On a sunny, sky-blue day, Ballinakill, Galway-born multi-instrumentalist and teacher Mike Rafferty, who died at age 84 on September 13, was given a sendoff commensurate with his stature in Irish traditional music.
With three co-celebrant priests, including Fr. Francis Kelly (previously known to many as fiddler Joe Kelly from Dumont, N.J.), Msgr. Charlie Coen said the September 16 funeral Mass for Mike Rafferty inside Corpus Christi Church in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J. Musicians filled the choir loft and dotted the pews below. They included Willie Kelly, Billy McComiskey, Brian Conway, Jerry O’Sullivan, John Whelan, Felix and Brendan Dolan, Seamus Connolly, Mattie and Deirdre Connolly, Martin Mulhaire, Rose Conway Flanagan, Margie Mulvihill, John Reynolds, Laura Byrne, Myron Bretholz, Mick Moloney, Don Meade, Tina Lech, Dana Lyn, Donna Long, Dan Gurney, Dylan Foley, Gabriel Donahue, Brian Holleran, John Nolan, and Larry Reynolds.
Mary Rafferty Clancy, Mike’s daughter and former member of Cherish the Ladies, played a button accordion solo on the altar that was tender, expressive, and unhurried, qualities that would have made her father beam in appreciation. It was all she could do to hold back the tears. Everyone there felt the same way.
Msgr. Coen gave two homilies: one at the pulpit, where he described Mike Rafferty the man, and one at the right side of the altar, where he described Mike Rafferty the musician. A gifted musician himself, Coen hit all the right notes in his remarks.
Baroque-flavored melodies of Turlough O’Carolan mixed with Irish traditional dance tunes, hymns (Deirdre Connolly movingly sang “How Great Thou Art”), hymnal melodies (“Tantum Ergo, Sacramentum”), and even a waltz. The last came as the casket was being wheeled slowly out of the church. Mary Rafferty Clancy, following behind her father’s casket, gazed up to the loft of musicians playing and raised her flute briefly in salute.
A long cortege of cars proceeded from the church to Holy Cross Cemetery in North Arlington, N.J. All along the route, police were present at main intersections and stoplights to hold up cross-traffic and allow the procession to pass. This display of multi-community respect for Mike Rafferty was stirring.
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At the grave, Msgr. Coen offered more prayers, and Willie Kelly soloed on fiddle and Mary Rafferty Clancy soloed on whistle. Others also played by the grave, including John Whelan, Felix and Brendan Dolan, and Don Meade. The music lightened the load of grief. Mike Rafferty was laid to rest surrounded by family, friends, and admirers, drawing solace from what sustained him: Irish traditional music.
I drove out of the cemetery and headed to the reception. There, three concentric rings of musicians sat in chairs and played in a virtually nonstop session for Mike Rafferty. They made each note count, as he did.
The following are excerpts from some of the e-mails of remembrance, affection, and sorrow sent to me in response to Mike Rafferty’s passing:
“Mike was unanimously seen as the ‘real deal,’ representing a kind of timeless center in the venerable musical tradition he so proudly espoused in his wonderful life. And it was not just his musicality that made him so beloved. He was a gentleman to the core, gracious, good-humored, and willing to help anyone who came his way. He truly was the Mighty Raff.” — Mick Moloney.
“Mike was not only a window into the authentic musical style of 19th-century Ireland (because of the tutelage from his father), but also and much more importantly the embodiment of all that was good and noble in the West of Ireland country people of his time. These virtues and abilities included a hearty sense of humor, great knowledge of local history and culture, extreme generosity, a strong work ethic, unfailing loyalty, and a love of family and friends. Mike was a father to me musically and nonmusically. I always felt, and still do, that I was an adopted son into the Rafferty family. My admiration and love for Mike will only continue to grow, and I was blessed to have the time with him that I did.” — Jerry O’Sullivan.
“He is one of my musical heroes and a true gentleman who was always so encouraging and generous towards me down through the years. I will cherish the many lovely memories I have of nights Mike and I spent together playing tunes and telling stories in the Hill Bar in Kylebrack when he and Teresa would be home on holidays.” — Kevin Crawford.
“I have known Mike since I was 12 years old. He was always tremendously encouraging to me as a young player and to all young musicians, and he continued that stewardship of the music until he took his last breath. His loss is immeasurable.” — Brian Conway.
“I have known Mike for some 65 years. He was a dear friend, a great man, a great musician, and a true son of Ballinakill. It was a special gift to have known him.” — Msgr. Charlie Coen.
“The National Heritage Fellowship award last year validated Mike Rafferty as a folk hero in the USA, but his everyday life and prodigious recordings in his later years had already made that case to those who follow Irish music.
So many younger musicians looked up to him as a legend who shared his music so generously and who made them feel they were doing him a favor by listening to and playing with him.” — Paul Keating.
“I have known and played with Mike Rafferty for over 30 years. Like most other Irish musicians, I consider him to be one of the legends of Irish music both in the United States and in Ireland. One of my greatest pleasures was to sit and play near Mike at a ceili or an informal musical gathering of friends playing tunes.” — Felix Dolan.
“We were so lucky to have known him. May the Mighty Raff rest in peace.” — Kathleen Biggins.
“What a great man he was, is, and always will be.” — Myron Bretholz.
“His music immediately communicated the essence of who and what he was. His passing leaves an enormous void in the world of Irish traditional music, but we can take some comfort in knowing that he enriched the lives of so very many people. But, Lord, I miss him.” — Paul F. Wells.
“Ballinakill is close to Loughrea, my mother’s hometown, and that part of Ireland seems to have produced its fair share of musical geniuses, Mike so eminently among them. I treasure his albums with his daughter Mary, and I was completely knocked out by ‘The New Broom,’ his more recent album with fiddler Willie Kelly. Such sweet and fluent music. And Mike’s own compositions–like the classically perfect reel ‘Coming to Mind’–remind us of what a creative soul he possessed. He will be tremendously missed.” — Terence Winch.
“I had the good fortune of meeting Mike, if only once. I knew of his great reputation both as a person and as a musician, and I was immediately struck by how likable he was. His passing has caused a massive tear in the fabric of the music.” — Joe Derrane.
“I feel kind of empty. This is a big chunk of the music gone.” — Billy McComiskey.
“Mike will be sadly missed by everyone who had the pleasure to know him and hear him play.” — Michael Collins, Irish Ambassador to the United States.
“We join many others in the traditional music community and beyond in mourning his death while celebrating his life and lasting legacy.” — Rocco Landesman, National Endowment for the Arts Chairman.
“Mike Rafferty simply was one of the most important people in my life. I remember when I got my first silver flute from Sean McGlynn, and Mike drove straight over to the house in the Bronx to show me how to put the flute together and show me the scale. Since that day, he continued to be a teacher, role model, and incredibly inspirational person to my music. I will miss him terribly. Life to me is forever changed with Mike Rafferty gone. I just dream that there is a heaven and that my father and Mike are making beautiful East Galway music together again.” — Joanie Madden, whose Portumna, button accordion-playing father, Joe, was a very close friend of Mike and died at age 70 on November 14, 2008.