Liz Carroll, Seamus Connolly, Kevin Doyle and Billy McComiskey

Four National Heritage Fellows
Musical instruments illustration.
Josephine Reed:  You’re listening to fiddler Liz Carroll playing with accordionist Billy McComiskey. Welcome to a special St. Patrick’s Day edition of Art Works—the weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts—I’m Josephine Reed. Today, we’re discussing and listening to Irish music with some its best practitioners in America: fiddlers Liz Carroll and Seamus Connolly, step-dancer Kevin Doyle, and accordionist Billy McComiskey. They’re acclaimed performers with extraordinary breadth and depth to their music popular in Ireland as well as America, and all four are recipients of our nation’s highest honor for folk and traditional arts: The National Heritage Fellowship. I had the good fortune to speak with all of them in past few years – and you might have heard the individual podcasts — well here are some excerpts from each interview – and it’s woven together, thematically. So let’s begin this tuneful exploration of Irish music by asking the question: “what makes Irish music, Irish music?” Here’s Liz Carroll. Liz Carroll: Well, that’s a good question. <laughs> It's a very simple music, I'll say that. Let's say for example, if you have a core note, amazingly, everything is almost like one note away or two notes away, and that's pretty rare in music. There's no gigantic hops. It is amazing how small the distances are between the notes. Now, with Scottish music, there's much bigger leaps, and you can really tell that that's just a different music. I also kind of say this, not to be going on, <laughs> but it can be very fast music, and a lot of times that's why a lot of people are out at the bar, and they're just kind of stomping their feet and throwing their beer about. <laughs> And when they're doing that-- but even with that very fast and happy music, if you slow it down, not only is it those small, little intervals between notes, but I would say that it also has the effect, when you slow the pieces down, of the very sad tunes, which are built to be slow. Does that make sense, Jo? Jo Reed: I think it does, but, you know what? Why don't you give us an example? Liz Carroll: Well, let's see what I can do here. Well, if I play a little bit of a, like a kind of a classic Irish eire, there's an eire that's called The Coolin', and it goes like this. <Liz plays fiddle slowly> Liz Carroll: So almost everything that was going on there, you can hear that the little jumps are like little thirds, the way people into music will know thirds. But if you think about it in terms of "do re mi," "do mi so" <laughs> would be like a little triad, so those are like little jumps of two notes apart. And, now, that's kind of what's going on there. If I play you a happy tune now, <laughs> let's see if I'm going to find a good one. Let's see. <Liz plays faster tune in minor key> Liz Carroll: All these notes are very close together again. <laughs> but I'm playing faster, and you could stomp your feet to that. But if I slow that piece down... <Liz plays same piece slower> Jo Reed: Seeing Kevin Doyle perform made me realize that step dancing is woven into Irish music itself, often serving as percussion for the music. Kevin Doyle: Yes, I totally agree with that because, to me, Irish music is dance music. And, you know, besides the beautiful songs and the eires that they play but any kind of the traditional jigs, reels, and hornpipes it’s dance music. It’s sort of like a natural reaction for people to hear the music and all of a sudden their foot starts tapping or their hands start clapping a little bit. And so when they see it danced out rhythmically with the feet as percussion it sort of, like, completes the whole picture to them. It all totally makes sense then. Kevin Doyle: I really loved it right away. I think it was my sense of rhythm that I just felt a natural draw to that, to the music. And I could fit my steps to the timing. A lot of dancers sometimes struggle with the timing with the musicians, and the different music that’s played. And I always had a gift of being able to accent the rhythms with my feet, so it was, often times it was said to me that, "You really dance right to the music." And so I had a rhythm in me that just seemed to fit with my feet, and whatever I was listening to I could just impersonate that percussion with my feet. Jo Reed: One thing these musicians have in common — they all had parents who played or danced —they grew up with the music. Billy McComiskey – winner of the coveted All-Ireland Championship for the button accordion was born and raised in New York City and what he remembers is the music. Billy McComiskey: It was all about music, but it wasn’t just about music – it was about Irish music. My grandmother, Nora Sweeney, was a step dancer, and all her brothers played a little something. Maybe they all had flutes and fiddles, and if they didn’t do that they’d sing, and they’d enjoy a bit of a “jar”, as they would say. And my grandfather though, he was like a pretty quiet fellow, and he loved to dance. He was a step dancer, and he loved to play the fiddle and was very, very good. My mother, she was Mae McComiskey, she was an Irish step dancer and her two brothers, Matt played the accordion, and Andy was a flute player, and they all had – everybody had – regular jobs, that kind of thing, and managed just living there in Brooklyn. And my father came out, – oh, I guess it would be 1948 – right around the time this accordion was built. The first time I remember doing a gig was at my uncle’s house up in the Catskills, and he’d have these house parties in his boardinghouse. He didn’t charge anybody to stay there, but if you could sing or dance or you’re a bit of fun then you enjoyed it. He’d just give you a room, and then everybody would go, and there would be a bit of a party and so he was planned. I was five or six, and he said, “Do you want to help me with this?” I said, “Sure, sure.” So he handed me two spoons, and I just rattled away behind him on the table with the two spoons, and I just absolutely loved it. <music> Jo Reed:  By his mid-twenties, Seamus Connolly had won the Irish National Fiddle Championship ten times, a feat that's still unequalled. He grew up in a home where music was central. Seamus Connolly:  Both my parents played. My mother played. She used to scrape a few tunes on the fiddle but she played piano and played the accordion. My father played the flute and whistle and he was a sean-nos style dancer. Different in that he made his own steps up. Just tapped out his own dancing. He was a great dancer, you know? So we had music in our home pretty much all the nights of the winter anyway, when our homework was done, another brother who played piano and a younger brother, he plays the accordion. He won the national championship a few times too on the accordion and now he makes accordions. Yeah, so we had music in our home all the time. Jo Reed: Now how did you become a fiddle player? Why the fiddle? Seamus Connolly: My uncle played the fiddle and in 1954 there was a big series of immigration again, to America this time and my uncle left for America, he and his family for New York. They had at that time what they called an “American wake”, a going away party. Strange kind of a title, an “American wake”. But it was the notion at the time that people who left for America that they'd never been seen again. It was almost like a death in the family. So they had this big party. There was all the local musicians, my uncle was playing the fiddle and then during the evening he put the fiddle on the chair and was down talking to people. I went up and sat in the chair and picked up the fiddle and pretended to play and, in fact, some people thought I was playing. That will tell you what they thought about music or know about music, you know. But I went home and I said to my parents "I'd love to get a fiddle to try it out." So my father found me a fiddle, and so somebody put strings on it and they didn't know how to tune it up or anything so I tuned it up as what I thought it should be tuned. I tuned it in fourths, do, me, so, do. And that would be different from tuning in fifths. So I was playing away for about maybe six months and I'd play and getting all the sounds out of it the tune, but I didn't use my little finger. I'd slide my third finger up, which was strange. So anyway I was playing for six months and the tunes were coming out and so my uncle was the local barber. And he was cutting a man's hair one day and he didn't know who the person was so my uncle asked him, "Where do you live?" And he said, "I just moved to the town," he said "I play the fiddle." "Oh, my nephew plays the fiddle." And the guy said "I'd love to hear him." So I went to meet him and I played for the man and he's looking at me fascinated and then he said, "Well give me the fiddle." And he went to go play and he couldn't play. So he tuned it into, I suppose you would call it international standard tuning. And then he played away. He was a great player. And then he gave it back to me and I couldn't play it anymore. So I went home. My mother was in bed. I went up to say goodnight to her. She says, "How did you make out with the man?" I said, "I was doing it wrong. I have to start all over again." She said, "Don't listen to him." She says, "You're doing fine." <laughs> Jo Reed:  There's a mother for you. Seamus Connolly: Yeah, yeah. "Don't listen to him," she says, you know. (music) Jo Reed:  Liz Carroll has been recognized as one of the great Irish fiddle players since she won the All-Ireland Senior Championship at the age of 18. She grew up in Chicago — where Irish music ran deep on both sides of her family. Liz Carroll: My father was an accordion player. My mom's father was a fiddle player. We heard not a lot of music outside of Irish music, but I really was attracted to it, and I always really liked it. I just have my brother Tom and myself. We just have the two of us in our family, and he avoided that Irish music like the plague. <laughs> It was not particularly his thing at all, so he was the guy that would be buying all the rock records and following that. He's come around since. But I wasn't particularly attracted to the – any to the rock or any of the things that were going on. I really liked <laughs> hanging out with these mostly older people, playing their flutes and tin whistles and pipes and fiddles. Who knows how you come to like that? I just feel like it was just born in me to enjoy it and to like it. Jo Reed:  Kevin Doyle was dancing from an early age, winning several competitions throughout New England. He was born and raised with a tradition of step dancing that went back two generations on his mother's side Kevin Doyle: Well, I first started learning at the age of eight years old from my mother, who came from Castlerea, County Roscommon in Ireland in the 1930s. And she was a wonderful step dancer that she had learned from her mother and she brought her folk art to this country. So it was sort of like a natural thing for me after seeing my mom dance at so many occasions and parties, and it was something that I wanted to do as well as part of our community and part of our heritage. Jo Reed: And you danced with your sister Maureen, correct? Kevin Doyle: Yes, Maureen was six years old and we would have to do homework and then we would do a little bit of rehearsing of the steps that we had learned. And my mom would keep them fresh in our minds. So her way of doing that was every morning before we went off to school with – St. Matthew’s school – with our uniforms on, Maureen and I would be in front of the kitchen sink and my mom would be lilting “McLeod’s Reel” for us. Lilting was a form of mouth music that they used often times in Ireland when there was no instruments in the house or no musicians. And she would lilt “McLeod’s Reel” which is something like <lilting> and we would do the beginning steps of the reels, the sevens and the threes. And then off we’d go, she’d send us off to school. And often times she’d give me a shot of this Geritol stuff to think that maybe I would have a growth spurt on the way but the dancing worked out a lot better than that. <music plays> Jo Reed:  While we generally refer to Irish music, it’s important to remember that it’s not one sound. It contains many, many different styles of playing. Billy McComiskey, for example, — he goes for the East Galway style. First, here’s Billy giving us its history, and then a demonstration. Billy McComiskey: As it turns out, as I look back on it now, it’s being – it’s regarded in this broader perspective now, so it’s kind of now called the Slieve Aughty style. So there was two guys. There was Joe Cooley, from Galway, and this other guy, Paddy O’Brien from Tipperary, and they both played in this incredibly good band at different times – the Tulla Ceili Band. It was Joe Cooley that brought Irish traditional music to the public’s eye here in America. The amazing thing that happened around 1950 is these guys figured out how to play this old music from the 1600s, 1700s – it really goes back. Turlough O’Carolan, the harper – the great harper and composer – people started writing his music down in the early 1700s. Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales, they refer to it, it was just raging with music. It’s what the Celts did. It’s what they love to do; it’s how they express themselves socially. East Galway music in general is kind of long and it has – <plays music> – if that makes any sense. There’d be maybe flat sevens mixed in with regular sevens. A triplet would become a roll, instead of three notes it would be five – <plays music> – and how does this all fit? How can you take this little instrument and make it sound compatible with these instruments from 200 years ago? <music plays> Jo Reed:  Here’s Kevin Doyle explaining the musical differences between reels, jigs, and hornpipes.   Kevin Doyle: What’s different about each piece is the timing. The jigs are always in the six-eighth rhythm. Reels would be four-four times, which is a pretty fast four-four time. And hornpipes would be four-four but they’d be very, very – the steps would be choreographed very much to the music. So you would hear the hornpipe stepped right along with the music and it would almost dictate what you would be dancing. Jigs being very quick and lively. And reels, of course, they were done with soft shoes and hard shoes. They’re all unique in their own way. But what my old style is about is a very old, traditional, close to the ground rhythms, where you do a lot of work very close to the ground. And, as with the dance masters of the old days, it wasn’t common to show the sole of your feet. You would actually get mocked off in competitions for that back in Ireland. <music plays> Jo Reed:  Liz Carroll finds her inspiration from County Kerry Liz Carroll: I think if there's a particular thing, if I can say, in my playing -- well, there's a kind of music that's called – well, it's Kerry music. It's from County Kerry, and they play a lot of polkas there, and one move that they kind of do with their playing is this. Let's say if I was going to these four notes, <plays four notes on violin> okay? So, say, that's a melody. If it was a polka, it might be going, <plays same four notes twice>, but they might put a little bit more of an emphasis into the second note by kind of dipping your bow onto the strings. In other words, you're pressing harder, and you're moving, so that you start to get a sound that goes like this. <plays again, putting emphasis on the second note> Does that make sense? Jo Reed: Yes. Liz Carroll: Because it's Kerry music, funny enough, these polkas, a lot of the bowing will go from the beat to the off-beat, like if you're going to do two notes on a bow. And, funny enough, American music also kind of goes from the beat to the off-beat, so that you're kind of going, you're tying these two notes together. <plays two groups of two notes> But in regular reel playing, you wouldn't really tie those first two and the third and fourth note together. Instead, you would've tied the second and the third note together, and then that sounds like this. <plays four notes with second and third notes slurred together> So that's a different animal. So you don't have to do those stresses, but I've really started really kind of pushing those stresses, so I think that's part of my style, if you want to hear a little bit of that in a tune. Jo Reed:  And actually I would love to hear some of that in a tune right now. Liz Carroll: Fantastic. <laughs> Okay. Well, maybe I'll play it the first part that I don't do it, and then I'll play the first part again, and then I will do it, and then you can see what you think of that. <Carroll plays violin> Liz Carroll: And then, Jo, I can mix them up. So then they can play off of each other. So would you like to hear the whole tune? Jo Reed: Oh, yeah, please. Liz Carroll: Okay. <Carroll plays violin> Jo Reed:  Brava! That’s beautiful. Liz Carroll:  It’s just a great old trad tune. Jo Reed:  These days, it’s difficult to talk about Irish music without talking about sessions —think of them as Irish musicians, coming together, to jam. Billy McComiskey. Billy McComiskey: So a session would be – these people were like enormously talented, and it’s an oral tradition so they didn’t know how to read music, they didn’t know much about music theory, and they’re, “Jesus…Paddy no – how do you have to – how do you turn the second part of that tune?” “Turn” would be, “How does the second part of the tune go?” and a fiddle player and a flute player would sit and they’d be negotiating a little tune. And I remember like it was yesterday sitting with Sean McGlynn, and we were trying to figure out how to play this Martin Wynne fiddle tune, and in the course of two bars it covered two and a half octaves. It really took a long range on it, and we were trying to figure out how to finger this tune – it’s kind of like how a pianist would do – myself and Sean McGlynn. And when we finally got it Sean says to me, he says, “There’s the difference right now,” and he says, “They’re all down in the bar singing and dancing and having a great time, and here we are, sitting in the kitchen worried about one note.” <laughs> The way they would discuss the music, and, or, “I – Well, no, you have that all wrong.” So you’d meet these guys, and the next thing, “Well, we should try, we’ll have a session,” “I think he’s – that usually,” <mumbles> “We’re going to have –,“ and you’d have to sit down and try to find out what you have in common because it’s just very, very important. And to keep yourself calm you’d have a little something to drink and then there would – the next thing would be the next day. That’s what a session is. Jo Reed:  Liz Carroll Liz Carroll: It's where you just sit down with other musicians, and there's no show, there's no particular audience. You're just with other musicians, and you're sitting down, and you're playing from a repertoire of all kinds of tunes that you found interesting both growing up, and along the way something that attracted you off of whatever-- the latest album of this person. It's a great spot to just kind of see what's going on. It probably doesn't even look that inviting <laughs> if you walk into a pub, let's say, and there is a session that night, and it can be a lot of people playing instruments, but basically they turn to each other in a circle, and if you're not playing, you're not really in that circle, you're kind of outside of it, so you might be sitting at another table and not in the thick of that meeting. Yet, for people that really love the music, they say this is the bee's knees. This is the best thing. Jo Reed:  But Seamus Connolly remembers that in the Ireland of his youth — musicians didn’t meet to play sessions at the pubs. Seamus: Sessions weren't the thing. The only sessions that would be would be at the féile ceoil. “Féile” being festival, “ceoil” being music. So that was the only time that we would kind of get to play. Music was mostly in the homes at the time. It wasn't until the last 30 or 35 years that you had sessions in pubs and everything. I didn't go to a pub to play growing up. I went to people's homes and the sessions were different then. Sometimes musicians would come to your house. They wouldn't even take out the instruments. We'd sit and talk maybe all night and talk about ways of doing things or someone would say "What's that tune?" And they might take out his accordion or fiddle and then somebody would say "I have a different version of that. I heard that." So that's how we played our music. It wasn't going out to the pubs. It was people coming to their homes. <music plays> Jo Reed: Seamus Connolly immigrated to the United States in the 1970s — but he returns to Ireland and Billy, Kevin, and Liz make regular trips there.  Liz Carroll:  I love going to Ireland. It's still the place to be inspired. You go there, and it's in everybody's blood, really, and you sit in there among them, playing, and it's a workout. <laughs> It keeps you honest. You learn a lot. It's a really high level, and I think that all of us American-born would really give kudos to Ireland to be the place that we just absolutely love to go, and it refreshes us, and it tells us why we're doing it. Jo Reed: And all four are committed to is keeping the tradition of Irish music alive and vibrant. Accordionist and 2016 National Heritage Fellow Billy McComiskey: Billy McComiskey: Irish music, it’s been around a really long time and people, and it’s a labor of love that people have been trying to keep – they’ve been trying to keep this art intact for many centuries, and it’s an awful lot of fun doing that. It’s just a tremendous amount of fun. Down in Washington, there are all these young players. The funny thing about down here, and I guess it’s because of all this interest in folklore and this whole scholarly way of approaching Irish music. It’s the more progressive music scene in this area. What goes on in the mid-Atlantic area here is kind of Irish music at a very high standard. A lovely social thing.      Jo Reed: Irish Step Dancer and 2014 National Heritage Fellow Kevin Doyle: Kevin Doyle: It’s been incredible, everybody wants to see the step dance, as far as how it’s crossed over into so many different backgrounds. I’ve worked with some great dancers and some of the best have been Asian dancers. And last year in County Clare in Ireland, there was eight Japanese dancers in my class and one was a lawyer and one was a doctor and they’re just infatuated with the form of dance. And that goes right across the board with all of these sorts of nationalities how it’s rejuvenated so much interest in the dance. Jo Reed: Fiddler and 2013 National Heritage Fellow Seamus Connolly: Seamus Connolly   I am very pleased with listening to some of the young musicians now playing and recording. We had a concert here a few weeks ago. Two young Irish musicians and it was some of the nicest music I've ever heard. They were technically great, played in a great style, just a joy to hear them. So I'm very hopeful that the tradition carries on in such a way. Jo Reed: Fiddler and 1994 National Heritage Fellow Liz Carroll: Liz Carroll You can like the Irish music on many different levels. You can really like the ballads of people like the Clancy Brothers. You can shun the Clancy Brothers and really only want to hear old-style sean-nos, which is the Irish word for "old-time" or "old-sound" singers that are unaccompanied, kind of with their eyes closed, sitting in a corner. You can have people that really want to have The Irish Washerwoman, belted out <laughs> on a fiddle, kind of like single bows for the whole thing, and there'll be a whole other gang of people who love Irish music, that would say they love Irish music, and yet that wouldn't be the Irish music that they love. It's a small world, but this is a big world, this Irish music." Jo Reed: You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. This has been a special St. Patrick’s Day show: talking about traditional Irish music in America with four remarkable Musicians who are also National Heritage Fellows; Liz Carroll, Seamus Connolly, Kevin Doyle, and Billy McComiskey. If you want to hear the full interviews, go to and click on podcasts. We’d love it if you subscribed to Art Works at iTunes U; just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Celebrate Traditional Irish Music.