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Traditional musician echoes south-of-Derry hometown

  • 02 April 2007

The 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. Kelly would round