Traditional musician echoes south-of-Derry hometown

Traditional musician echoes south-of-Derry hometownThe interview with Martin Kelly (pictured), a guitar player with a mastery of Irish traditional music and a considerable talent for storytelling, was conducted in unlikely surrounds at the Lomond Hotel in Melbourne’s East Brunswick.

Where it might be expected that a traditional musician would explicate on his passion for tunes with his elbow on a bar, accompanied by a pint, Kelly did his talking beneath a bank of televisions, whose screens flashed greyhound races from Launceston and harness races from Geelong.

From the age five, while growing up on a sheep farm near the Sperrin Mountains in County Derry, in the North of Ireland, Kelly learned classical piano. At the age of 15, he heard an AC/DC record and dropped his interest in piano. Three weeks after his mother had placed a guitar behind the curtains and told him there was a present waiting for him, he was playing guitar in her band.

A decade later, while on tour in Germany with an Irish rock band, Kelly heard a song on the BBC World Service that changed his direction in music. The song was 'The Death of Queen Jane' by the Bothy Band, a Dublin outfit that fused traditional music with a rock sensibility. Kelly had never heard Irish music like it.

He sought out the members of the Bothy Band and became friends with them. In his home town of Ballinascreen, in the south of Derry, he started going to traditional music sessions. At the Market Inn in Ballinascreen he met a man who would be his tutor.

Maurice Bradley, a farmer, led Kelly on a never-ending tour through Irish tunes and, by extension, Irish history. Every tune had been handed down from nebulous sources, in such a fashion that every musician in the country believed he had a hand in its ownership, and yet every musician knew there was no such thing as owning tunes. For weeks, Bradley brought out the tale of a different tale and a different instrument. Kelly believed that Bradley was a genius. In years to come, he would be regarded as something of a genius himself.


As a bus driver for Paddywagon Tours, Kelly took wide-eyed tour groups into bars throughout the country and the publican welcomed him by name. Kelly would jump in on the traditional-music session and the backpackers would grasp an insight into another Celtic mystery.

Traditional musician echoes south-of-Derry hometownKelly would round out the learning process with comments and asides on all things Irish. Never one to draw from a bank of rehearsed tales, he would pull into a town and ask his acquaintances if they had any stories. By spreading the stories to backpackers on the bus tours Kelly came to serve as a roving ambassador.

In Kilkenny, on one of his trips around Ireland, Kelly fell in love with a Melbourne girl called Fiona. He says it was love at first sight. The couple married. The difficulty was working out where to live as Martin’s family’s roots in the district run deep.

The problem was solved when Fiona persuaded Martin to try out Melbourne for a one-month holiday and he took his guitar to the session at Dan O’Connell’s in Carlton on a Saturday afternoon. To his astonishment, there were 14 fiddle players. One of them, Dan Bourke, was, in his words, "as good as you get".

Martin and Fiona live in Preston, in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, and have a five-month-old girl, Gemma. Martin, one of life’s enthusiasts, loves everything about his adopted city except the mosquitoes. Now 38, he drives a school bus, just like his father, and plays paid gigs in Irish pubs on weekends. On Monday nights, he heads to the Lomond Hotel for the pleasure of playing for himself.

The cream of Melbourne’s traditional musicians converges on the Lomond to unwind after a weekend of playing in packed pubs. In a back room, they come to share stories and tunes, to tease out the music that’s in their bones. According to Kelly, who’s played in sessions from Donegal to Germany to New Orleans, the quality of musicianship around the table at the Lomond suffers nothing in comparison with anywhere he’s been in the world.

On this night, after the dogs and the trots on the televisions have been silenced, the musicians arrange themselves around the table so that they’re facing each other. The cast includes fiddle player Paul Wookey and pianist Tony Hargreaves. Two young women, who are both learning to play the fiddle, sit on a couch in the corner.

Kelly crouches over his guitar and nods while he picks up the timing during the first tune. At such a time as he’s ready, he sends his right hand across the strings and the fingers of his left hand begin to dance. Musicians join in and drop out at their leisure.

After every tune, the sublime Dan Bourke wonders aloud where that tune came from. Opinions wander around the table, with suggestions varying from this or that musician to this or that county. At one stage, the word 'Malta' is mentioned.

After several lively tunes, an unusual event occurs when Marty Kelly is encouraged to change the tempo. He closes his eyes, plucks his guitar and sings 'Hard Times Come Again No More' which was written in the 1850s by American troubador Steve Foster. The ballad was written at the time when the potato famine was laying waste to Ireland. It’s a tune that has survived the years because it serves as a universal lament.

When Kelly is finished, the room contemplates for an extended moment. Kelly then takes time out to speak to other onlookers. The talk turns to All-Ireland football finals and Walter Raleigh, the former mayor of the County Cork town of Youghal. A discussion begins on the origin of terms. There’s a feeling that the night is young.

 

 

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