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Riverstown's Morrison Festival to commemorate fiddle player, Joe O'Dowd

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Session on the street, St. Patrick's Day, c.1977, O'Connell Street, Sligo. Standing at rear, Paul Jennings, David Smith. Seated, left to right, Martin Enright, Frank Mulvey, Anton O'Hanlon, Brian Taheny, Joe O'Dowd, RIP; Carmel Gunning, Marie Mulvey.

Session on the street, St. Patrick's Day, c.1977, O'Connell Street, Sligo. Standing at rear, Paul Jennings, David Smith. Seated, left to right, Martin Enright, Frank Mulvey, Anton O'Hanlon, Brian Taheny, Joe O'Dowd, RIP; Carmel Gunning, Marie Mulvey.

Session on the street, St. Patrick's Day, c.1977, O'Connell Street, Sligo. Standing at rear, Paul Jennings, David Smith. Seated, left to right, Martin Enright, Frank Mulvey, Anton O'Hanlon, Brian Taheny, Joe O'Dowd, RIP; Carmel Gunning, Marie Mulvey.

THIS year, the James Morrison Traditional Music Festival, which takes place from July 27th-29th in Riverstown, will include a special commemoration of the Sligo fid...

THIS year, the James Morrison Traditional Music Festival, which takes place from July 27th-29th in Riverstown, will include a special commemoration of the Sligo fiddle player, Joe O'Dowd, who died in 1987.

The following is an article from an 1985 edition of the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann magazine, Treoir, in which Dr. Edward O. Henry, of San Diego State University in California, wrote about the late Joe O'Dowd and the Sligo musical environment of the time.

"Driving into Sligo from Manorhamilton, the rolling hills gave way to a valley with forested slopes and farmed bottom, its roughly rectangular green and gold patches separated by tree-lined lanes. A stream widened into the shimmering Glencar Lake and the slopes grew into low mountains that opened to the sea, the pregnant silhouette of Benbulben on the right and across from it, the towering green Killogyboy, dotted with distant sheep.

"Then the town's narrow streets and a brick bridge with cloth-capped old men, a swan serene on the stream with a cathedral spire behind. A hand-letter poster on a telephone pole in the busy town centre announced an Irish music session at the Sligo United Trades Club on Castle Street that night. That's where we met fiddler Joe O'Dowd.

Joe O'Dowd was born into a musical family in 1914 at Knocknaska, Gurteen, about twenty miles from Sligo city in County Sligo. His older brother, who died in New York, helped him start with the fiddle, when he was twelve or thirteen. Joe's uncle, John O'Dowd (who died in the early years of this century) has been a widely recognised fiddler and had two well-known reels called after him "O'Dowd's Favourite' recorded by Michael Coleman in the 1920s and the other 'O'Dowd's Number Nine', later recorded by Hugh Gillespie.

When Joe began to play, only a limited number of people admired the music and would travel to her it; people are more interested in hearing and learning the music today. the music was played chiefly at social gatherings in country homes and the musicians were not compensated ("If you got a cup of tea you were lucky").

Joe looked forward to such occasions in part because he could learn a few things by watching the musicians. Later, he was a fan of Michael Coleman, and, as Joe always played by ear, and could pick up a tune quickly, h e learned a good deal of his music by listening to Coleman's records. Coleman and Joe came from the same part of County Sligo.

As a young man Joe had no job, except helping out on his father's small farm. So when he was asked by a promoter to perform at the Garryowen Club in Hammersmith, London, he decided to have a go at it. It was to be his first job as a professional musician.

The bank in which he played there from about 1935 to 1940 included Martin Wynne on fiddle; Paddy Taylor (of Limerick) on flute; a man who played tenor saxophone (for waltzes) as well as flute and piccolo; one who played also saxophone as well as fiddle; a piano player; and a drummer. Referred to as a céilí and old time band, they played to crowds of seven hundred dances on Wednesday nights and up to six hundred on Saturday and Sunday nights – usually more women than men, with quite a number of Irish nurses, Joe recalls. The band also did some radio broadcasting.

With the onset of the war Joe returned to Ireland. In 1942 he began working for Irish Life Assurance Company in Ballymote. He was transferred to Sligo in 1948, but didn't play much in public until 1954, when he started playing with the Owenmore Céilí Band.

In that band besides Joe were Henry Dwyer and Paddy McDonagh (fiddle); Thomas Collis (flute); Jerry Fallon and Thomas O'Dowd (accordion); Michael Feeney (piano) and John Scanlon (drums). The band travelled around the country, playing eight-hand and four-hand dances as well as the old time waltzes to crowds of several hundred in the parochial halls.

Joe continued working as a life insurance salesman through this period – 'Music was a good side line'. With the waning of the céilí band era, the band stopped playing in 1965. The Irish music scene shifted to the pubs – prior to that there hadn't been much music played in pubs or cabarets.

The Sligo branch of Comhaltas started around 1958. Joe tells how at first there was much emphasis on organisation and procedures; it subsequently lapsed for a few years. But with the leadership and labour of Joe and another musician, Ms. Carmel Gunning, it restarted in 1975. One of Comhaltas institutions is a nationwide system of contests. Joe notes that contest judges anywhere tend not to be universally admired for their decisions – there may be a tendency to favour popular styles and to award previous winners. But whether the talk is bad or good, the talk itself is a sign of interest and activity.

The Sligo branch of Comhaltas meets each Tuesday at the Sligo United Trades Club on Castle Street, and in the summer of 1984 was also playing one night a week at a hotel in Strandhill. The sessions were lively and impressive in the mix of young and old musicians, the large and attentive audiences (both local and foreign), the variety, and especially the quality of the music that was played.

Joe's playing itself is clean, strong and graceful, with excellent intonation and of course, great rhythm. He is a good fiddler to watch, also, playing with head erect and remarkable economy, the fingers of his left hand scarcely seeming to move.

Joe finds many of the recent developments in Irish music interesting and enjoyable. He likes the use of the guitar and feels that if it is well-controlled it can be as effective as the piano. His only reservation about the current scene is with tempos – he believes they tend to be too fast. He writes:

"My own view is that when our music is played at a fast pace, one does not get the full effect of it. There are triplets and slurs, which can add a lot to the music, but can be lost to the listener, when the music is taken too fast."

Joe married in 1958. His wife, Sheila, is also a fiddler and Séamus the youngest of their four sons, plays both fiddle and guitar. Joe, Sheila and Séamus played a spot on Irish television in October, 1984.

I asked Joe if he had any stories about Irish music that he would like to share. He offered the following one that wryly expresses a musicians love of music.

"... reminds me of a flute player who I lived near where I was born. He was a small farmer. His wife, died, and he was left with a few small children. He wasn't an industrious type of man and often went to the local pub, where he would take the flute from his pocket and start playing and of course drinking as well. However, the children were not given the attention they should and were missing school, etc., so a welfare officer called on him and told him the children would be taken from him and put into care if he didn't do his duty towards them. His reply was, "you can take the three, but leave Johnny, for he has the lip of a flute player!".