An Article from Caoimhín Mac Aoidh on
Regional Styles in Irish Fiddling
The words "fiddle style" are ones which have been seriously, and unfortunately, ambiguously thrown about, especially in light of recent academic studies into the subject. If one were to search for references to any kind of attempt at defining or delineating the boundaries of different and varying styles one would be confronted by a marked paucity of ideas and descriptive work. Those which do exist are more often than not contradictory. The bulk of the latter type writing are confined to a few broad references in books whose main aim is to deal with a much wider subject, as well as the all too often uninformed jottings accompanying recordings. Stylistic descriptions most probably have been best described to date in Breandan Breathnach's fine work Folk Music and Dances of Ireland.
If one were to comb literary and oral sources for a definition of the characteristics of an Ulster fiddle style, I think it would be found that opinions seem to vary from: music created by long single strokes of the bow, to music created by short single strokes of the bow. The contradiction in these two opinions is obvious, yet there is an agreement that an Ulster style demands a staccato type of bowing.
If one were to research written and oral sources for a definition of a Clare style of fiddling, a type of example might be: music created with the use of long, fluid strokes of the bow with several notes per bow.
To compare players from parts of Ulster and Clare some problems in the definitions recorded become apparent. This difficulty being that the players from these regions whose styles we have attempted to define do not fit into the pigeon holes created by them. For example, a player such as Vincey McLaughlin from Ballymaquigan, County Derry, a typical Bannside fiddler would certainly bow in the manner as set out defining the Clare style, yet his music sounds (N.B. the most important aspect of the music) very much like a typical mid-Ulster player. On the other hand, take the likes of Paddy Killhoury of Doolin, Co. Clare. His bowing would be more than comfortably fit within the standard staccato definition of the Ulster style, yet again, his music sounds typically Clare in the end.
Other attempts at defining fiddle styles have been based on the type of ornamentation employed with the major embellishments being rolls and triplets. It is commonly agreed that in Ulster fiddling style triplets are abundant and rolls are virtually non-existent, whilst in Clare triplets are used only when needed and very "broad" or "open" rolls are commonly employed. If one were to listen to the music of such Ulster players as the late Neillie Boyle of Donegal or for that matter, any of the Bannside fiddlers, they do in fact employ rolls and sometimes quite profusely, Again, this is in direct conflict with with the classic definition for this type style. Indeed, it is a terrible pity that attempts at defining fiddle styles, especially in the case of Ulster styles, that the characteristics have been largely based on the playing of one individual (for further comment, see Breandan Breathnach, Folk Music and Dances of Ireland).
It should be clear now that attempts to define styles either on the basis of bowing or the employment of ornamentation have largely led to erroneous and misleading results. I feel that if styles, or "systems" as they are referred to in east Ulster, were referred to by the sound or feeling the player produces, there would be a much closer correspondence between such "definitions" of style and the actual music as well as taking into account variance due to the individual's style within the local style. After all, it is very possible that two players can be very similar in their bowing, yet sound completely different! Conversely two players can produce very similar sounds, moods, feelings, etc. in their music while using radically different bowing styles.
To re-evaluate in depth the styles of bowing which have been recorded as well as those which are still extent would be a herculean task and is unfortunately both beyond the scope of this article and the musical capabilities of its author. Below however, I note some observations on some styles I have encountered. These observations are based on the stylistic framework that I have proposed above with the major emphasis being on the general sound or mood created by local players.