By Earle Hitchner
When I was hosting a radio show in the New York metro area in the 1980s, I decided to have Se_n Smyth, an All-Ireland champion fiddle and tin whistle player from Mayo, come into the studio with me to select some tracks for broadcast. I wanted to hear what he regarded as Irish music good enough to put on the air, and I recall how painstaking he was in picking tracks from the albums stocked in the studio.
Smyth slid the LP of “Sailing Into Walpole’s Marsh” (Innisfree/Green Linnet, 1977) out of the racks, scrutinized the track listing, then told me, “Put on track three, side A.” It was two reels performed without accompaniment by M’ve Donnelly, a multiple All-Ireland champion fiddler originally from Abbey, near Loughrea, Co. Galway, who appeared on the album with singers Se_n Corcoran and Maighread Nf Dhomhnaill and Cavan harmonica master Eddie Clarke.
As the Donnelly track played on the radio, Smyth barked, “Turn it up,” which I did. “Now that’s Irish music,” he said.
I knew instantly what he meant. Donnelly, also a winner of Sl=gadh and Belleek Stone Fiddle titles in Ireland, did two minutes of precise, flawless fiddling, elevated by an irresistible rhythm and uncanny sense of East Galway swing that transformed the tunes into something special.
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A quarter century after that track appeared on LP, M’ve Donnelly has released her first solo recording, “M’ve Donnelly” (MDCD 001), proving Se_n Smyth’s judgment and taste were spot-on. It’s a delectable, diverse, expertly executed album well worth the wait, though it was actually set into motion on a day of monumental disaster.
“I contacted Steve Cooney to co-produce my recording on Sept. 11,” Donnelly said from her home in Knocknagoug, Quin, Co. Clare, “and the reason I remember the date is because of the awful tragedy in New York, which Steve told me about, telling me to look at the television.”
The horror of that day stood in stark contrast to the elation and eagerness she felt in getting her solo debut under way with Cooney, an Australian-born guitarist who played in Stocktons Wing and operates a recording studio in Teelin, Co. Donegal.
“I knew Steve would treat the project as if it were his own and I wanted it to be as good a quality as anything out there now, which is why I chose him,” Donnelly said.
In addition to his production and engineering skills, Cooney plays guitar on eight of the album’s 15 tracks.
A few years ago, Donnelly had recorded four fiddle tracks with an eye to a solo album then, but only “Paddy Fahy’s Reel/The Ewe Reel” survived in re-recorded form with Moving Cloud on their 1998 album, “Foxglove” (Green Linnet). Sadly, after a 12-year run, this brilliant, all-instrumental quintet from Clare disbanded in 2001. “Those years with Moving Cloud were enjoyable,” admitted Donnelly, who made two other recordings with the group: a limited-edition, four-track cassette to benefit the social services organization Clarecare in 1989 and “Moving Cloud” (Green Linnet) in 1995. She also appeared on Paul Brock’s 1992 solo album, “Mo Chairdfn” (Gael-Linn).
Formed during the set-dancing craze sweeping through Western Ireland in the late 1980s, Moving Cloud gained a reputation for traditional music of uncommon drive and rhythm, often on display at the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis, Clare. The band provided M’ve Donnelly with a steady outlet for her music after a period, roughly 1979-89, when she was playing only casually and popping up on records rarely, such as 1979’s “Ed Reavy” on the Rounder label and 1983’s “Comhaltas on Tour” on the Comhaltas Ceolt=irf +ireann label.
“By 1979, I was finished studying in Dublin to be a primary school teacher, and then I started work,” she said. “I think unless one has a focus on something specific, it’s very difficult to keep playing all the time. For me, it lapsed. I suppose I had other interests and, in a sense, left the music aside for those years.”
A few tours in Europe and local sessions in Clare with button accordionist Paul Brock whetted Donnelly’s appetite for playing more, and Moving Cloud fulfilled that desire.
“I really gained momentum again from playing in those long marathons of music for set dancing,” she said. “Eventually Moving Cloud played in some venues as a concert group, and that’s what we wanted to be known and accepted as more and more.”
After Moving Cloud
Since the end of Moving Cloud, M’ve Donnelly has been busier in the recording studio than ever before. She played fiddle and viola on five tracks of Ronan Browne and Peadar O’Loughlin’s “Touch Me If You Dare” (Claddagh, 2002) and on five tracks of Geraldine Cotter’s “Piano +” (self-issued, 2002), recorded an entirely new album (working title: ” ‘Tis About Time”) with Kilmaley flutist, fiddler, and uilleann piper Peadar O’Loughlin that has not yet been released, and joined former Arcady pianist Patsy Broderick for a track on “+igse Dhiarmuidfn” (Cl= Iar-Chonnachta, 2001).
“I’ve done concerts and workshops in France with Geraldine and Eamon Cotter, Mary MacNamara, and others,” Donnelly said, “and played at Fleadh Nua with Geraldine and Eamon.” She also performed in Miltown Malbay at the Willie Clancy Summer School during July 6-14 and in Ennis at the Gl=r Irish Music Centre on July 17.
Another highlight for Donnelly was the launch party for her solo CD on July 3 at the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis. Nearly 300 people turned out for the occasion, and among the many musicians who attended and, in some cases, performed was Mick Moloney. He spoke eloquently to the overflow crowd about Donnelly, the youngest musician, at age 16, in a group of 25 from Ireland to perform in 1976 at the Bicentennial Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C. Moloney had also recorded two unaccompanied tracks by Donnelly for an album he produced 23 years ago, “Ed Reavy.”
On her solo CD, a medley of jigs, “Father Quinn’s/The Nightingale/The Piper’s Chair,” features Donnelly with her three brothers: Mal on button accordion, Declan on fiddle, and Aidan on tenor banjo.
“We played together a lot as children and entered fleadhs,” she said. “We even competed against each other at times, but nobody felt bad at the end of the day.”
Malachy now lives in London, while Declan lives in Dublin and Aidan in Galway.
“I wanted at least one opportunity on my solo album for all of us to perform together again,” Donnelly said.
Though her parents, Mary and Malachy, didn’t play an instrument, they encouraged their children to take one up.
“The area in and around Loughrea was rich with music,” Donnelly recalled, naming two famous cTilf bands, Aughrim Slopes and Ballinakill, from this region.
“I used to go to dances in people’s houses when I was 5, 6, and 7 years old, and you’d be closely listened to if you played in the pubs. In Abbey, the village I grew up in, there was hardly any house that didn’t have a musician in it.”
Donnelly, her three brothers, and friend Patsy Broderick, who’s originally from Kilrickle, all took music lessons from Tynagh’s Mary (nTe Donoghue) Lyons.
“Her own instrument was the fiddle,” Donnelly said, “but she also taught banjo, accordion, and other instruments. She was a wonderful teacher.”
Coming into contact with such East Galway masters as flutist Paddy Carty, fiddler/composer Paddy Fahy, and button accordionist Joe Burke also had a profound effect on Donnelly.
“I didn’t play much with them when I was young, but I soaked up as much of their music as I could,” she said.
Attending the Willie Clancy Summer School during the 1970s further shaped Donnelly’s fiddle style.
“I met John Kelly, Se_n Keane, and James Kelly there, and was very taken with the classes they taught during the week,” she said. “I think I was no older than 15 at the time.”
She also cited two other fiddlers, Tommy Peoples and Se_n McGuire, as strong influences on her playing, and mentioned Dublin fiddler Tommy Potts (1912-1988) as one more musical hero of hers.
Help from friends
Besides Steve Cooney and her three siblings, M’ve Donnelly invited Altan button accordionist Dermot Byrne, cellist Adele O’Dwyer, flutist Peadar O’Loughlin, and pianist Geraldine Cotter to perform on her solo CD.
“Geraldine and I were job-sharing last year, and we used to get together in the mornings to pick tunes out of books and manuscripts and play them at her house in Gortmore, where she has a grand piano,” Donnelly said. “That’s how my solo album basically started. The harmonies and chords of the slow air ‘Peggy’s Dream,’ for example, grew out of a session up at Geraldine’s.”
Another contributor was Peadar O’Loughlin, forever immortalized through his performance on “All-Ireland Champions,” a quintessential LP he made in 1959 with fiddlers Paddy Canny and P.J. Hayes and pianist Bridie Lafferty.
“Peadar was a great help to me and would generously offer me tapes of tunes,” Donnelly said.
This current surge in musical activity for M’ve Donnelly vies with a hectic life as a wife (husband David Barry works in computer field), mother (son David, 9, and daughter Aoife, 3), and elementary school instructor of 8- and 9-year-olds in Kilmurry. But she’s not complaining.
“It seemed inevitable that I press on to some other area and do something on my own after Moving Cloud,” Donnelly said. “My intention on the solo CD was to show the type of music that I love to play, that it’s solid traditional music. I’m pleased with the way it turned out.”
The CD is available from Ossian USA, 118 Beck Rd., Loudon, NH 03307, (603) 783-4383; the Knotted Chord, Cook’s Lane, O’Connell St., Ennis, Co. Clare, Ireland, www.knottedchord.com, email@example.com, and M’ve Donnelly’s website, www.m’vedonnelly.com.