Ours was a very melodious field. And of all the tents in that melodious field, our tent was the most melodious. Our two fiddlers were giants in the world of traditional music. One was Seán Maguire, the other was Ted Furey. Ted was the father of all the Fureys. He and I were related through drink. I had come to know him through The Duke of York, a downtown Belfast pub were I was curate, as one customer called it. Ted, God rest his soul, was a gentleman travelling player who graced us with his presence from time to time and regaled the company with fine music and wonderous tales of his exploits.
The other musical tenent of our tent, Seán Maguire, died just recently. Seán was a classically trained musican. Originally from the County of Cavan, he was reared in Belfast. The year after I was born he won the Oireachtas Gold Medal (All Ireland Championship) with a record 100 marks, an achievement which has never been bettered to this day. 'How could it be?' the alert, cynical reader might ask. That is to miss the point. The point is that it hasn't been.
The year was 1949. Seán's tour de force and the timing of my birth are entirely incidential. I mention both in the one sentence because I am very taken by the fact that Seán was reaching such heights of musical acclaim while I was but an enfant. And now here he was in our tent in a field outside Clones making the air dance with miraculous twisting jigs and reels and embroidering it all with unique grace notes.
He and Ted were playing off each other. One tune borrowed another. Later when I got to know Seán better he told how he played to the late Prince Rainer and Princess Grace of Monaco when they first visited Ireland.
"But not in a tent?" I asked.
"No," he said, "I have played to full houses in Carnegie Hall and in a multitude of other places but I remember only once playing in a tent."
Seán travelled extensively in Europe and the USA. In recognition of his contribution to traditional music, the USSR made him an Honorary Artiste of the Soviet Union. But Seán was not without his detractors. He played the fiddle a bit like Yehudi Menuhin played the violin. So traditional tunes were played with embellishments and Paganini type variations that were not exactly Sean Nós, more Stephane Grappelli. This inevitably provoked discussion. Seán was well able for it. His playing was so exquisite and his sense of showmanship so great that, at times, the sheer brilliance of his performance allowed him to rise above any dispute. With style. Seán also played piano, guitar, tin whistle, flute and uillean pipes as well as the fiddle.
Not all at once. And not in our tent. But at eight oclock in the morning he did play 'The Masons Apron'. If my recollection is right he had a number one hit in the charts at that time with 'The Masons Apron'. Barney McKenna of The Dubliners also did a fine version on the banjo. Such heresy! But not that morning. That morning was Seán Maguire's.
"Its aisy to play the fast ones," Ould Ted said. But only because he knew he was expected to. He was only joking.
And so it went on for the whole weekend. From pub to pub. And in the streets. Occasionally we would dance. I exaggerate. We didn't ourselves personally dance. But you know what I mean. We might as well have, we enjoyed the dancing so much. The dancers danced for the players and the players played for the dancers and all the rest of us jigged along with the best of them. For a whole weekend.
We lost Ted and Seán somewhere along the way. They probably moved to another tent. Thats the way at a Fleadh. Nobody minds. You follow the music. An old friend of mine swears by the day after the Fleadh is over. All the weekenders are gone, he argues. That's when you get the best sessions. I don't know about that. But if you get to Letterkenny in Donegal this weekend, think of Seán Maguire and Ted Furey and marvel at the many thousands of their successors making the air dance with miraculous twisting jigs and reels and embroidering it all with their own unique grace notes. Enjoy it. If you get into a really good session you will remember it forever.
Even if it isn't in a tent.
The Fleadh runs from 21 to 28 August.
? More: www.fleadh2005.com