A time to recall, and mourn: Paddy Cronin, Henry Varian

The late winter/early spring of 2014 held some sadness for Boston’s Irish music community, which mourned the passing of two of its stalwarts: Paddy Cronin, 88, a talented and influential fiddle player; and Henry Varian, 72, a singer, musician, raconteur, and co-owner of one of Boston’s legendary Irish music pubs.

Mr. Cronin, who died on March 15 in Tralee following a short illness, was a native of Reaboy, near the Cork-Kerry border, but moved to Boston in 1949 and was a mainstay in the city’s vibrant Irish music scene before returning to Ireland in 1990. He was a protégé of Padraig O’Keeffe, a master of the Sliabh Luachra fiddle style so strongly identified with Cork and Kerry; Denis Murphy and Tom Billy Murphy, two other Sliabh Luachra denizens, also were key figures in Mr. Cronin’s musical development.
But he became known for his own unique style, which grew out of his association with musicians from many different parts of Ireland, and for his own compositions as well as his interpretations of traditional tunes. The albums he recorded in the 1970s, including “Music in the Glen,” “House in the Glen” and “Kerry’s Own Paddy Cronin,” were regarded as landmarks in Irish music’s growing popularity during the latter half of the 20th century. These LPs also constituted a bookend of sorts to the acetate discs he had recorded for Radio Eireann in the 1940s – and now preserved in the Traditional Music Archives in Dublin – prior to his emigration.
Even as he maintained his residence in Boston, Mr. Cronin was a regular visitor to Ireland for the Fleadh Cheoil, The Gathering, and other events. In 2007, he received the prestigious Gradam Saoil Lifetime Achievement Award in honor of his many contributions to traditional Irish music and culture.
But as he noted in an interview several years ago, Mr. Cronin made clear his favorite venue for music: “I maintain that a house is the best place to play the fiddle, which is music for the kitchen and the fireside. There’s nothing nicer than sitting down with a crowd inside a house. I love that. Even if I’m on my own, I love to sit down and play for myself.”
Adept in many
forms of expression
Henry Varian, who died April 10 from injuries sustained in a fall, grew up in Cork and came to Boston in the 1960s. A musician, singer and storyteller who was part of the band Fenian Folk, Mr. Varian proved adept in other forms of expression. He was co-founder of the enormously popular “Sound of Erin” show, which debuted on WUNR-AM in 1973 and ran for 35 years. He also formed the Irish Drama theatrical group and acted in a number of Irish productions.
One of his most high-profile endeavors was the Village Coach House in Brookline Village, which he opened in the 1970s with his brothers Liam and Jimmy. The pub quickly became a hot spot for Irish music and drew local as well as visiting musicians, singers, and dancers. The Coach House’s Monday night session in particular proved enduringly popular; the pub also hosted concerts and other special events. People of that era recall the Coach House as a launchpoint for more than a few musical careers – not to mention romances and even marriages.
The Coach House closed in the late 1980s, but Mr. Varian – after returning to Cork for a while, then moving to Nantucket – remained active in the area Irish music scene, even as he continued his vocation as a mason restoring old houses. In the days following his death, Mr. Varian’s friends and cohorts remembered fondly his penchant for singing “Raglan Road,” “Dirty Old Town,” “It’s a Long Way from Clare to Here,” among other songs, and for his spontaneous recitations of poetry.
In a Facebook conversation, one former Coach House regular noted that for a while after the pub’s closing, Mr. Varian ran an antiques shop, where she bought an Irish tall clock. “It ticks in my front hall now. RIP, Henry.”
– Sean Smith