Irish literature fans know “The Fiddler of Dooney” as one of W. B. Yeats’s most famous works, with its memorable opening lines: “When I play on my fiddle in Dooney/folk dance like a wave of the sea.” But the poem also is the namesake of a venerable Irish fiddle competition in Sligo whose winners have included such luminaries as Seamus Connolly, Kathleen Collins, Seamus McGuire, Paddy Glackin, and Cathal Hayden.
And now, the Boston area has its own Fiddler of Dooney.
Last month, Boston’s Reynolds-Hanafin-Cooley branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Êireann sponsored the first-ever “Fiddler of Dooney (Boston)” competition, held at The Burren pub in Somerville. Four fiddlers signed up to have a go, and in the end Nathan Gourley – a recent arrival from the Midwest – prevailed as the inaugural winner; his prize was a cash award to cover travel costs to the big event in Sligo, which took place October 23-28.
“I’m very happy about this,” said Gourley, interviewed before he set off for Ireland. “It was just perfect timing in so many ways: I recently stopped working full-time to be able to focus on my music, so I have a lot more freedom, and I’d never had the chance to go to the competition in Sligo. I’m really grateful for the opportunity.”
A Madison, Wis., native whose father plays old-time fiddle, Gourley started out as a Suzuki violinist at five years old. His father took him to various festivals featuring old-time/American music, but Gourley found himself – “much to my dad’s chagrin,” he quipped – drawn more to the Irish fiddlers he heard, like Dennis Hayes, Liz Carroll, and Brendan Mulvihill.
It was when he went to college in Minneapolis that Gourley immersed himself in Irish fiddle, inspired by such players as James Kelly, Tommy Peoples, Brian Rooney, and Liz and Yvonne Kane. He made the round of local sessions and wound up playing in a trio with accordionist Paddy O’Brien and guitarist Daithi Sproule, as well as the Doon Ceili Band (whose members included O’Brien) and in a duo with guitarist Brian Miller (of the group Bua), among others.
Gourley was actually on his way to New York City, where he planned to live, when he stopped in Boston this past January. After a few weeks, he changed his relocation plans and stayed.
“You always hear about how great the Irish music scene in Boston is, but it’s true,” he said. “There are so many technically advanced, excellent musicians around at sessions and the like, yet it’s also relaxed. I’ve gone to a lot of other places, and it’s just not as easy to make friends with other musicians as it is here.”
Gourley’s competitors at Fiddler of Dooney (Boston) were Adam Cole-Mullen, Tomas Bowling, and Brendan Callahan. Sheila Falls served as the adjudicator.
George Keith, who did the greater share of organizing the Burren event, said the Fiddler of Dooney, more than ever, remains an important fixture in Irish traditional music. “The Fleadh Cheoil [Ireland’s national music competition] serves its purpose, but it’s become so big and so diffuse that it can be overwhelming. The Fiddler of Dooney competition has more of a focus, it takes place in a concert setting, and thus puts a real emphasis on the music, and the tradition.
“A local Fiddler of Dooney-type event was a great thing for Comhaltas to support,” he added. “It’s so important to encourage young musicians, to nurture that next generation who will help carry on the tradition, and an event like this is just the way to do it. Hopefully, the seed has been planted, and there will be more participants in years to come.”