The Master's Return

Malachy Bourke and Frankie Gavin – from artwork by Jay Murphy for ‘The master’s return’.

The Master's Return

Frankie Gavin and Malachy Bourke's fiddle tribute to Paddy Killoran is not just about what the Sligo émigré played, but how he played, writes Dermot McLaughlin.

I will never forget the impression that the 1974 Claddagh Records album Tin Whistles made on me: just two tin whistles played by Paddy Moloney and Seán Potts (1930–2014) and a bodhrán played by Peadar Mercier. There’s a raw simplicity and directness about such pared down music, music that has nowhere – and nothing – to hide.

It’s unusual to hear new recordings of unaccompanied traditional music today, perhaps because of the lack of record companies that have a strong artistic vision and an empathy with this music. It’s exciting, therefore, to see Ergodos starting to fill this void and continue the tradition of high production associated with specialist labels such as Gael Linn and Claddagh Records.

The latest release from the Dublin label is The master’s return, an album of generally unaccompanied fiddle music performed by Malachy Bourke and his former teacher Frankie Gavin, with bodhrán played intermittently by Malachy’s father Brian Bourke. There’s original artwork too, by Jay Murphy, that captures the character of the musicians.

The master’s return is a tribute to Paddy Killoran (1904–1965) who, with fellow Sligo-American fiddlers Michael Coleman (1891–1945) and James Morrison (1891–1947), continues to make an impact on Irish traditional music. Killoran’s commercial recordings and radio broadcasts are the inspiration behind this album, but it’s about how Killoran played the fiddle, not just what he played on the fiddle. His bowing was snappy and heavily accented in ways that resembles elements of Scottish fiddle styles, and he varied the length of notes to create rhythmic pulse and tension on a micro-scale within phrases.

Bourke and Gavin recreate and build on this approach (Bourke is actually playing one of Killoran’s fiddles) and it sounds colourful, urgent and sparky. It’s reminiscent of the feel of old 78s where the performers had to nail it in one take. Their jig playing epitomises that raw, wild Killoran sound on ‘The Scotchman over the border’ and The tenpenny bit’, and again on ‘The geese in the bog’; there’s great attack and rhythm in the barndances ‘The Glenbeigh’ and ‘Memories of Sligo’, and the hornpipes, ‘The harvest home’ and ’The Derry’. The polkas ‘Memories of Ballymote’ and ’Gurteen Green’ are a lesson in bow pressure and rhythm, and track 6 is a gripping version of the reel ‘The Sligo Maid’ paired with ‘Molloy’s Favourite’.

I didn’t know what to expect with the inclusion of one of Killoran’s taped radio broadcasts, and I was surprised to be so affected by the closing track where we hear Killoran joined by Bourke and Gavin for an outstanding medley of reels, ‘The master’s return’, ’Dillon Brown’ and ‘My love is fair and handsome’. The master’s return is an uplifting musical tribute based on excited respect, rather than hushed reverence, for music of the past. That’s what makes traditional music tick.

Published on 13 October 2015

Dermot McLaughlin is a fiddle player and currently Chairman of the Irish Traditional Music Archive.

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