By Earle Hitchner
From humble beginnings on a small farm in Ballinakill, East Galway, where the family thatched cottage had no electricity, gas, or running water and where cooking was done in heavy pots in an open hearth, Mike Rafferty has now reached the summit of Irish traditional music in the United States: the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship. It is the highest honor bestowed by the U.S. Government on a traditional or folk artist.
Immigrating to the U.S. in 1949 and residing for many decades in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., the 83-year-old flute, whistle, uilleann pipes, and Jew's harp player and lilter is the first Irish or Irish-American honoree since 2004, when Randolph, Mass., button accordionist Joe Derrane won the award. Rafferty is just the 11th Irish recipient out of more than 340 overall honorees in the 28-year history of these fellowships, which now include a check for $25,000 per recipient.
Previous National Heritage Fellowship winners of pre-eminent Irish artistic achievement in the U.S. are sean-nos singer Joe Heaney in 1982, uilleann piper Joe Shannon in 1983, fiddler and teacher Martin Mulvihill in 1984, stepdancer Michael Flatley in 1988, flutist Jack Coen in 1991, fiddler Liz Carroll in 1994, stepdancer Donny Golden in 1995, singer and multi-instrumentalist Mick Moloney in 1999, fiddler Kevin Burke in 2002, and Joe Derrane.
No stranger to honors, Mike Rafferty was inducted into Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann's Mid-Atlantic Region Hall of Fame in 1991, was named the Irish Echo's Traditional Artist of the Year for 2003, won a lifetime achievement award from the N.J. Folk Festival in 2007, and has received further plaudits from the Galway Men's Association of N.Y., the Kerry Men's Association of N.Y., and New York University. In addition, a Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann branch bears his name in Bogota, N.J.
Winning a National Heritage Fellowship is now the capstone of Mike Rafferty's extraordinary accomplishments in Irish traditional music, and he continues to make great music. In 2009 "The New Broom," an album he recorded with N.J. fiddler Willie Kelly, was chosen as the Irish Echo's No. 2 traditional CD of the year.
For the past 61 years in America, Mike Rafferty has built a reputation for performing, recording, and teaching of rare distinction and enduring influence. In awarding Mike Rafferty a National Heritage Fellowship, the U.S. Government formally recognizes him as a national living treasure.
This September in Washington, D.C., Mike Rafferty and other honorees in 2010 will receive their National Heritage Fellowships in a Capitol Hill ceremony, at which NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman and several members of Congress will be presenters. Mike will also perform in a special concert showcasing the talents of the winners.