The Kilfenora style

Even quite experienced traditional musicians say in bemusement to themselves, “what are those tunes?” when participating in a rip-roaring Kilfenora session. That’s because since the 1800s Kilfenora has developed a distinctive local repertoire, characterised by strong melodies and stirring rhythms, and featuring a relatively high proportion of marches, waltzes, two-steps and single jigs alongside the more usual reels, jigs and hornpipes. And even with the latter, there are tune-sets that are forever associated with Kilfenora.

Kilfenora Fife and Drum Band

In the 1830s, marching bands participated in Daniel O’ Connell’s political rallies, while Fr. Matthew’s Temperance Movement helped to create bands in most county towns from 1838 onwards. By 1900, many rural parishes had fife and drum bands to play at local events.

The first known Kilfenora band was the fife and drum band formed in 1870, similar to marching bands created in other villages to play at sports matches, religious celebrations and other major events. One of their traditions was to go to the parochial house, a mile away, on Sunday mornings and play the priest all the way to the church for mass.

The musicians received training from Scottish bandmasters from the British garrison at Ennis. Some of the foreign melodies popular at the time are uniquely preserved in the Kilfenora repertoire today, such as the 1880s Austrian march Belphegor, learnt from another band coach who was German. Musicians might march with fife and drum bands by day, and play for country house dances by night.

Kilfenora Brass and Reed Band

By 1910, fifes and drums were seen as something of a ‘boy’s pursuit’. Thus a brass and reed band was created, as local musicians matured in both years and sophistication. Apart from learning to read music, Kilfenora’s musicians learnt about harmony, and extended their knowledge of various popular tune types, such as airs, mazurkas and quadrilles.

It was a struggle to afford items such as uniforms and instruments. In 1916, they managed to travel to Dublin and won a competition in their band category. However, the War of Independence ushered in more troubled times. In 1919, the band was extinguished after some British ‘Black & Tan’ paramilitaries broke into the village store where the instruments were kept and destroyed them, kicking them down the street.

The first Kilfenora Céilí Band

The first group of céilí musicians played in the old schoolhouse in Kilfenora in 1909. A new priest invited local fiddler Michael Slattery to form a band to play at fundraising dances to help clear parish debts and refurbish the church. The fiddle and flute came to typify the sound of the Kilfenora village band hereafter.

In addition, Molly Conole played piano when one was available. She and her daughter Phil McMahon acted as tutors to the Kilfenora bands for a period of nearly a century, helping to provide the continuity that is so distinctive about the Kilfenora. And of course the band’s celebrated manager for 40 years, Kitty Linnane, was renowned for her piano intro to each tune set.

These three ladies were primary ‘keepers of the flame’ – preserving Kilfenora tunes and style. (See the picture below of the late Phil McMahon, as President of the Kilfenora Comhaltas branch, unveiling the plaque commemorating the Kilfenora band’s centenary.) We will also mention below some of many other musicians who preserved Kilfenora’s music and played with the céilí band over the decades.

The move to Irish independence intrinsically encouraged the more native forms of music – reels, jigs and hornpipes – to emerge. Kilfenora however has retained a tradition of catchy marches, military two-steps and single jigs to this day. The Plain Set dance that was Kilfenora’s preference at this time had its roots in the quadrilles of the Napoleonic era and the polkas that developed subsequently.

From kitchens to halls

Musicians from Kilfenora and surrounding townlands congregated regularly to play for dancers in farm-house kitchens and at festive occasions. For example, the adjacent Ward and Lynch households in Clogher and their neighbour Austin Tierney provided a focus for both local and visiting musicians. The regular band appearing at the country-house and school dances began playing on a commercial basis by 1926, and was well known in north Clare.

Early stalwarts included fiddler John Joe Lynch and his sister Brigid McGrath on concertina, Jim Mulqueeney and Austin Tierney on fiddle, and Jim McCormack on flute. For bigger events, other local musicians would augment the band, such as Jimmy Leyden (drums) and Pat Madigan (bass) who, together with Jim McCormack, were band-members until the 1960s.

Jim Ward (flute, and later banjo) and Tom Ward (fiddle) also started their apprenticeship with the band, joined occasionally by Jim McCormack’s sister Lil and Maureen Kelly on piano. Other fiddle players included Paddy Linnane, Tommy Mulqueeney and Nora ‘Marshall’ McMahon, whose brother Paddy played flute all the way until the late ‘40s.

Kilfenora musicians also catered for the new vogue for ballroom dancing, with a small side group featuring Mickey Hogan on saxophone. While in practice the 1935 Public Dance Halls Act had little negative impact on Kilfenora’s social life, it did widen the horizons for its musicians.

By 1935-6, the Kilfenora started to be featured on the radio, broadcast live from GAA conventions in Ennis. Céilí band competitions also began at that time, and fiddler Gus Tierney first played as a stand-in – aged 13 – when the Kilfenora took first prize, beating the Ballynakill, Ennis, Aughrim Slopes, Inch and Fiach Roe bands in the Square in Ennis.

Wartime hiatus

The years during WW2 were inevitably a time of change, and the Kilfenora was relatively dormant. Some of the principal Kilfenora players, principally the Lynchs, Wards and Byrts, appeared in a band for competition purposes under the name of the Corcomroe Céilí Band. Among their successes was a victory in Limerick at Féile Luimní, where as an unknown they vanquished some big names.

The Corcomroe was still active in 1955, by which time it featured well known local musicians such as Paddy Mullins on flute, Michael Kelleher on fiddle, and Leo and Marie Armstead on fiddle and banjo respectively, plus the ever-green Paddy Byrt – veteran of the Brass and Reed band – and his sons John (fiddle), Michael (banjo) and George (piano).

1950s-60s – the golden era of céilí bands

From small beginnings in 1951, Ireland’s traditional music association the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann gained momentum and created a national structure for competitions. PJ Lynch and Jim Ward went to investigate at the 1953 Fleadh Cheoil at Athlone, and managed to pull together some musicians there to compete in the céilí band competition, won by the Aughrim Slopes.

That autumn, PJ assembled a band from a 5 mile radius of Kilfenora, and started practising under the guidance of Molly Conole, daughter of the band’s original founder Michael Slattery, aided by her own daughter Phil McMahon. Along with Jim Ward, band members were his brother Jerry Lynch and sister Noreen, his cousins Frank O’Mahoney and Kitty Linnane, plus Jim ‘Shamus’ McCormack and Gus Tierney, and muilti-instrumentalist Gerald O’Loughlin playing the drums. They started playing at the Queens Hall in Ennis, a tradition that was to last until the ‘60s.

The band made the long trek to Cavan for the 1954 Fleadh, but it was worth it as they came away with first prize in the céilí band competition.

The tradition of street sessions started that year, and Gus Tierney won the senior solo fiddle competition.

Meanwhile Jerry Lynch, Jim McCormack, and Gus Tierney won the senior trio competition, and Jerry and Gus also won the senior duet competition. During this period they played at the Mansion House in Dublin with the famous Donegal singer Bridie Gallagher guesting on vocals. The band won again in 1955 in Loughrea, with the same line-up.

Could the Kilfenora do it again in Ennis in 1956? They added Jim Mulqueeney’s niece, Ita Mulqueeney, on bass to augment their sound. They tied for first place with the Tulla Céilí Band – thus beginning their long rivalry – but were adjudged the winners after a play-off. Then both bands played together in Paddy Con’s hall to the delight of the large throng of their North and East Clare supporters.

Thereafter the band was extremely busy on the céilí circuit. PJ retired from the band as he couldn’t afford the time off from his work as a stonemason. Kitty took over its management. Paddy ‘Organ’ Mullins joined on flute and stayed for decades.

They played every county in the Irish Republic except Louth. They also went on a series of trips to Britain during Lent when demand was quiet at home. In the UK they played at large halls in Manchester, Birmingham and London – venues such as the Crown and Galtymore in Cricklewood, which could accommodate an audience of thousands. However they didn’t take the plunge into touring the USA, despite several invitations.

The challenge of touring led to further changes in the line-up, and new blood drafted in included relative youngsters such as Seamus Connolly on fiddle, and Colm Walsh and Pat Conroy on accordions. With Mary Higgins providing vocals, the Kilfenora’s increasing versatility led them to be dubbed the “Maurice Mulcahy of céilí” after the famous 1960s showband.

Note that Seamus Connolly is one of two Professors of Music who did their apprenticeship with the band, the other being Gearóid O’hAllmhuráin who played concertina with the band in the 1990s.

In 1958 the band made its first recording The Fabulous Kilfenora Céilí Band, before PJ retired and Jerry Lynch moved to the USA, but marking the arrival of Paddy ‘Organ’ Mullins on flute and Tom Eustace on fiddle.

1970s-2000s – decline and resurgence

The 1960s brought challenges from new forms of dance music to excite younger audiences, and traditional music became distinctly unfashionable. In Ireland the showbands took over.

An additional factor from the early ‘70s was the new popularity of the Lounge Bar. People deserted the poorly lit, badly heated dancehalls for the comfort of modern pubs, where the presence of females was now acceptable and alcohol was not prohibited. With amplification becoming more sophisticated, the big bands were neither necessary nor financially viable. A small group with a singer, ranging through pop and County & Western, became more the norm, and the guitar was more popular than the fiddle.

Kilfenora musicians adapted. They could still provide a large band for old-style dances, but from the ‘50s some played in jazz-oriented bands like Mickey Hogan’s and Madigan’s. The Bannermen were popular locally in the ‘70s and ‘80s, featuring Jimmy Ward, Michael Sexton and PJ Murrihy. For over 20 years Kitty Linnane brought groups of traditional musicians to venues mainly in Clare, Galway and Kerry, and held weekly sessions in Nagles pub. And in the 1970s the Kilfenora also released two LPs, at a time when fiddlers Tommy Peoples and Michael Kelleher were band members.

Then in 1993, John Lynch – son of PJ and nephew of Jerry – took over as bandleader with the intention of the Kilfenora re-entering competition for the Fleadh Cheoil. This was achieved spectacularly by the band repeating its 1950s feat of winning the All-Ireland 3 years in a row (1993-6).

After that success, the band retired from competition and has now become Ireland’s premier céilí band – the only one always to perform gigs at full competition strength – playing frequently at the St Patricks’ Day parade in Dublin and giving concerts at the National Concert Hall. The Kilfenora are also musical ambassadors for the Irish tradition, having played many times in Europe, in the USA and UK, including several appearances at festivals such as Glastonbury and Irishfest.

Into the 21st Century – the set dancing revival

The resurgence in traditional music inspired by the likes of Planxty, the Bothy Band, Altan and Dervish eventually triggered a revival of interest in set dancing, and once again many hundreds of dancers – from as far away as Japan – are congregating on dance-floors at events such as the annual Willie Clancy summer school festival in Clare.

In Kilfenora – the home of céilí music – the tradition never died. Céilís are held throughout the year, and the magazine Set Dancing News circulates worldwide. The Wren Boys still tour the houses on St. Stephens Day, and the Straw Boys come out to celebrate newly-wed couples in the village.

At the same time, there are burgeoning numbers of young musicians learning and competing, despite the temptations of TV and the internet. Kilfenora and its famous céilí musicians are on course for a second century.