Brendan Tonra: Musician, poet, giver, wit – the real deal

Early last month, on Feb. 3, Boston lost Brendan Tonra, a 78-year old fiddler and composer of Irish traditional dance tunes. who passed away peacefully at after a short but intense battle with cancer. To his three daughters and their families, it was the loss of a father and grandfather. To his longtime musical partner pianist, Helen Kisiel, it was the loss of a soulmate. To his musician friends in Boston and beyond, it was a loss of a direct connection to the continuum of traditional music of Ireland. To me, it was the loss of an inspiration and friend, because when it came to Irish music and Irish people, Brendan was the real deal.

Brendan exemplified what it means to be a musician at heart: a poet, an artist, a giver, an observer, an interpreter, a wit – the genuine article. Those who gathered with him at house parties from Boston to the South Shore knew him as a quiet man who watched it all but spoke little. Fellow musician Kevin Harrington said, “He would let his music do the talking, content to lean back by the wall and let his fiddle sing. But you knew for him that it was always about the friends as well as the tunes, and there continually lurked a latent Irish wit which he would every now and then let zing – with impeccable timing.”
When Brendan leaned over to you and said, “Great job on that flute,” you knew he meant it. Likewise, if he told you with a wink that that tune sounded like you’d learned it from a more flashy Boston player, you knew that it was time to pull back on the ornamentation and just play the tune. There was no pretense, no exaggeration, and no patronizing. He was the sort you may never have seen photographed by Bill Brett in the “On the Scene” pages, as he preferred staying home to being out shaking hands. The pointedness of Brendan’s opinion came from having been raised at the source, drinking at the well of authenticity – and he never lost it in his 50 and more years in Boston. He was a master of that cliché about Irish diplomacy: He could tell you to go to hell and have you look forward to the trip. But if he told you it was good, then you could be sure that it was.
Growing up on the Sligo border – also home to fiddling legend Michael Coleman –Brendan began playing music at age 8, guided by his mother, a melodeon player. His uncle, John Henry, left him a fiddle and Brendan used it to play along with 78 RPM records in his Aunt Peg Regan’s house, and by the age of sixteen he had built the repertoire and skill to perform at local house dances and “porter sprees.” He also took up the tin whistle, the band flute to play in the local fife and drum band, then the concert flute.
Brendan immigrated to Boston from Gowlaun, Co. Mayo in 1959, bringing with him his fiddle, flute, and a few tunes he’d written. His first stop was the Irish dance halls of Dudley Street in Roxbury. On Brendan’s first visit, he introduced himself to bandleader, Larry Reynolds, who many recognize as the longtime president of the Boston branch of the Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann. Reynolds invited him to come back the next Saturday with his fiddle, a jacket, and a bow tie, and he was in the band. His pay was $12/night.
Tonra continued to perform with Reynolds in the Tara Ceili Band for many years and later with Mike McDonough’s Connaught Ceili Band. In the 1970s and 1980s, he frequented the traditional sessions at the storied Village Coach House in Brookline and later, O’Leary’s Sunday night session also in Brookline.
He continued to compose and play for four decades, resulting in a body of work that was published in “A Musical Voyage with Brendan Tonra: Sligo Fiddler and Composer,” as well as two commercial cassette recordings. In 2002, he won the prestigious Cumadóir na Bliana (Composer of the Year) from TG4, Ireland’s Gaelic language television station. He was inducted into the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Northeast Regional Hall of Fame in 2000. In 2002 he was invited to the Comhaltas headquarters in Dublin for a special weekend honoring him, Leo Rowsome, and Séamus de Brún for their musical contributions to traditional Irish music. His tunes have been recorded by artists including Seamus and Martin Connolly, Sean Maguire, the Liverpool Ceili Band, Catherine McEvoy, Brendan Bulger, and others.
By the 1990s, he spent less time in the session scene and more time in private gatherings and at home, content to continually write new tunes for dear friends and play the occasional session. Throughout the 2000s, he performed frequently at musical/literary events with pianist Helen Kisiel, Dublin native Stephen Lindsay, and myself to support the release of “See You at the Hall: Boston’s Golden Era of Irish Music and Dance,” which featured Brendan’s contributions to Boston Irish music history. In 2013, Brendan, Helen, and I worked together to publish an illustrated children’s book based on a poem and tune he composed, “Three Ducks and a Goose.”
Such a good, honest, and true friend as Brendan is hard to come by. We’ll never see the likes of him again, and it is sad. We’re saying goodbye to the “rare auld stock” and we can move forward only hoping that we can bring such authenticity and talent to our every endeavor. Brendan Tonra was, without dispute, the real deal.