Modern Day Mummers.
By Daniel Neely
On last Wednesday, Nov. 25, Bill McEvoy, the founder of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in North America, passed away at age 97. Born into a musical family in County Laois in 1923, McEvoy made music his life from a very early age. A fiddle player, he spent much of his youth in the company of Jim Seery, one of Comhaltas’s founders, until leaving Ireland for New York in 1954. Once here, he was a strong advocate for traditional music and an active member of two different Irish music clubs in the 1950s and ‘60s.
In 1972, Comhaltas looked to expand its work to the United States. At that time McEvoy worked closely with Diarmuid Ó Catháin, an officer who would later become president of CCÉ, to establish the first U.S.-based Comhaltas branches as well as the annual “Echoes of Erin” concert tours of traditional musicians that have continued since. However, it was his work with Labhrás Ó Murchú, the Director-General of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, and a now-retired member of Seanad Éireann, that would have the deepest impact. Their collaborative efforts led to the establishment of Fleadh Cheoils in New York and the Midwest in 1975, and to North America being granted “Provincial” status with McEvoy as the first provincial chair in 1992, among many other things. In addition, Seán Ryan, the great Tipperary fiddler, immortalized McEvoy with two tunes named for him, “Bill McEvoy No. 1 & 2,” that are played at sessions widely.
McEvoy’s dedication to Comhaltas was unmatched. His indefatigable efforts not only breathed live into the Comhaltas movement in North America, they gave it strength, ensuring a robust future that will build upon the organization’s great and noble past. McEvoy, whose wife Lily passed away in 2016 after 66 years of marriage, leaves nine children, 25 grandchildren, 26 great grandchildren. Go raibh mile maith agat, Bill.
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Seán Ryan’s “Bill McEvoy No. 1,” which originally appeared in Treoir magazine in 1971.
In other news: in anticipation of the 25th anniversary of the great singer Liam Weldon’s passing, singer Macdara Yeates (Skippers Alley; The Night Before Larry Got Stretched folk club) has made an excellent short documentary that celebrates and briefly explores Weldon’s life and music.
It’s a tenderly done project. In addition to featuring Yeates singing songs commonly associated with Weldon in Dublin’s Tailor’s Hall (the site of a folk club Weldon once ran), the film uses archival interviews with Weldon as well as chilling footage of him singing “Dark Horse on the Wind” to present a portrait of the singer, his music, and his philosophy. We learn about Weldon’s upbringing, how he approached songs and singing, and his relationship with the Traveling community, with which he had a special affinity.
Yeates does an admirable job with the songs, including “Smuggling the Tin,” “The Blue Tar Road,” and “Jinny Joe,” each of which pays appropriate tribute to Weldon’s memory. Overall, it’s heartfelt and touching remembrance that celebrates a too-often overlooked singer. It’s definitely worth checking out, see tinyurl.com/WeldonDoc for more.
Speaking of documentaries, RTÉ recently premiered a fascinating (and very short) program called “Creative Ireland: Modern Day Mummers.” Organized by dancer Edwina Guckian, the “Modern Day Mummers” is a group of four rhymers, that also includes Fionnuala Maxwell (singer), Brian Mostyn (accordion), and Ryan Owens (banjo, sean nós dancer), which has adapted the familiar masked performance tradition to the COVID-19 moment and is using it to reach out to elderly people in rural areas that have been particularly isolated by lockdown restrictions.
The program follows the group as they visit a number of houses and interact with folks who respond to their visits with great joy. The project itself began in June with visits to 32 homes in Drumsna, Leitrim Village and Carrick on Shannon, however it will continue in different parts of Leitrim through the end of the year. It’s a charming, well-executed idea that has extra meaning this year – something to check out, for sure! See tinyurl.com/ModernDayMummers for more information.
Speaking of RTÉ, the Radio 1 Folk Awards were held last week and there were some notable honorees. Steve Cooney received four awards: Lifetime Achievement Award, Best Folk Instrumentalist, Best Folk Album (for “Ceol Ársa Cláirsí: Tunes of the Irish Harpers for Solo Guitar”) and Best Traditional Folk Track (“Eleanor Plunkett”). Lankum’s Radie Peat was named “Best Folk Singer,” while her group Lankum received the award for Best Folk Group. In addition, Frank Harte was inducted into the Hall of Fame and Mick Flannery and Susan O’Neill’s “Baby Talk” was named Best Original Folk Track. Congrats to all!
Finally, the band Full Tilt, which features Manus McGuire (fiddle), Gemma Donald (fiddle), Brian Nicholson (guitar), and Alan Small (accordion), has a new album on its way and they will be launching it with a live online performance on Saturday, Dec. 5, at 3 p.m. EST (8 p.m. Ireland). I’ve only heard a couple of the album’s tracks and they’re lovely – the group’s music draws from a range of influences, including Shetland, Scotland and Ireland, and I’m sure traditional music lovers will be interested in knowing more about the group. Based on the strength of what I’ve heard so far, I’ll be writing about the full album in the near future, anyway, so look forward to that. But in the meantime, check out the online launch by visiting the band’s website, www.fulltilt.band – it should be a good one! (Also, don’t forget “Ship in the Clouds,” the album I reviewed last week, launches this Friday, see shipintheclouds.bandcamp.com for details.)