The master fiddler talks about the recent passing of his friend and long-term musical partner
There was chaos on the side of Maghera mountain 25 years ago at the Hayes’s farm near Feakle in east Clare. Master fiddler Martin Hayes (whose father PJ, also a fiddler of some note, owned the farm) watched as his friend, the guitarist Dennis Cahill, on a visit from the South Side of Chicago, dealt with the agricultural scene that confronted him.
“Dennis was wearing white runners and sweatpants,” recalls Martin. “He was responding to my father’s request that he and I stand in two different gaps, so that the cattle could be moved without letting them into other fields.”
“This was a scene that would have been very uncomfortable for Dennis, who’d probably never set foot on a farm before. As he was jumping left and right to block the cattle, he fell over, and used an American football term to explain himself. He said the cattle had ‘faked him’.”
What does faking mean? “It’s essentially being deceived by your opponent into thinking he is going to move in the opposite direction, so he tricks you.”
“Dennis was like a fish out of water on the farm but on the other hand he merged with the music of that locality as if it were something he’d known his whole life.
"His first gig in Ireland was not with me but instead involved him providing musical accompaniment to my father and my father’s friend Francie Donnellan at the Galway Arts festival.
“Dennis didn’t understand how to stop cattle, but he fully got the rhythm of my father’s fiddling.”
Sadly, both men are now dead, PJ in 2001 and Dennis two months ago.
Way back in 1985, Martin had gone to Chicago to play some gigs. (He didn’t realise he was emigrating at the time, but he ended up staying in America for almost 20 years.)
In autumn of that year, a friend of his — Father TJ Moloney from Inagh, Co Clare who worked as a missionary priest in Detroit and Chicago — took him to Fox’s pub in Chicago, “because he knew the owner and was trying to help get me some gigs.”
It was there Martin met Dennis (whose parents were originally from Ballydavid in west Kerry) for the first time. He was playing with a comedian/singer, George Casey. “I sat in for a few tunes with Dennis and George that night in the hope of getting a gig. I have known Dennis ever since.”
Their friendship developed through music. “We’d meet with a number of other musicians from that circuit in late night bars after our regular gigs were over. We’d talk about music on a lot on those occasions. That’s how we got to know each other.”
They were renting apartments in the south west suburb of Chicago Ridge that were across the street from one other.
“A few years later when we started our band, Midnight Court, we rented a house together on the north side of the city from a Clare man by the name of Tom Looney, who also owned the Abbey Pub where we played many gigs.”
Midnight Court was, Martin says, “a loud raucous affair but also a lot of fun and a great learning experience”. In 1992, he left the band because he felt he had learned all he wanted to. He moved to Seattle to concentrate on his own music.
Four years later, he called Dennis in Chicago, saying he had a tour lined up in Ireland and Europe, and would his friend come along. Dennis dropped everything and joined up with Martin.
That journey lasted for almost 30 years, as they played all over the world to packed and enthralled audiences – and critics. Ann Powers in the New York Times wrote how they stripped “old reels and jigs to their essence, leaving space between the notes for harmonics and whispered blue notes.”
In 1997, they released their debut album, The Lonesome Touch, followed by 1999’s Live in Seattle, and Welcome Here Again in 2008. They also formed a traditional supergroup of sorts, The Gloaming.
They performed for US president Barack Obama at the White House and Irish President Michael D Higgins at Áras an Uachtaráin. After Cahill’s death, Mr Higgins said: “Dennis brought a unique and innovative style to his guitar playing, while being deeply respectful of the essence of traditional Irish music.”
Can Martin explain the nature of their synergy?
“The real musical synergy between Dennis and me only came to the fore after the band was finished and we started our duet career. He used his knowledge of classical, rock and roll, country, bluegrass and jazz music to find a new way of accompanying traditional music.
“He had a good grounding in music theory and I had a deep understanding of traditional music. We talked a lot about music and exposed each other to lots of different music and eventually formed a vision of what we wanted to make together.
"We developed something close to a telepathic communication when we played together. We listened to each other very intensely and our playing seemed to just naturally evolve out of that. He had a broad musical knowledge. He’d had a lot of experience playing in lots of different kinds of bands.
“Musically he was a kind of sentimental romantic. He loved music that might bring a tear to your eye – the romantic beautiful lush chords of Bill Evans, or the quirky chordal variations of the guitarist Bill Frisell. He saw traditional music as a way to unify all that he knew musically into one thing.”
Their last concert together was August 25, 2019 at the closing concert of the Masters of Tradition festival in Bantry House in west Cork. In April of this year, he visited Dennis, who was very ill in hospital in Chicago. He played him tunes from their first recording together.
“Those tunes were deeply lodged in both of us,” he says.
Dennis died on June 20, 2022. The musical bond he formed with Martin Hayes 40 years ago is unbroken.
How will Martin’s music change without Dennis?
“It almost makes more sense for me to think in terms of how impacted my music going forward will remain as a result of my years of playing music with him. We developed musically together and there will probably always be an echo of his music in what I do.”
Asked for a memory of Dennis, Martin says: “I remember him sitting, working out chords with Sting one night in New York in 2014 and realising that years earlier I’d listened to him covering Sting songs in a bar and now here he is playing with Sting. You never know where life is going to take you.”
Martin Hayes curates the annual Masters of Tradition which takes place in Bantry, Co Cork as part of West Cork Music from August 24-28. On August 28, he will lead a discussion ‘Remembering Dennis Cahill: The Man and His Music’