Michael Dwyer (1942-1997)
The following information was sourced from
MICHAEL DWYER & THE DWYER’S OF ARDGROOM FAMILY BACKGROUND
Mention of Irish traditional music brings to mind counties like Clare, Kerry, and Galway, areas such as West Clare, South Sligo, and Sliabh Luachra, but it is important to realise that there were significant contributions made by “pockets of the tradition” in unexpected places. One such place is the beautiful Beara peninsula of South West Cork particularly the area around Ardgroom and Eyeries home to that gifted musical family, the O’Dwyer’s of Cailroe. (Caol rua)
Let me take you back to the Kilnamanagh area of Co Tipperary, close to the Kilkenny border, and not too far from the town of Callan. The year is 1745, and some tenants have just been evicted from their holding. Caught in the act of taking revenge on the landlord they were taken to Cork and put on board ship for transportation. Not to be out done they jumped ship near Dursey Island off the coast of Beara and settled on the mainland. Being busy as tradesmen they persuaded their first cousin Robert, a carpenter, to join them. He travelled via Arklow where he boarded a fishing boat and headed south. The boat was wrecked in rough seas as it passed Dursey but luckily Robert managed to get ashore safely at a place just beside the present day Garnish post office in the parish of Allihies. The year was 1750. Robert O’Dwyer built himself a hut nearby and married a Murphy girl and they had eight sons, all carpenters.
The carpentry trade has followed through in the O’Dwyer family ever since. Robert’s eight sons continued the O’Dwyer line and one of these, Jack O’Dwyer settled into the farmstead in Cailroe. Mick O’Dwyer of Kerry football fame is a direct descendant of Robert’s. The correct surname is O’Dwyer but locally it is often shortened to Dwyer.
The above story was related to me by Riobard O’Dwyer of Eyeries first cousin to the Dwyer’s of Cailroe. He is not quiet sure where the music started but what we do know is that Johnny Dwyer (grandson of Robert and son of Jack) and the first of the Dwyer clan to be born in Cailroe, was a melodeon player. He was born around the time of the famine. The music was passed on to the next generation and to John Dwyer who was born in 1897. (Father of the present generation of Dwyer’s from Cailroe, and of course to Michael). He played accordion and fiddle and according to his son John, former fiddle player with the Castle ceili band “had a different style of reel playing, slow and solemn “. During the time of the troubles he was interned in Bere Island for six months and subsequently for a further six months in Spike Island, right up to the time of the truce when he was released. While on Spike Island he met up with the famous Waterford piper Liam Walsh and with many other musicians particularly from counties Clare and Kerry. It is a time he did not talk about very much but he certainly “broadened his repertoire “, and” got most of his inspiration there” according to John.
Cailroe is situated two miles on the Castletown side of Ardgroom, halfway between Ardgroom and Eyeries and only about four miles from the Kerry border. In previous generations there was a lot of interplay between the two counties as regards music or “cross border activity” as John calls it. (No prizes for guessing that he was a sergeant in the Garda Siochana). It was not unknown for Kerry musicians to come to the area and be put up in local houses and no doubt they exchanged a few tunes. John, now living in New Ross, remembers his mother talk of one such visitor, a travelling piper called Hanley who used to visit the area when she was very young.
The flute player, piper, and collector Canon James Goodman came to the area as Rector in 1860. At that time the area was still Irish speaking and as he was a native speaker, having been born and reared in Ventry Co Kerry, he surely left his influence. Around the time of his arrival he was in the later stages of completing his great collection of over 2000 traditional melodies. Not surprisingly, there is a jig in this collection called “the humours of Ardgroom”. In previous generations it is probable that musicians were plentiful in the southern part of the Peninsula along by Castletown into Adrigole on to Bantry and Tralibane home of the great music collector Captain Francis O’Neill.
The tradition was therefore very much alive in the area. It is not surprising that when John Dwyer Snr married it was to another musician, an accordion player and singer Kathleen Mc Carthy from nearby Killcatherine, whose people first came to the area from Skibbereen. “She had the loveliest style of humming a tune I ever heard” confides John. The Dwyer household became a great focal point for the musicians who played together at the local Ball Nights and Wedding Nights which “often lasted ‘till seven in the morning”. Fiddles and accordions provided most of the music and it was mostly polkas that were played for the dances but there was also a “strong tradition of jig playing in Cork at the time”.
It was into this background that Michael Dwyer was born in 1942. He was placed almost mid-way in a family of nine, five boys and four girls. (One girl Eileen died at the age of three). The family are Mary, John, Robert (Bobby), Michael, Richard, Kitty, Margaret, and Finbar. All the family inherited the music and the singing and many are multi-instrumentalists. According to Riobard O’Dwyer their father was” a lovely fiddle player” and was also a “Munster champion” singer of Gaelic songs. He also taught step dancing in the Castletown area and what’s more, he had a natural talent for composing poet’ He wrote a poem called the song of the Sea Flower in remembrance of the crew of a boat that were drowned in Ardgroom harbour in 1968. The interest in composing would once again spring up in his own family and come to fruition in the many fine melodies composed by the family.
As the family grew up in the forties and early fifties the house dances began to wane in popularity and the interest in traditional music was at an all time low. John remembers his father teaching the fiddle to some local people but “there weren’t many musicians around at the time” and remembers that people would “laugh at you for playing music in the middle of the day “they had the idea that “musicians were wasters”
John, the oldest of the five boys remembers being on his own in Castletown on a fair day sometime round 1949/50. He suddenly heard “enchanting music” coming from a p.a. system (rare at the time). When he investigated he found it was “a man with a cap playing a fiddle into a microphone “. After playing two tunes he was “ushered away to McCarthy’s pub” and that was the last he saw of him that day. John remembers being so enthralled by the music he heard that he wanted to share his experience with someone but alas….no one there to share his excitement… no one to understand how moved he was by what he had just heard. Four years later at a Cork-Kerry football match in Macroom he saw the same man playing but could not find out who he was. Almost twenty years later, after seeing a photograph by some Sliabh Luachra musicians in Ring Co Waterford, where he was stationed as a Garda Sergeant, he discovered that the player who had left such an impression on him that fair day in Castletown was none other than the great fiddle master himself Pádraig O’Keeffe. (It is most probable that Pádraig would have made the long journey down in a cattle lorry with Jack Lyons, owner of the pub in Scartaglen Co Kerry where Pádraig spent a lot of his time, if not his money… ach sin sceal eile).
Opportunities to see outside musicians were non existent and as a result there were very few role models for the younger Dwyer’s. A visit to the All-Ireland Fleadh in the early fifties was next to impossible from a place as far distant as the Beara Peninsula. In fact, John did not get to see an All-Ireland Fleadh until after he left home in 1955 to join the Garda Siochana. The only records he remembers being in the Family were some 78’s of John McCormack. However some time in the early fifties a neighbour who had worked in America with the great Kerry fiddle player Paddy Cronin arrived home with some records of Paddy’s made in the U.S. under the old Copley label. He gave a few to the Dwyer’s and although they were of poor sound quality, having been played a lot on poor equipment “they were lovely records…beautiful music” according to John. By coincidence Richard Dwyer now living in Ennis Co Clare spent some time in Boston where he became a great friend of Paddy Cronin’s.
And so it was that in the Cailroe of the early fifties the Dwyer’s were left to plough a lone furrow and breathe life into the musical air of Beara. However they were steeped in the tradition and were addicted to the music. The encouragement of their parents, who had kept the oral tradition alive, and their own insatiable desire to learn more about a music they loved, kept them going through these years. According to Michael’s younger sister Margaret now living in Bath in England “there were always a lot of instruments in the house and as a child you picked them up and played them”. It is not surprising that we find up to half a dozen multi-instrumentalists in the Dwyer family.
Their father’s musical horizons were broadened very much by his short “holiday” on Spike Island and he was intent that his family would carry on the tradition. He rarely missed an opportunity in this regard and when John asked him to purchase a tin whistle from a mail order address, he had seen in an Ireland’s Own magazine, his father duly obliged. It soon arrived, costing all of 1/6d and very soon the house was alive with the soft breathy sounds of a lovely red Clarke’s tin whistle. It was in this musical environment Michael Dwyer learned to play and his natural talent for the tin whistle was obvious from the outset.
The Dwyer family were nothing if not creative in their approach to music. John tells a delightful story of how they first got involved in composing tunes. Their father as well as being a farmer was a tradesman and house-builder and on one occasion he travelled to Athea in West Limerick to build a house .While there he met Cohn Dannaher (brother of Kevin who worked with the Folklore commission) and he presented him with one of O'Neill’s books. Proudly, he returned with the book together with some of the rudiments of the ABC notation which he also learned while there. Clearly, music was never far from his mind and West Limerick was a good place to be working if you were “into music”.
The younger John began to delve into the book, and with more determination than guidance, gradually worked out the meaning of the staff notation. He was then able to learn tunes from the book and felt the quality was not great in some of them and that it might be worth while trying to compose a few himself He did so and was pleased with his first efforts but very soon he left home to join the Garda Siochana. The year was 1955.
On his trips home he would encourage the others to have a go and compose a few tunes themselves, and would ask that they have a couple of new tunes composed the next time he would be home. He would bring a few new tunes back with him and so were fostered the creative talents that would result in such a great legacy. The Dwyer’s particularly John, Michael, Richard and Finbar were set, not alone to carry on the tradition they inherited, but to add to it. “That’s how they started” says John They had the inspiration and it was only a matter of “giving it a kick start “they had enough tunes not to have to compose, but they did it out of “enthusiasm” for the music for "the sheer love of it". By the time Michael and Richard went to London in the 60’s they were "into it in a fair way".
THE LONDON OF THE SIXTIES
Arriving in the London of the early 1960’s presented Michael with a musical landscape in total contrast with anything he had ever experienced back home. His youth in Ardgroom was spent absorbing the music of his parents and the local area but now he found himself in the centre of one of the biggest melting pots of Irish traditional music ever. For Michael, coming as he did from a family gifted in both musicianship and creativity, it must have seemed like an oasis.
“They were truly great days “says Brendan McGlinchey in an interview with Peter Brown of R.T.E” You couldn’t have heard better Irish traditional music anywhere."
Michael met and played with the cream of Irish musicians in the many pubs and clubs such as the Hibernian, Favourite, Garryowen and Shakespeare where at weekends a session in the words of writer and music critic P.J. Curtis "amounted to a mini Fleadh". Some of the musicians there at that time were fiddlers, Bobby Casey, Jimmy Power, Julia Clifford, Brendan McGlinchey, Lucy Farr, John O’Shea, Jack Regan, and a very young Kevin Burke. Flute players Roger Sherlock and Paddy Taylor were present as was Paddy Breen from Clare, tin whistle, flute player, singer, and “a great character”.
According to his close friend Gerard Harrington who knew the music scene in London from the 1950’s and attended many a mighty session ...“ Michael played with them all “. He was a very good friend of Galway accordion players Joe Burke and Raymond Roland. He played at all the Fleadh’s; Liverpool, Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester, as Gerard should know very well considering he was a photo-journalist who regularly wrote articles on the Fleadh’s for the Irish Post newspaper. Fiddle player Con Curtin, who owned a pub called the ‘Balloon’ which had a special license to open at 6am, describes Michael as being a “quiet man” who played in his pub “every Sunday morning” and nearly always ... played the tin whistle “. Con who now lives in Brosna Co Kerry, says that Michael often played with Donegal fiddler Danny Meehan and was a very good friend of musician and music teacher, Brendan Mulkere. Michael joined the South London branch of Comhaltas while there and at that time Tuesday night was “Comhaltas night” and that was often the highlight of the week.
Michael won his first All-Britain senior tin whistle title in the Anson Hall Cricklewood and went on to win several titles after that. In 1965 he won the All-Ireland title in Thurles at the age of twenty three. Gerard Harrington now back in Castletown after spending forty four years in London, twenty two of which he spent as chairman of the South London branch of Comhaltas, tells of how he first met Michael. One afternoon in the early sixties after arriving at the Aston Hall in Cricklewood to take some photographs of a Fleadh, he met with Beara man, Donie Mullins. “You’re taking photos of all those winners but you’re not taking any of the Beara man “, says Donie. “Who is he”? asks Gerard” Michael Dwyer of Cailroe” came the reply. They were to be the closest of friends in London after that day with Gerard coming to the rescue on many occasions. Like the night somebody asked Michael “will you play the Sligo maid… if you’re able”… “Sure I had to hold Michael back”... says Gerard with a hearty laugh.
Seamus MacMathuna, Timire Cheoil of Comhaltas and a native of Co Clare remembers being at the Fleadh in Thurles in 1965 where Michael won the All Ireland senior tin whistle title. A year later at the All Ireland Fleadh in Boyle Co Roscommon, he saw Michael playing in a street session. “It was” confides Seamus... “About the best tin whistle street session I heard before or since the crowd just grew and grew it was so exciting”. He adds that Michael, a very modest man, looked very handsome and athletic at the time. He was full of life and played with ...“colour, drive and excitement about the best tin whistle player I had ever heard” Michael was highly regarded by his fellow musicians and was probably at his most brilliant in his twenties.
While in London he made his very first recording a 45 rpm (Silver Hill Records). The six tracks included four sets of reels, a jig and a hornpipe. A copy of this is still one of Gerard Harrington’s prized possessions. This early recording clearly demonstrates Michael’s inspiring and unique talents on the tin whistle. The music is spirited and vibrant and in the words of the sleeve notes “each melody has that plaintive lilt synonymous with the great music of Ireland”.
Incidentally Michael’s younger brother Finbar arrived in London in 1967 and made his first record two years later at the early age of twenty one, a record that was to bring him great fame. He was chairman of the North London Branch of Comhaltas in Camden Town and still resides in London. His main instrument is of course the accordion but according to his brother John “he is a lovely fiddle player and plays left handed with no changes to the fiddle”. Richard played for a while with a group called the Blarney Stones but then went to the States and spent some years in New York and Boston before returning home to live in Ennis Co Clare. Richard is a singer and also plays accordion and guitar.
Michael was very fast to pick up new tunes an always carried one or two tin whistles in his pocket. He thought nothing of taking one out on the side of a busy street and playing a tune for an interested party. He would become so oblivious to his surroundings, that he might just as well have been back home on a “grassy road” over looking the Atlantic. As fiddle players were very plentiful at the time, Michael ended up playing the whistle in most of the sessions while in London. According to his sister Margaret, Michael played the flute at times but not very much”. Gerard Harrington tells of a piper, originally from Mallow, called Pat Goulding who felt that Michael should have a go at the uileann pipes. He “got a practice set but never followed it through “preferring instead the convenience of the more easily maintained tin whistle. He first met Pat Goulding when Pat was adjudicating at a Fleadh in Birmingham. Unable to separate Michael from another competitor he solved it by deducting points from Michael for stamping the foot … but says Gerard “poor Pat never lived that down”. Apparently his mother Kathleen used always say “Michael you shouldn’t be stamping your foot”. She was proved right, at least for that one competition in Birmingham.
The older musicians did not always take themselves too seriously at the senior competitions. Seamus MacMathuna, Timire Cheoil of Comhaltas in Dublin remembers hearing of a London Fleadh where Bobby Casey, Michael, and that “great character” from Kilmihill Co Clare, Paddy Breen, competed against each other one Sunday morning. After a late and presumably enthusiastic “night on the town” on the Saturday Paddy arrived at the competition hail and was called to play the tin whistle almost immediately. Realising that things were not going very well he stopped up suddenly half way through. He turned to the audience ...“What ye boys want to hear now is a blast of a good old Clare song”, and he headed straight into his “favourite” The Cliffs of Dooneen. The younger of the two judges got a bit anxious “what will we do now “he says…“we’ll have to stop him”. “Yerra no “says the other ...“It’ll be all right ‘till be fine”.
During the decade or so he spent in London Michael had been employed as a carpenter. When his father died in 1972 he returned home.
BACK HOME & THE DUBLIN OF THE 1970’S.
The good work of Comhaltas was beginning to tell, Sean O’Riada had worked his magic, and Doolin was fast becoming the new “Mecca” where music could be heard “even in the middle of a fine summers day”. Traditional music had at last gained the respectability it deserved. To Michael who had spent over ten years playing with the best of the greats the music scene in West Cork was still a long way short of what he craved.
As a result he frequently visited Dublin and was often known to do soon the spur of the moment. He became well known in the ‘trad scene’ of the Capital during the 1970’s and early 1980’s. He was a very good friend of Ned O’Shea who owned the Merchant bar. He often stayed there and according to his sister Margaret now living in Bath “We had some really good sessions there.” He played in Slattery’s of Caple Street, in O’Donoghue’s of Merrion Row, and in the Four Seasons. He played with Jimmy McGreevy and was a very good friend of John Kelly snr and jnr. In the early 1980’s he appeared in the RTE programme Bring down the lamp which was presented by accordion player Tony McMahon.
As the 1980’s wore on his forays to Dublin became less frequent. To keep in touch he would often ring his old friends Joe Burke, Ann Conroy, Jimmy McGreevy to name but a few.
He would still travel out at any opportunity and his good friend Caithlin Ni Lordain tells of a night she accompanied him to Kenmare to see a Kevin Burke gig. When the gig was over Michael approached Kevin, and of course knowing each other after having met in London, “It was then that the music really began tune after tune into the early hours a night I will never forget”
Michael was a typical Munster style player, and the jigs and reels which were his favourites were played along side hornpipes, slow airs, polkas, slides and set dances. The Munster jig and The bird in the bush reel were two of his favourites, and he had a liking also for the set dances. He had a tremendous depth of feeling for the tunes as is evident from his slow air playing. Listen to, Máirín De Barra, and Cnocán na Breaca. (he composed the latter). He had a unique free flowing style, crisp and traditional relates Caithlín with “very good ornamentation sparingly used “. He liked to play in different keys and had a preference for Eflat.
According to musician Ashley Whoulihan from the Castletown area, who’s son Sean often played banjo with Michael “he was a good exponent of the fiddle... and ... his repertoire was immense”. Sometimes he used to” doctor” the tin whistles to tone down the “shrillness” according to his brother John. He would pair down one of the edges of the mouth piece, a rather dubious practice in John’s mind but it suited Michael. There is no doubt that he was a gifted performer and many were “moved” on first hearing his music.
After returning from England he was a regular session player in the Beara region and in his own words, always willing to “go for a tune”. He would sometimes play at home and take the opportunity to play in many different keys for his own enjoyment. Even though he never taught formally, and could not read music he sometimes gave lessons on a one to one basis especially in his aunt’s house in Castletown. Even though he could be regarded as a quiet man he was very fond of company and was never shy about playing relates his sister Margaret. He was “very popular and always very generous with his music he shared what he had with everybody”. He was very helpful in sessions to learners, and those that “half knew a tune”. He was very tolerant of the many French, German, and Japanese visitors that frequented the area in later years and joined in the sessions. He never used his talent to demean any other musician and was a much loved member of the local community, and a highly respected figure in music circles. Once when Miko Russell stood up to play a tune at the Willie Clancy Week he was heard to say “I’ll play it exactly like I got it, from Michael Dwyer of Ardgroom”. He enjoyed the camaraderie the musicians and session goers shared… the ceol, craic, agus caint that inspires the learners to persevere thereby keeping the tradition alive.
All the Dwyer family were musicians in their own right. Each differed in style or in the music they choose as their career progressed. Robert for instance now living in Cahir plays saxophone and Richard and Margaret play guitar and many are singers. At least four of the Dwyer family composed music but of all of them Michael was the most prolific, sometimes composing more than one tune in a day. While in London, confides Gerard Harrington, Michael would be walking along the street ... “humming away and composing to himself”. At home he often walked the roads of the locality especially those between Ardgroom and Castletown. He saw the beauty in nature and felt the rhythm of the natural world like others could not. To him it was as if the rocks and heather, the streams and ferns, nestled between mountain and sea were like a fairy land that lightened his step as he strode along.
How could a man with music in his heart not share it?
According to his brother John, Michael composed almost two hundred tunes of all kinds in various keys. Two of his better known tunes regularly played at sessions are the Crosses of Annagh and Michael Dwyer’s jig. We look forward to a compilation of his tunes being prepared by his brother John in New Ross, himself no stranger to the art of composition. With this publication the true value of Michael’s contribution to the tradition will be obvious to all.
Michael was always making tapes according to his sister Margaret “he would give them away to his friends and to people he met at sessions”. The following are some examples: -
* The green fields of Beara.
* Traditional Irish music of west Cork.
* The grassy road.
*The Exiles Return. (Accompanied by his sister Margaret on guitar).
It contains many of his own compositions as well as many West Cork tunes rarely heard. e.g. Farewell to Eyeries, and The Shores of Ballycrovane. The bird on the bush (with Wally Desmond on guitar).
In track one of this tape he has put a third part to both the Sally gardens and The bird on the bush reels.
While in London he recorded a six track 45 rpm record where he was backed by Kevin Taylor on piano. Kevin is son of the renowned Limerick flute player Paddy Taylor. The first reel chosen for this, his very first recording, was one written by his brother and popularly known as Richard O’Dwyer’s.
Michael’s “musical virtuosity” and the “joyful spirit” of his playing has been recorded recently on the remastered CD Na Daoine a ta imithe. Here he is accompanied on guitar by his sister Margaret Dwyer-White, who gives rhythm and richness to the music. There is a magic about this recording that comes from a combination of pure skill and feel for the tunes. It features many of Michael’s best compositions and is truly a collector’s item. It also includes a poem originally written by Michael’s father in remembrance of the crew of the Seaflower which sank in Ardgroom harbour in 1968. Michael composed the air and set it to music and sings it himself on the CD.
Michael Dwyer was drowned in Ardgroom harbour on the 9th of June 1997. He was only 55 years of age. His family and close friends still mourn his loss. He was buried in Eyeries cemetery on a calm June morning. By the graveside his good friend Joe Burke played the haunting slow air Sean O Duibhir an ghleanna (John O’Dwyer of the glen). You could hear the strains of the accordion dance their way across the “Green fields of Beara” and melt into the broad Atlantic. How ironic that these were the very waters that washed his great great grandfather Robert safely ashore almost 250 years previously. It was as if time stood still.
Michael’s passing was a huge loss to the music world, but his family, friends, and fellow musicians, can take courage from the tremendous service he gave to the tradition, and particularly to tin whistle playing. He will be remembered as a man who not only treasured and shared the music he inherited but enhanced it through his numerous compositions and wonderful playing.
Life today is more organised and formal than the more spontaneous and homely setting of the house dance, or ball night, and while the tradition is in a healthy state it needs constant nurturing.
Perhaps the greatest gift anyone can give today is their time. Michael’s friends have answered the call. An annual memorial festival is held in Allihies in his honour. It is appropriate, as he always had a great desire to see Beara filled with the best of traditional musicians playing the music he loved best.
The memory of Michael Dwyer’s music will live on in the hearts and minds of those who knew him. His spirit will forever be present in the laughter and sounds in his native Beara each June, as music lovers make their way "for a tune"
John Dwyer - New Ross.
Margaret Dwyer-White - Bath.
Gerard Harrington. - Castletownbere.
Caithlín Ní Lordáin – Whitegate.
Ashley Whoulihan - Castletownbere.
Riobard O’Dwyer - Eyeries.
Seamus MacMahuna. - Comhaltas.
Con Curtin - Brosna
Heartfelt thanks go to all the above for their time and assistance in preparing this article