Category: Archive

Pitch-perfect player

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

“I just love his playing. It’s so soulful, so beautiful. It’s the reason why I poached not one but two tunes from ‘The Old Fireside Music,’ a brilliant record he did with his daughter.”
Crawford was referring to the Hill Bar, a pub not far from the village of Larraga in the parish of Ballinakill in East Galway, where Mike Rafferty was born on Sept. 27, 1926. Irish traditional music was played at the Hill on Tuesday and Saturday nights, and the two tunes Crawford “poached” for his own 2001 solo album, “In Good Company,” were “The Hard Road to Travel” and “Feeding the Birds,” the latter composed by Rafferty.
“The Old Fireside Music” (Larraga Records, 1998) is one of three albums made by the father-daughter duo of Mike Rafferty and former Cherish the Ladies member Mary Rafferty. The others are “The Dangerous Reel” (Rapparee, 1995; Kells Music, 1996) and “The Road from Ballinakill” (Larraga Records, 2001). All three capture the unrushed expressiveness and heart of the East Galway style of playing.
“Fast music is like fast talk: you can’t understand what the person is saying,” Mike Rafferty remarked in the photo-lined basement of the home he shares with wife, Teresa, in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J. “I like to play Irish traditional music at a nice, easy tempo. No speed. That’s how I learned it, and that’s how I teach it.”

Growing up in Ballinakill
Rafferty is one of seven children born to Thomas and Kathleen Rafferty on a small farm in Ballinakill. Their thatched cottage had no electricity, gas, or running water, and cooking was done in heavy pots in an open hearth.
“I worked with pick, shovel, plow, and horses on the farm,” Rafferty said. “There was very little machinery back then. Tractors came later. It was hard work, but you got used to it. I also cut turf for our family and for other families. The money wasn’t great, but it kept you alive.”
Rafferty’s father, Thomas (born in 1875), was a skilled flutist and a proficient uilleann piper. His nickname was “Barrel,” and “Barrels” eventually became the nickname of the entire family. “My father could get a great tone out of the wooden flute, and it was said he could fill a barrel with wind, so he was called ‘Barrel,’ ” Rafferty explained. “Then we were called the ‘Barrels,’ which helped the postman differentiate our family from the other five Rafferty families in our village.”
Music was played on both sides of Rafferty’s family. Apart from their father, Rafferty’s brother Paddy lilted and played some tin whistle, and his brother Tommy played flute and tin whistle. Packie Moloney, a brother of Mike’s mother, was also a fine flute and whistle player, and he’d often visit the Rafferty home. “He started me off on the tin whistle when I was 6 or 7 years old,” Rafferty said. “Then I graduated to the flute and pipes.”
Mike Rafferty today plays whistle, flute, uilleann pipes, and Jew’s harp, and he also lilts (mouth music, where syllables form not words but rhythm). His father, who had gone blind from cataracts when Mike was very young, gave him many pointers on those instruments.
“Father Tom Larkin, a priest in our parish, used to visit my father a lot, and he once asked my dad which of the children was he going to make a flute player of,” Rafferty said. “My father said, ‘I think the lad on my knee.’ That was me, and it happened.”
The first flute Mike Rafferty played was not a full one. “Good wooden flutes were hard to come by in those days, so I got the loan of a three-quarter one, which my dad showed me how to blow into,” Rafferty said. “Then I finally got another, full flute, and I played that with my father, who used the smaller one.”
The uilleann pipes Mike Rafferty inherited from his father were made by Leo Rowsome (1903-1970). Rafferty’s father was a lefthanded player, so Rafferty, who’s righthanded, had to play them upside-down. “I started out on them when I was about 15,” he said. “They’re not a full set, and I eventually had them converted for a righthander. I also had to have them redone, and they’re in good shape now.” To demonstrate, Rafferty took me into an adjacent room in his basement, took out his father’s 85-year-old pipes, and played them with pitch-perfect precision.
East Galway has long been a hotbed of Irish traditional music and has produced many extraordinary performers, including the renowned Ballinakill Traditional Dance Players, a c

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