Ed Ward, the founder of Ward Irish Music Archives in Milwaukee, is an impressive character with an impressive resume.
By Daniel Neely
A couple things to report on from the world of traditional music archives.
On Monday, Sept. 30, Liam O’Connor, the new director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive, posted an article to the ITMA’s website about Séamus O’Mahony (1900-1991), an under-recognized and ultimately reclusive fiddle player who lived in County Cork. O’Mahony’s mention as one of the great fiddle player Tommie Potts’s influences piqued O’Connor’s interest, so he dug into the ITMA’s holdings to see what he could glean.
Turns out, the ITMA was lent a tape in 1998 that contained a private recording of O’Mahony playing at his home in Youghal, Co. Cork in 1952. On listening to it, O’Connor found an incredibly fine fiddle player who absolutely deserved greater recognition. He included three sets from the recording in his article.
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This appears to be a find of some real significance. The great Francis O’Neill thought so highly of him that he gave a 13-year-old O’Mahony some space in his seminal work “Irish Minstrels and Musicians.” Unfortunately, he never recorded commercially. Aside from the 16 tracks that comprise the 1952 recording, there exists an additional six recordings O’Mahony made with uilleann piper Liam Walsh and a small number of mid-century broadcast transcriptions O’Mahony was a part of, with piper Leo Rowsome and flute player Nelius Cronin, as the All-Ireland Trio.
“In the coming months a total of 16 tracks will be shared through ITMA’s newsletter and website in order to shine a light on one of Ireland’s forgotten musical figures of the early 20th century,” O’Connor’s article concludes. Were it not for the work of the Irish Traditional Music Archive – and archives in general – a player of this caliber might never have received the he deserves. Read O’Connor’s article (which includes three of the 16 recordings) at tinyurl.com/SeamusOMahony.
Of course, one of the other great repositories of Irish music is the Ward Irish Music Archives in Milwaukee (wardirishmusicarchives.com). Established in 1992, the Ward Archives is a public collection that covers virtually every aspect of Irish music, from traditional to popular, and beyond. It contains materials that includes rare recordings, paper & ephemera, photos, sheet music, and songbooks. Some of this material is even accessible online. (Among its many holdings accessible via the web includes a series of wax cylinders Francis O’Neill made of traditional musicians between 1902 and 1914.) I feel very fortunate to not only have made use of the archive but also to have presented work there, and having seen it firsthand I can attest to the superior nature of the Ward Collection’s holdings.
However, last week I received the unfortunate news that Ed Ward, the Archives’ founder, is in failing health. Ward is an impressive character. A lawyer by training, he was in the Peace Corps, is a Vietnam veteran, has worked in the U.S. congress, and is an entrepreneur of note. However, his contributions to Irish music are substantial and simply cannot be underestimated. Before the Archive, he founded the Milwaukee Irish Fest (irishfest.com) in 1981, which is now the largest festival of its type in the United States by far, attracting upwards of 125,000 visitors annually. Over the years, it has presented every major Irish act and has given a significant boost to a number of smaller acts. It is a pillar of the scene as we know it today and a testament to Ward’s vision and integrity.
Mick Moloney, the distinguished musician and folklorist who has known Ward for decades, shared some of his own reflections with me. He praised Ward as a “visionary” with “bubbling enthusiasm,” character traits that not only elicit the love and respect of those who come into contact with him, but the thing that gives him the rare ability to see the bigger picture and get the job done with a sense of inclusivity, no matter the challenge.
Ward has been recognized for the yeoman’s work he’s done over the years many times, but perhaps no accolade matches the Ireland’s Presidential Distinguished Service Award for the Irish Abroad, which he was given last year. It’s a rare honor and one that is well deserved.
Ed Ward’s is without question a titan in the field. He has done more to protect and preserve the legacy of Irish music in America than virtually anyone else and his achievements, most notably with the Archive and Irish Fest, benefit all and are the sort that will stand the test of time. We at the Echo wish Mr. Ward and his family the very best in this trying time.