The Long Road Home
By Brendan Taaffe
I first heard Brendan McGlinchey in 1995, when he had but recently started playing again after a fifteen year hiatus. I was amazed by his technical virtuosity; he seemed in total control of both violin and bow, and he brought an incredible inventiveness to his renditions of standard tunes. McGlinchey is rightly a legendary figure for his dominance of competitions in the fifties and sixties and for his influential and out-of-print recording, Music of a Champion, recorded in 1974 on Finbar Dwyer's Silver Hill label.
Brendan was born in Armagh City, in the north of Ireland, and was encouraged by his mother to take up an instrument. He describes her as "very musical, and full of craic," and she found a teacher for Brendan at the age of twelve. John Conway was a well-known player, but gave up teaching after just nine months. This was to young Brendan's great pleasure. "I was very glad because I never wanted to play the fiddle. Armagh's a tough place, and any male with a fiddle was considered quite effeminate. Also, we were Catholic but lived in a Protestant area of town where Irish music was known as nationalistic, as Fenian music. So my teacher gave up then after nine months and I was very glad. But my mother was quite persistent and in a few weeks she had discovered another music teacher. I had to travel ten miles by bus to a place called Portadown."
This teacher's name was Archibald Collins. Collins was primarily a classical teacher, but had an interest in traditional music. There was another music teacher, Gates, a half mile away, and the two men (Gates a Catholic and Collins a Protestant) would enter their pupils in competitions. Gates had a student who had won a competition in Dungannon twice, and Collins pushed Brendan to learn some tunes and take the cup. He realized he was being used by his teacher, but worked at it. "I practiced it and my mother had a keen ear for what was right and wrong in music, so she'd make sure that I was corrected. I went and won the cup and my photograph was in the paper. This man who had a ceili band, very famous, came looking for me and asked my mother and father permission to take me locally to some of the ceili sessions. That was Malachy Sweeney."
Brendan stayed with the Malachy Sweeney Ceili Band for about a year and a half, and in that time toured around Ireland. The most important thing that happened on these tours was the exposure to all kinds of other players. The community of musicians in Armagh was small, and mostly made up of older people from farming communities. There were house parties and chances to share music, but it was on the early tours that McGlinchey was inspired. "I heard these lovely fiddle players, and became really interested in trying to make myself better."
After that, competitions "seemed to be a natural step." Of competing, Brendan said, " I never liked it. I became very nervous about going to play in the competitions. Most of the other people were the same -- you'd be behind the stage and hardly able to talk to each other. But I recognized that each time I played in a competition I could identify what I did wrong and improve on that for the next time. Then something else would go wrong and you could improve on that as well. So you got a nice balance and it seemed to be character building as well, so then I didn't mind it. The thing I was very disappointed in is that when you were in competitions, afterwards people became very disappointed in not coming first. If you happened to come first, then lots of people wouldn't speak to you for a while."
At eighteen, Brendan went to London, looking for work. "Any sort of work. Being a Catholic in the North you couldn't get much work -- so that was that." Being in London brought the young McGlinchey into contact with the rich stew of other musicians who had emigrated: Bobby Casey, Roger Sherlock, Tommy McCarthy, Joe Ryan, and others. That first stint in London was short and when Brendan returned home he joined the Johnny Pickering Ceili Band. As with Malachy Sweeney, they traveled Ireland playing dances and festivals, and again he was exposed to other players. "All of this improved my playing. The northern style is lots of bow work, ornamentation with the bow, and traveling with Johnny Pickering I heard Paddy Canny's playing. When I heard him I thought it was just amazing that he could do such sweet things with his left hand. So I tried to perfect that, learn what rolls were and cuts and use them in conjunction with the bow work." Going on to define that northern style, Brendan spoke of it as being, "clear and bow-emphasized. It has speed as well, very technical, as opposed to the music that Paddy Canny and Bobby Casey played, which was really slow. Because we were exposed to Scottish music, I think the northern style favored a Scottish style."
One of the hallmarks of Brendan's playing is his penchant for inventive variation. In his hands I've heard tunes like "The Gallowglass" or "The Maid Behind the Bar" take on entirely new life. Of this, Brendan said, "When I went to these farmhouses as a teenager, everybody had to play solo during the course of the evening. It became quite good fun, because they'd like to hear you playing a strange piece of music or a regular piece of music in a strange way. And when we'd all play together, we'd play a tune through maybe four or five times -- just the one tune -- and some clever fellow might go into a run, and that was a challenge to do something different the next time. I find it very difficult in a group of musicians on stage because I can't resist departing from the tunes. I'm very careful to keep the shape of the tune as much as possible. It just seems a natural thing to do; each time I play I'll do it a bit differently."
After that first sojourn to London, Brendan came home and stayed for about two years before going back across, where he's been ever since. Though he initially returned to London, he ended up in the south coast of England where he got a job working in the health service. He continued to play for a while, eventually recording his album, Music of a Champion, for Silver Hill Records in 1974. But his motivation waned and other parts of his life took prominence. "I married and started a family and just didn't take the fiddle out of the case for fifteen years, until 1993. I listened to music, of course. I listened to classical music, to all sorts of music, but I didn't listen to much Irish music and I had lost all of my contacts in Ireland. Sometimes I'd be sitting at my desk at work and a jig would come into my head. I'd use a pencil to finger the tune. There were various people at work who played a bit and someone did ask me to play at a party. I said sure, I'll have a go at it -- but I had no motivation to play. My wife once got me some tickets to hear the Boys of the Lough and I had a tune on Aly Bain's fiddle afterwards, but in the fifteen years I just played those two times."
A small stroke in 1993 prompted Brendan's return to playing. "The doctors told me that if I had a second one that would probably be it. It was quite a shock and suddenly I thought of just three things: my family, Ireland, and my music. So immediately I took my fiddle out of the case and started to play. It was very difficult; I had no coordination and I couldn't think of two tunes to play together. I knew what I wanted to do with the fiddle and so I practiced from July until December. My family was very supportive but I must have driven them crazy because I'd get up at four in the morning and start playing and I'd play straight through then until noon. I'd play one tune the whole time because I couldn't play it properly. With the difference in timing between the two hands, I couldn't get them to work. So I devised a little exercise and decided to just play with the left hand and forget what I was doing with the bow. And if I could perfect that, then I would work on the bow. And I remember distinctly when my fingers started to work well. On December 12th, ten minutes to midnight it all worked so well. My brain telling my hands what to do and everything working in conjunction. I suppose I played like that for about an hour and at ten minutes to midnight I put the fiddle down and ran up the stairs to my wife and said, 'It's worked.'"
For the rest of this article and Brendan's tunes "Splendid Isolation" and "The Map on the Wall," subscribe to Fiddler Magazine!