Whistle for the Feis and Other Occasions

This album was partly conceived because I have been playing feiseanna for the better part of 20 years; during these years, as the only tin whistle and flute player, I have had many comments about how rare it is.  Because it is not very common to hear whistle or flute in step dancing competitions (or on the recordings that dancers learn from), dancers can have difficulty hearing the phrasing and / or the rhythm of the tunes played in their competitions.

Recently, a feis judge from Ireland, but living in Britain, made the comment that I reminded him of John Doonan, a piccolo player from Hebburn in NE England.  I had remembered hearing a recording on cassette of his album release in 1972 called Flute for the Feis.  The tune- playing was very clean and almost unornamented, probably because sometimes the ornaments can interfere with the dancer’s sense of the tune and also of the phrasing, especially at the end of the phrase.

I thought about doing a full album of feis tunes, but realized that I also wanted to put some emotion and some memories into my first solo tin whistle album.  So, this project is a culmination of tunes I have known since 1995 and tunes I have learned in the last year.  I have tried to be musical, yet straightforward and simple with them; there is very little arranging.  I want the tunes to speak for themselves.  I must say, as well, that I was very much inspired by Mary Bergin’s first album, which I first heard in 1993, thanks to John Ceszynski, a great mentor on tin whistle.  Happy listening!


Track listing

  1. Jigs: Old Man Dillon/Humours of Ballingarry/Larry the Beer Drinker (trad.)  I can’t say where I got the first tune; it’s one of those you just pick up along the journey. The second I learned from an Angelina Carberry recording. The lilt of the tune on the banjo really compelled me to want to learn it. The third one I got from the playing of Desi Wilkinson. The title alone makes it a natural for someone living in Milwaukee; I know many beer drinkers named Larry. Musically, the third part gives it finality with its crescendo into an almost recap of the A part. And of course, ending on the 5 is the only option! Who needs resolution?
  2. Barn dances: Taylor’s Barn Dance / Batt’s Barn Dance (trad.)  I got the first one from the playing Paul McGrattan and the second I heard on an early album Kieran Munnelly put out. I have been swept away for the last few years with playing barn dances and hornpipes over reels and jigs. Something about the feel of these tunes makes them incredibly fun; many make me think of the 1920s, which to me is a very fascinating era. Most often you hear them on anything but the whistle; but I think it’s a great vehicle for them, especially with triple tonguing and other techniques of staccato playing.
  3. Reels: Richard Dwyer’s/ Holly Bush / Drunken Cow (trad. / Finbar Dwyer / John Dwyer) These are three reels that honor the Dwyer family. I just like the way they flow into each other. I chose a slower tempo; too often tunes whiz by with no room for personalizing them with variations or ornaments, or hearing the harmonies. It’s a bit like walking vs driving. Only when you slow down do you notice the subtleties of a place.
  4. Highlands: Molly What Ails You? / Neil Gow’s / Neilidh O’Boyle’s (trad.) The first two tunes came from a Desi Wilkinson album; he put them as bookends rather than right next to each other. I liked the way the first one in D goes into the second in A mix.  The third tune I had heard before, but somehow came across on thesession.com, read the sheet music and remembered liking the tune when I heard it years before.
  5. Single jigs: Get Up Old Woman and Shake Yourself / J Mickey’s  (trad.) When I play these two single jigs, I almost hear lyrics. The melodies are catchy and simple. And the first tune’s title is one of my favorites because I always see a crazy image in my head.
  6. Traditional Hornpipe: Tin Wedding / Quarrelsome Piper (trad.) This is one of three sets on the album that feis dancers can practice to. It is a fast hornpipe played at 138, traditional speed for competitions. I have recently been told that my playing is reminiscent of John Doonan, the piccolo player in England who played feiseanna and put out two albums in the 70s. Apparently there are very few tin whistle players who do feiseanna. This can cause some worry to the dancers, judges and teachers; the dancers are not accustomed to the sound and to an instrument that has not chordal capability.
  7. Reels:The Victory / Tie the Bonnet / Jacksons #2 (trad.) A set of reels that just sound great together. Don’t know where I learned the first two, but it was years ago. The third I heard on a Harry Bradley album and I believe that’s where I got it from.
  8. Slow Treble Jigs: Tullamore Harbour / Fly in the Porter  (trad.) This is another set for dancers; treble jigs played at 73 bpm. These are two jigs that I play at feiseanna. I like the way they rise and fall and how you can make subdivisions in the notes to match the complexity of the slow treble jig steps.
  9. Polkas: Upper Church Polkas (trad.) Two polkas I got from the playing of Billy Clifford, the mighty, courageous Kerry flute player.  His legato style on the wooden Boehm flute does not take away from his rhythmic pulsing of the diaphragm. Of course his mother was none other than the great fiddler, Julia Clifford.
  10. Air: Seán O’Duibhir a’ Ghleanna (trad.) This is an air that I played in competition back in 1995 or 1996. I believe Larry Nugent took first in that round:)  I remember talking to the Chicago flute and pipes player Brendan McKinney afterwards and him telling me that it wasn’t really a slow air; it was a song. Well in any case it’s beautiful and I have always wanted to record it. I have also recently learned that Joe Burke played this tune at the graveside of Michael Dwyer’s funeral, who was a brother of the Dwyer family mentioned in track 3 above. 
  11. Set dance: Three Sea Captains (trad.) This is another feis track. Along with the tune being a very commonly danced traditional set at competitions, I also find it lends itself very well to listening. The path of the melody is more straightforward than many of the trad sets and I often find myself humming it.
  12. Reels: Mcdonagh’s / John Blessing’s / Tinker Hill (trad.) This is perhaps the set that brings back the most vivid memory: I was on my way to the gate at Shannon airport, going home after my first trip abroad ever. I went over with most of the members of 180 and the Letter G. It was 1995 and we all were competing at the Fleadh. It was an amazing trip (with some pretty crazy drama- someone slipped on rocks, someone followed a girl instead of the group, and we played a concert in Sneem, Kerry, with Killian Burns!)  I was at the Duty Free and at the last minute grabbed a burnt orange-colored compilation on cassette of a bunch of tracks from various albums. John Lee and Seamus McGuire played these three tunes with such a smoothness and yet the rhythm was so driven! I immediately learned the tunes and have been playing the ever since. It’s an honor to have been able to record them!