Think of Irish music, and chances are you think of the fiddle. Fiddle players have a special place in Irish tradition, from the traveling dance masters of the 18th century through to today’s young virtuosos. Francis O’Neill, collector and chronicler of Irish music, once wrote that
the fiddle is, in the minds of many, the instrument of all others most essential to the enjoyment of an Irishman.from Irish Minstrels and Musicians
These ten fiddle players represent a wide range of styles and approaches to Irish music. From the slow, delicate sounds of Martin Hayes to the crackling playing of Johnny Doherty, they are a glimpse into the breadth of musical tradition in Ireland. Start listening, and you may find your feet start tapping along, as if by magic!
Michael Coleman was perhaps the most influential musician in Irish music. Born in Co. Sligo, he emigrated to the US as a young man. During the 1920s and 30s, he made over 80 recordings of Irish fiddle tunes, which made him into one of the best-known players of Irish music. His playing came to define the Sligo fiddle style, and is still widely admired by fiddlers and musicians today. Nothing sums up his place in the pantheon of Irish fiddlers better than the marker near his birth site, which reads
Michael Coleman. Master of the fiddle. Saviour of Irish traditional music. Born near this spot in 1891. Died in exile 1945.
While many fiddlers like to play fast and furious, Martin Hayes takes a more measured approach. His slower, lyrical approach to the fiddle has made him into one of the most original Irish fiddle players out there today. The nephew of famed fiddler Paddy Canny, Hayes grew up in East Clare. He won his first All-Ireland title at the age of 13. While he’s played in the Tulla Céilí Band and is a founding member of The Gloaming, his most lasting collaboration has been with guitarist Dennis Cahill. Together, they create a sparse but intricate sound like no other.
Julia Clifford was one of the most important players in the Sliabh Luachra fiddle style. She grew up in Co. Kerry, near the Cork border, and was taught by fiddle master Padraig O’Keeffe. This area is particularly known for slides and polkas, tunes not often found in other regions of Ireland. Clifford became known as one of the best fiddlers in Ireland, and a chief exponent of Kerry fiddle playing. Her recordings are still sought after by Irish musicians as prime examples of how to play the distinctive tunes of Sliabh Luachra.
Despite shying away from the limelight, Donegal fiddler Tommy Peoples was one of the most well-known and respected fiddle players of the Irish folk revival. He was a founding member of the Bothy Band, and recorded a few albums with folk singer and guitarist Paul Brady. Their 1977 album with flute player Matt Molloy is one of the most revered recordings in Irish music, showing three stellar musicians at the top of their game. Peoples didn’t tour relentlessly like many of his peers, nor did he join any big bands after leaving the Bothy Band. Instead, he preferred playing solo, where his dynamic style contrasted with his quiet personality.
Liz Carroll didn’t grow up in Ireland, but she was still steeped in the traditions of Irish music from an early age. She came up through the Chicago session scene, and won the All-Ireland fiddle title in 1975. She’s known for blending virtuosic technical ability with a very traditional musicality in her playing. In addition to her talents as a fiddle player, she has composed many tunes that have become session standards. While she has played with various groups during her career, Carroll has made her name as a solo artist through her captivating performances and recordings.
Paddy Canny was perhaps best known as the founder of the legendary Tulla Céilí Band. They are one of the most popular Irish céilí bands, even headlining a show at Carnegie Hall in New York on St. Patrick’s Day in 1958. As a prominent player in the East Clare style, Canny won the All-Ireland fiddle championship in 1953. His recordings were regularly featured on Irish radio throughout the 50s and 60s. He gave up life as a professional musician in the 1960s to focus on his farm, but remained a big part of the traditional music scene in East Clare.
Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh
Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh is one of the most prominent Donegal fiddle players in the world. She was a founding member of the group Altan with her late husband Frankie Kennedy. She comes from a musical family, and grew up in an Irish-speaking area of Donegal. Besides her fiddle playing, she is known as a leading proponent of the Irish-language singing. Her and her siblings play in Na Mooneys, and she plays with other elite female fiddlers in the group String Sisters.
Beyond his playing, Junior Crehan is well-remembered for his many compositions. Tunes like “The Otter’s Holt,” “The Mist on the Mountain,” and the “Luachrachán Jig” have become standard tunes in Irish sessions around the world. Crehan lived his entire life in West Clare, and was a fixture in the traditional music scene there. He could be seen regularly at Gleeson’s pub in Coore for 70 years, and travelled around the country playing and adjudicating at music festivals. He was an active teacher, and helped found the popular Willie Clancy Summer School in Clare, one of the biggest annual Irish music events.
Kevin Burke grew up in London, surrounded by Irish musicians who had moved to the “Big Smoke” in search of opportunity. His parents came from Sligo, and he became a master of Sligo style fiddling. But, like Liz Carroll, he wasn’t constrained by regional style. In London, he had the opportunity to learn from fiddlers who had come from all around Ireland. Eventually, he joined the Glenside Céilí Band, playing dances around the city. In 1972, he met and played with American folk singer Arlo Guthrie, which kickstarted his career in music. He replaced Tommy Peoples in the Bothy Band, and is also a founding member of the popular Irish group Patrick Street.
Johnny Doherty was an Irish Traveller, born into a family of musicians, tinsmiths, and horse traders. He spent his life traveling around Co. Donegal, doing tinwork and playing the fiddle at house dances. Doherty was so well-known in the area that it’s said he didn’t travel with a fiddle; he knew one would be waiting for him wherever he was going to play. While he occasionally travelled outside his home county to play music, he had an enormous impact on the music of Donegal.