“Virtual Celtic” explores online concerts, festivals, workshops and other events that feature or include Celtic music.
By Sean Smith
Boston Irish Contributor
• Boston College’s Gaelic Roots concert series – which for almost two decades has hosted prominent musicians and experts in Irish, Scottish, American, and related folk music traditions –
made the transition last fall to the virtual format with its “Lunchtime Series,” incorporating real-time presentations by notable musicians with pre-recorded performances. The fall series featured two distinguished Irish fiddlers, Manus McGuire and Gerry O’Connor.
The spring 2021 Lunchtime Series will kick off March 11, from noon to 1 p.m., with one accomplished traditional Irish fiddle player saluting the life, music, and 130th birthday of another: Oisín Mac Diarmada – an acclaimed performer, teacher, scholar, and a founder of popular traditional Irish band Téada – will present a combination lecture and performance in celebration of Michael Coleman (1891-1945), a key figure in the evolution of the Irish-American music style and a pioneer in the recording of traditional Irish music.
A County Clare native, Mac Diarmada is widely recognized as one of the best Irish fiddle players of his generation. He has released or appeared on an assortment of recordings, including “The Green Branch” with his wife, the pianist Samantha Harvey, and five as a member of Téada, known for its energetic, expressive combination of traditional Irish music with contemporary-minded arrangements. Mac Diarmada has often toured throughout the United States and in 2012 appeared at Gaelic Roots with accordionist and vocalist Séamus Begley.
Although born in Clare, Mac Diarmada, who had started fiddle at a young age, moved to County Sligo, the birthplace of Coleman and home to a distinctive fiddle style Coleman promulgated to great effect. Raised in this region’s rich musical environment, Coleman had become a skillful fiddler by the time he immigrated to the United States in 1914. After living with his aunt in Lowell, Mass., for three years, he settled in New York City, a hotbed of traditional Irish music in the 1920s thanks in great part to Coleman and his fellow immigrant musicians, many of them also from Sligo.
In 1921, Coleman made the first of some 90 commercial recordings, most of which were issued on 78 RPM records. His art, along with those of other Irish musicians of the period, were crucial to preserving the sounds and styles of traditional Irish music – especially that of Sligo – and proved invaluable to musicians, scholars, and aficionados in later generations.
“There are many who believe Michael Coleman to be the most influential Irish musician of the 20th century,” said Gaelic Roots Director Sheila Falls, a fiddler herself, who added that this year the Traditional Music Archive in Dublin will make available previously unreleased private recordings of his. “So it’s quite appropriate to have Oisín present this in-depth look at Coleman’s life and music.”
Mac Diarmada, who co-published a tunebook featuring 22 famous Sligo fiddlers, Coleman among them, offered some thoughts on this legendary figure in Irish music.
Q. What do you see as Michael Coleman’s most important contributions to Irish music?
A. Many artforms are nurtured by one-off, extraordinary visionaries, and in the world of traditional Irish fiddling, Michael Coleman inhabits that role for so many of us. The recording legacy Coleman has left is not only enormous in its scope, but the artistic vision it showcases has been incredibly inspirational for generations of fiddlers. This legacy is still strongly felt in the New York City area, and the reach of Coleman’s influence in Ireland very quickly spread throughout all the regions from the 1930s onwards.
To this day, the music of Michael Coleman retains a unique mystique and fascination, and is said by so many to be unsurpassed in both its technical and interpretative mastery. It is amazing that in recent times, some new recordings of Coleman have come to the fore, most recently some acetate recordings recorded by another Sligo fiddle master – Lad O’Beirne – in 1942, preserved for decades by the great accordionist Joe Burke, and now made publicly accessible by the Irish Traditional Music Archive.
Q. Is there some aspect of Coleman's life/music you think is perhaps overlooked or under-appreciated?
A. I think the aspect of his genius that can be difficult to articulate is the extraordinary creativity in improvisation which he displays in so many of his recordings. I mean, we talk a lot about the creative process in traditional music and how tunes are rarely played the same way twice by musicians, but the scale with which Coleman embraced this is truly unparalleled. The renowned fiddler Jesse Smith has transcribed Coleman’s recordings in great detail through his academic research, and I’m sure people will continue to be fascinated with the extent of Coleman’s creativity.
It is a source of great fascination for me how Coleman navigated from the informal social-based music making in rural Sligo to the rigors of a professional recording career in New York, with what seems incredible ease. In New York during the early 1920s, he was in the right place at the right time in order to be presented with the opportunity to record prolifically, but even more than that, he was the right person to be thrust into this role. The world of traditional Irish fiddling would be so much the poorer had Michael Coleman not been recorded.
Q. What kind of influence has Coleman had on you personally?
A. Coleman’s music will always be an enormous source of inspiration for me, a continual reminder of the potential for great artistry that lies within so much of the traditional Irish music repertoire. Listening to Coleman periodically is both humbling and inspiring in equal measure, and it helps me remember that exploring the inner beauty of tunes in a deep way is essential to keeping this music fresh and meaningful for player and listener. Living here in Sligo, we are incredibly proud of Coleman’s legacy and his role in bringing Sligo music to wider attention.
Q. Oisín, how have you and Samantha been faring during this past year?
A. The pandemic has brought a huge change of lifestyle for so many, myself included. There has been a lot which we have missed, particularly in our musical lives, yet there have been other sources of great enjoyment – most notably the fun of watching our little boy Finnán growing up! Both Samantha and I were touring in the US last March when the lockdowns started, and it took a while for the situation to sink in. We could never have guessed that nearly a year later, the situation would still be playing out.
I’ve been thankful how our government here in Ireland has tried to support artists during a very difficult time. Of course, people are hurting ,but we are not alone. I’ve been trying to keep busy with online teaching and performances, as well as planning some new projects with Trad Ireland/Traid Éireann, a new resource organization set up by my Téada band-mate Tristan Rosenstock and myself.
[Gaelic Roots events are livestreamed via the Gaelic Roots Facebook page and YouTube, then made available through the BC Irish Studies Program web page at bc.edu/irish.]
•New Jersey native Haley Richardson, one of the best young (as in college-age) Irish fiddlers to emerge in the past decade – she released her first album at age 12 – will perform a “St. Patrick’s Day at Home” concert on March 17 at 3 p.m. (EST), presented by Irish Music Magazine.
A student of Sligo fiddle master Brian Conway, Richardson has played with such luminaries as Liz Carroll, The Chieftains, Altan, Dervish, Cherish the Ladies, John Whelan, and Paddy Keenan, and is a member of Green Fields of American and the John Whelan Band. She recently toured as lead fiddler for the 25th anniversary “Riverdance” tour and was featured in the 25th anniversary show recorded in Dublin and shown world-wide.
Locally, she has appeared in the “Christmas Celtic Sojourn” and “St. Patrick’s Day Celtic Sojourn” productions. Richardson has won multiple championships at the All-Ireland Championships and the coveted junior and senior Fiddler of Dooney awards.
For details on viewing the concert, go to haleyrichardsonmusic.com.
•The Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Boston Music School is accepting registration for its online spring program until March 10. Classes, which are held via Zoom between 9 a.m. and noon on Saturdays, begin March 27 and go for 10 weeks. Instruction is available for fiddle, accordion, banjo/mandolin, concertina, sean-nos dance and other instruments, as well as singing.
Go to bostonirishmusicschool.com.