The two best U.S.-born fiddlers in Irish traditional music today are Liz Carroll in Chicago and Brian Conway in New York. They have much in common. Both are first-generation Irish Americans: Carroll was born in 1956 to parents from Limerick and Offaly, and Conway was born in 1961 to parents from Tyrone. Both had a musical father: Kevin Carroll played button accordion, and Jim Conway played fiddle. Both won All-Ireland senior fiddle titles: Carroll in 1975, and Conway in 1986. Both received Traditional Artist of the Year awards from the Irish Echo: Carroll in 2000, and Conway in 2008.
In addition, both were inspired by legendary Sligo-style fiddlers born in the U.S.: Chicago’s Johnny McGreevy (1919-1990) for Carroll, and New York City’s Andy McGann (1928-2004) for Conway. All four fiddlers can be heard on “The Boston College Irish Fiddle Festival: My Love Is in America,” a 1991 album documenting a momentous concert by 16 standout fiddlers in Boston College’s Gasson Hall on March 25, 1990.
It’s hard to imagine two better stateside exemplars of Irish traditional fiddling than McGreevy and McGann, and the same is true of Carroll and Conway. Neither had ever participated in such profile-boosting stage spectaculars as “Riverdance” and “Lord of the Dance,” yet these two brilliant Irish American musicians command the utmost respect from traditional fiddlers not only in America but also in Ireland.
That’s why I was undeterred when I learned that previously scheduled guest fiddler Tony DeMarco would not be appearing at the October 12, Wednesday night session hosted by Brian Conway at Dunne’s Pub in White Plains, N.Y. I would have enjoyed hearing the two rekindle the special spark they had on their 1981 album, “The Apple in Winter.” But any evening featuring the fiddling of Brian Conway, who has been hosting these Wednesday night sessions at Dunne’s since December 1997, is a special occasion. And when I learned that his niece, Maeve Flanagan, who won an All-Ireland junior fiddle title in 2001 and is a member of the band Girsa, would be filling in for DeMarco, my decision became only easier.
So I headed off to Dunne’s Pub, owned by Monaghan’s Sean Dunne, whose support of Conway’s session has remained strong for 14 years, whether on packed-out nights or “quiet nights.” This October 12 session was a “quiet night,” and I settled in at a table close to the small circle of musicians sitting near a few microphones. Joining Conway on fiddle and Flanagan on fiddle and tin whistle were Finbar Cantor, Mike Stewart, Haley Richardson, and Tomara Henderson, all fiddlers. Henderson also sang “The Plains of Waterloo,” Dougie MacLean’s “Caledonia,” and, with guest Liam Murphy, “The Parting Glass.” Two other guests came up to sing as well.
The music was as relaxed and unfussy as the pub itself. The only airs put on were the slow airs beautifully played solo by Conway and Cantor. All six fiddlers delivered a graceful rendition of Turlough O’Carolan’s “Madam Maxwell” and similarly acquitted themselves well on a slew of dance tunes. The fiddling of Conway and Flanagan in particular stood out throughout the session.
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But the Irish traditional fiddling of Haley Richardson deserves special mention. From Pittsgrove, near Vineland, N.J., where she also takes classical violin lessons, Richardson is nine years old but plays with a poise and proficiency far above her age. A twice-a-month student of Conway, she has all the earmarks of a budding phenom. Her mother, Donna, who sat at the same table where I was sitting, told me that her home-schooled daughter started to play at two and a half years old. The effect of Conway’s tutelage was apparent in Haley’s confident technique and surprisingly substantial repertoire. Very few tunes played at this session were unfamiliar to her.