavin and a host of New York fiddlers.

As Sligo gets ready to host Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann once more, the impact of a generation dating back more than a century is still seen.

Sligo's budding trad musicians of today are still gaining from these, as well as all the tunes they have learned to play with local place names in the titles such as the Ballymote Polka, the Keash Jig and Boys of Ballisodare.

These are some of the best known tunes in the world and it is the likes of Declan Folan, Oisin MacDiarmada and Martin Enright who passionately shares his knowledge of trad music who are keeping them alive today.

Irish Independent

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