This project was instituted to document a slice of Irish musical life in The Bronx, New York through a series of interviews with influential local musicians – detailing their personal and family involvement with music in their own words and on their own instruments.
Initiated through and funded by the City University of New York’s Institute for Irish American Studies (CUNY-IIAS), the interviews took place at the IIAS Center for Traditional Irish-American Music at Lehman College in The Bronx. Special thanks to Dr. Tomás Ó h-Íde, Executive Director of CUNY-IIAS for his support.
Featured Musicians (see posts below for interview information)
Irish Music in The Bronx
America’s epicenter of traditional Irish-American music has always been in the kitchens and living rooms of the working musicians in The Bronx. From recording giants Michael Coleman and Paddy Killoran at the dawn of the Recording Age to modern touring giants Eileen Ivers and Joanie Madden, musicians have learned, practiced, performed and honed their artform and cultural ties in family settings throughout The Bronx. While many of the early key players have been emigrants to America, younger generations of Irish-Americans have steadfastly continued the artform and added their own spin to the music, creating a style of playing particular to New York City. Fiddle players such as Andy McGann and Paddy Reynolds kept continuity with such early generations, playing the dancehalls of New York and passing their knowledge on to succeeding generations ofmusicians. Many of their students, such as Tony DeMarco and Brian Conway, have become internationally respected musicians – each recording for Smithsonian Folkways records and teaching the next generation. These are singular examples of the rich traditions kept by Irish musicians in The Bronx, most of who have never been interviewed for posterity.
Though the recordings of Bronx Irish musicians have been some of the most influential in the global Irish music phenomenon, (see Spencer, 2010) the musicians of The Bronx were often passed over for accolades in Ireland. This changed in the early 1960s when Sean Quinn won a coveted All-Ireland championship on button accordion in the Juniors category, and Kathleen Collins on fiddle in the Seniors category a few years later. With the Mulvihill school of Irish music and others in The Bronx preparing students for competitions in the 1970s and 1980s, a string of younger Irish-American musicians such as Eileen Ivers, Joanie Madden and Brian Conway began winning All-Ireland championships, and the cultural repository of the Bronx Irish music community became greatly respected in Ireland.
Today, Bronx musicians are some of the most influential in both America and Ireland. Flute player Joanie Madden now directs the all-female touring ensemble Cherish The Ladies, and is the artistic director of the Irish Arts week in Elkins, West Virginia. Fiddler Eileen Ivers was the first to tour with Riverdance, and is now a solo recording artist and directs the group Immigrant Soul. A great number of Irish-born musicians have come to New York for the action – including John Redmond (All-Ireland Champion on button accordion), Ivan Goff (All-Ireland Champion on tin whistle and former uilleann piper for Riverdance), and many others.
Oral Histories as a Local Resource
The medium of the oral history interview is vital to the modern documentation of local history. In the recent past, historical studies have typically documented the movement of nations, major political conflicts, and the decisions of heads of state. In the field of Irish Studies this was largely the case until Robert Scally published his detailed and thorough look into the impact of The Famine on a rural town in Ireland. The End of Hidden Ireland (1994) marked the beginning of the use of personal accounts of real people to bring to life from the inside a much larger historical event. The field of Irish Studies in particular has been at the forefront of the postmodernist historical account, embracing the idea of the ethnography and the personal interview as a vital component of any historical account, and snippets of personal oral histories now seem to be required inclusions in any academic work in the Social Sciences.
Bernadette Fee is a talented fiddler and champion Irish dancer. Raised in Astoria, she has been on the Irish music scene for decades, and currently runs a number of sessions around the New York City area. She can also be found playing with the group Morning Star.
Bernie stopped by Lehman College on September 18, 2008 to discuss the role of music in her family, and to play a few tunes with our own John Redmond. In the interview, she talked about the importance of Irish culture to her immigrant parents, and her personal route to the violin. She talked about her dancing, and a few of the accolades she has earned.
Bernie also brought up the wonderful environment in which she learned the fiddle as a child, and the older generation of New York City musicians and dancers who helped her and acted as mentors and role models. She and Artist in Residence John Redmond also played three sets of tunes.
Here is Bernie solo playing a set of tunes:
Here is Bernie talking about learning the fiddle from Maureen Glynn and others:
Here is a brief clip of Bernie and John playing another set:
Don Meade came to New York from California and quickly became a major player and impresario in the Irish music community. Known to play fiddle and banjo at his Monday night Landmark Tavern sessions, he also has a wonderful repertoire of songs, is an All-Ireland champion on the harmonica, and plays fiddle with New York’s Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra. Don is also one of the world’s experts on the names and histories of traditional tunes, and routinely receives calls from around the world asking for his assistance.
In this April 23rd, 2009 interview, Don discusses his early days on the banjo, CCE sessions around the metropolitan area, and learning tunes from the older generations of players in New York. He also talks about the early session and concert scene, especially the Eagle Tavern series, which he still runs today as the “Blarney Star” Irish Music concert series. In addition, he discusses and demonstrates harmonicas and ornamentation, and plays a few tunes on the banjo.
Don Meade on his early musical influences in New York:
Don demonstrating the diatonic harmonica:
Don Meade demonstrating ornamentation on a chromatic harmonica:
Don talks about CCE sessions, respected local musicians and his All-Ireland award:
Don warms up the tenor banjo:
Ivan Goff brought his uilleann bagpipes and Irish flute to Lehman College. Ivan has used New York City as a home base for performances and touring for the recent past. He has been a regular in local sessions, a musical force on the international touring scene, and a piper in high demand. Aside from his life as a performer, Ivan is also a PhD candidate in NYU’s Ethnomusicology department. During his visit, Ivan discussed the uilleann bagpipes, his time in New York, playing with Riverdance and working with the Irish Arts Center, the Irish in America, and greater conceptions of Irish America and multiple conceptions of Irish-Americans.
Here is a snippet of Ivan playing the uilleann bagpipes with button accordionist John Redmond:
Donie Ryan was born and raised in County Tipperary and learned music from a number of members of his family, including his father and uncle.
After playing sessions around home for a number of years, he brought his banjo overseas and toured through France, Germany and the United States.
In this interview, Donie talked about his time playing Irish music in continental Europe, sessions in New York City, and discussed the particulars of the banjo in traditional music. Also, he played a number of tunes on the banjo both solo, and with John Redmon on the button accordion.
Here is a clip of Donie playing a set of tune on the tenor banjo:
Here is a clip of Donie playing a set of tunes with John Redmond on button accordion:
Dr. Tomás Ó h-Íde, Executive Director of CUNY-IIAS, Professor of Irish