Thursday 20 June 2019

'She asked me if I was the marrying kind' - fiddle virtuoso Martin Hayes

Irish fiddle virtuoso Martin Hayes turned down the inheritance of the family farm so he could play the fiddle. He told Ciara Dwyer about following his passion for music, and falling for his Spanish wife, Lina, after a lifetime spent avoiding marriage and kids

Martin Hayes -
Martin Hayes - "I told my brother that he should take the farm. There was always a risk that I’d feed the same calf a second time." Photo: David Conachy
Martin and Lina: "When I'm with Lina, I'm home." Photo: John Tuomey.

Ciara Dwyer

When Martin Hayes was a little boy, he had to be bribed to go to bed. And no wonder. In the evenings, his home in Killanena became a hive of musical activity.

"My earliest memory is of going to bed, leaving the door cracked open, while the music from the kitchen came into my bedroom," says the Clare-born fiddler. "There were lots of musical gatherings in our house, and when they were happening, I always wanted to stay up all night."

His father P Joe Hayes, a farmer and fiddler, was one of the founding members of Tulla Ceili Band. Fleadh Cheoil winners, they went on to tour in the UK and the US.

The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

Martin and Lina:
Martin and Lina: "When I'm with Lina, I'm home." Photo: John Tuomey.

These days, Martin is one of the world's leading artists in traditional Irish music. He travels all over with his own bands. On August 16, The Martin Hayes Quartet will perform in St Canice's Cathedral as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival. You can catch him on tour with his various different groups - The Gloaming, Brooklyn Rider and also with his long-time musical partner, Irish-American guitarist Dennis Cahill.

"A big point for me is being able to collaborate with music all over the world and not having to compromise what you do," he says. "We used to think that you had to water it down a bit, to make it more accessible but that diminishes it. I've found that the deeper and truer you go into it, the easier it is to communicate."

Anyone who has ever seen Martin Hayes perform live will testify that his talent is a privilege to behold. With a bow in motion, his curls cascading and his leg jigging to the rhythm, it's as if he is in a trance. He looks like he is at one with the fiddle. As he says himself, "it's like an extension of my arm".

As a boy, Martin watched his father playing the fiddle and it seemed like the natural fit. When he was seven, a little fiddle turned up on Christmas morning.

"There it was, destiny handed down by Santa Claus. Here was this very subtle way of convincing a kid that they must have some musical ability, because the greater wisdom of Santa seemed to know this," he says. "But the shock that I wasn't making music immediately was disappointing."

And so, the informal lessons began. "My father sat in front of me and he'd play a bar or two of a tune. He'd play it slowly and then he'd say, 'Go on, imitate that'. He was pretty patient. I think it was excruciating for him, listening to this and watching this.

"After a certain amount of tunes were learnt, I'd lock myself in a room learning and playing. Often it was a very solitary world, with a record player and eventually an old tape recorder. I was in there trying to figure it out. Then I'd come out and present to my father what I had figured out.

"Of course, if he didn't like it, I would be furious, to which he always responded with - 'Why did you ask?'

"But I wanted him to love what I was doing, irrespective of whether it was good or not.

In hindsight, Martin realises that his father's honesty did him no harm at all.

"I think it's very important to be straight and to actually call it as it is, as well as encourage. The encouragement doesn't mean much if they don't get critical analysis as well. What does 'you're great' mean if you've never heard, 'that wasn't so good'? The kid really wants to know."

His mother Peggy was similarly straight-talking.

"My mother took me to my first Fleadh Cheoil. So when I won the first time - it was like winning the All-Ireland on the fiddle - it was me and my mom. At the time, I was listening to lots of records. But I remember one day I was imitating Brendan McGlinchey, a great Northern Irish fiddle player. I thought, this is the way I want to go and my mother said, 'I don't think so'."

"She said, 'You have your own sound and you should go after that - your own style. Don't be imitating somebody else's style'. She was absolutely right. It cured me of searching for somebody else's style."

By the time Martin was 13, he started tagging along with the band, going to ceilis at the weekend.

"I'd be in the back of the car, driving to Sligo and Kerry and playing with all these old guys. It was very exciting. I was going somewhere and there was music."

Martin grew up on a farm. It was a mixed farm with a few cattle, sheep and vegetables. It had horse-drawn mowing machines and the cattle were milked by hand. Then in the 1970s, it turned into a dairy farm, complete with a milking machine.

"The farm was a combination of freedom and hard work. Children were expected to work on the farm and chores were significant. It was all hands on deck; hay had to be saved and you would go to the bog to cut turf. We worked hard but then we had incredible freedom. We played in rivers and we were like monkeys, climbing trees," he said.

For all his love of the farm, Martin had the foresight to see that he didn't want to work on the land forever.

"There are four of us in the family and I'm the eldest," he says. "My brother is a year younger and he ended up having the farm. I forfeited the eldest son entitlement to the farm when I was 10.

"I sat down with Pat and I said, 'I think you should have the farm and I should just head off'. He loved the farm and I wasn't particularly tuned into it. There was always a risk that I'd feed the same calf a second time. I wasn't that committed to it but I was obsessed by music.

"I never imagined the possibility of a career in music because it didn't exist. Nobody seemed to have a career in music - only a handful of people like Paddy Moloney. How would you even begin to do it? But I knew that I wasn't going to do the farm. The reason I went on to do business studies was simply that I needed to do something.

"It didn't matter what else I would go ahead and do. I was always going to see myself as a musician, irrespective of whether I had a career or not. I always figured that I'd make money and survive some other way, but that most of my passion and energy would get devoted to music."

Martin went to the US and tried many lives for size. He worked on building sites.

"You can kinda see that I'm not cut out for that. However, I'd be tougher than you'd expect, in the sense that I grew up on the farm."

He ended up in Irish cabarets in Chicago, playing Irish-American songs.

"It got me out of the weather and it gave me a little time to think."

In the end, he couldn't handle that any more and so he put a band together with Dennis Cahill. They were experimenting with fusion jazz.

"When I was playing in rock clubs in Chicago with an electric fiddle and amps, I looked like a bit of a farmer. So I decided to grow my hair, in order to fit in. At first, I wanted to know how to play everything and then I realised that I had already had a complete language."

He went on to record an album with just guitar accompaniment, where he gathered all the musical impulses he had since he was 12. It became the first step on that journey where he began to evolve. During those years in the US, Martin had to lose himself musically before he found himself.

"America is a land of fresh starts. It's a land of redemption. Despite all of its political mishaps, and the darkness that somehow descends on it, it still has an underlying freedom. In the US, you are free to decide who you are going to be, whereas in Ireland, even though legally speaking, it's just as free, you are not as free to re-invent yourself.

"If you live in a village in the west of Ireland, the personality and character that forms you in your teenage years goes into your young adult life and actually defines you for the remainder of your time."

Martin started to enjoy success and his father was around to see it. There had been a big gap when he hadn't come home and, then finally, he started to reconnect with Ireland and the musicians here.

"I felt very embraced by this country," he says. "It was like I had cut the ties for a while and I came back and reconnected and reaffirmed what the whole thing was about. I'd come back and play with my dad's ceili band. That was just a lovely experience and it kept me very grounded.

"I was very close to my father and years later, I would invite him up on stage to play with me.

"I remember one night we were standing backstage and my fiddle was on the table. He was just standing there and he said, 'I would love to have done this'. It was lovely playing with him."

When Martin's dad died, he tells me that it was a big loss, adding: "It took a lot of energy for a while but you pick up. Life has to go on."

His mother is still alive, hale and hearty and she often goes to his concerts. Every summer for 25 years, Martin came to play at a festival in Feakle, Clare. For many years, he noticed a woman in the audience.

"Yes, I am at one with the fiddle but I still see people," he says. "She had a very charismatic face, just a beautiful face, you'd remember her. Sparkling eyes."

That woman is now his wife, Madrid-born Lina Pelaez.

She had been living in Clare for many years. At the end of one concert, Lina went up to him and asked if he would play at the opening of her Steiner-based pre-school, Brigit's Hearth, near Scariff. It was a very special school where kids would play outdoors for three hours a day.

"It sounded kind of interesting so I gave her my email address and asked her to contact me about it. The following night, she was down at the ceili, dancing sets all night long. I was impressed - this Spanish lady dancing sets. She learnt Irish-set dancing so she could just get out into the community. She liked to dance, of course, but she also wanted to connect with life there.

"We emailed back and forth and one day I said that I'd be driving from Limerick to Feakle and, on the way, I could call in to see the place.

"She was just there and we sat and talked and, pretty soon, I began thinking, 'who is this woman?' And it wasn't long before I thought, 'why am I not married to somebody like this?' She said that she had been enquiring about me and somebody said, 'oh, he's not the marrying type'. And she asked me - 'are you the marrying type?' And I had been avoiding marriage and kids for 40-something years now but I answered, 'yes, I am.' Yes, I am in the context of having met her.

"We were married one year later, in September 2011, on the anniversary of the day that we met.

"I'm a romantic. I asked her to marry me under the Brian Boru oak tree in Tuamgraney, where she takes the children. I knew that it was one of her favourite spots. You may as well do it right and I'm never going to do it again.

"Neither of us had been married before and we just felt this kind of soulful connection, this shared understanding of the world together. We are both a bit out there, both dreamers. She is very energetic and grounded. I can move a bit slowly and sheepishly - I'm moving but it doesn't look like it.

"It felt like a really deep, immediate connection. And it was from people who didn't need to be married and people who weren't doing it out of desperation. We had figured out not being married. She had raised three sons and she didn't need to be married and neither did I."

I ask if you'd have to like music to be with him?

"She likes music and she understands that most of what I'm doing is an expression of feeling. Her father's side of the family is from Asturias, northern Spain and she is connected to the piping music there. Every little social gathering there involves pipes."

They are kindred spirits.

"The way Lina makes this perfect situation for children involves doing many of the same things I'd do to make a good performance of music, which is being completely present as a human being and completely engaged in the thing you are doing, fully committed."

Now she manages the school and comes back to refine programmes but they live in Madrid. Martin enjoys Spanish life. He notices that the people there are more affectionate than the Irish. There is an outdoor life there. He loves the light of the city, the architecture and the croissants.

When he mentions the pastries, I tell him that I wonder why they are not all fat. He explains how small pleasures are interwoven into the day.

"The Spanish are not indulgent in the way that we might be. We legitimise indulgence - fellas at the bar drinking seven pints. That would be very frowned upon in Spain. They drink, but not to excess. Yesterday we headed straight over to the Shelbourne for our Campari spritz. That's a very Spanish thing to do at a certain time in the day. Then there is dinner with a glass of wine and that's that. It's pleasure but not overindulgent."

Martin tells me that Lina often comes on tour with him.

"When she is with me, I don't count that as time away from home. When I'm with Lina, I'm home."

The Martin Hayes Quartet will perform in St Canice's Cathedral, Thursday, August 16 at 7.30pm in Kilkenny Arts Festival, as part of Marble City Sessions. Tickets €30/€27 www.kilkennyarts.ie

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