Interview - Gerry O'Connor

May 2006: Gerry O'Connor(Vol.2 No.5)
Interview recorded by S.Kenan on 15/04/06

On his recent tour of Australia, Gerry performed at the Brunswick Music Festival, the Port Fairy Folk Festival, and also at the National Folk festival in Canberra. Gerry comes from Dundalk Ireland and he has been playing fiddle for over forty years. As well as performing, Gerry also repairs and makes fiddles and has recorded extensively. He conducted workshops in Melbourne and Canberra for fiddle players and this Fiddle News contains an exclusive interview.

A small backroom in a hotel in Melbourne's Brunswick on a Monday night is the meeting place for one of Dan Bourke's Irish music sessions. The sound of a couple of fiddles and a flute or two tweedled away into the night air. The Melbourne hosted Commonwealth Games had just finished, the Brunswick Music Festival was underway and two overseas artists who were performing at these events decided to 'have some tunes' on their night off. They headed down to Dan's session. Michael McGoldrick was trying out his Mike Grinter flute and Gerry O'Connor brought along his fiddle. Gerry whipped it out and launched into some tunes and soon Mr McGoldrick was alongside and punching out some powerful music. During a break I asked Gerry if he would do an interview for the Fiddle News. A few days later we met up for a chat.

Q. What is your earliest memory of the violin?

The earliest memory I have is of a fiddle being put under my chin on a Sunday afternoon by my mother. My mother had been teaching my older two brothers for a little while and I remember dancing around with the fiddle and my mother said "It will be a few years before you will be able to do that", which I did go on to do ten years later. I was the age of six at the time. I had been going to Irish dancing before that. I went to dancing before I went to school. My first memory was being gripped by my dance teacher and moved across the floor like a three-legged race, the way you have to hold on to a dancer to get the body movement right. So they're the two first musical memories I have, dancing and fiddle playing and they're still with me today.

Q. I have heard you can play the fiddle and dance at the same time.

I have been known to play the fiddle and dance. It's a while since I have done it professionally. I was a dancer up to the age of fifteen. In my dance class there were six All-Ireland (the All Ireland is the Irish national annual music competition) and world champion boy dancers, male dancers. I wasn't taking it as seriously as they were, I was more into the fiddle music so I left and came back to play for Irish dancing after that. I knew the dances and I knew the set dances so I knew the structure of the day and all that. I still enjoy dancing and I play at the odd dance event. Live music is important, playing taped music can loose what dance is all about. To hear good music is important, it keeps all the references in place. The fiddle dancing is more a show thing I did but I did enjoy it. I remember seeing Dinny McLaughlin doing it on television and I heard Michael Coleman (h1891-1945) had done it.

Q. Your mother Rose O'Connor is 85 years of age and still playing and teaching fiddle.

Still teaching away there Sean. She has taught the fiddle for forty years without a break at all. I was home there last year and she said to me, 'I think I'll cut back a bit this year, I'll only teach three days a week". She still takes kids, they come into her house in the afternoon just as we did. She treated us as one of her students, "Right, your lessons on now". She would come into the front living room and you would have your lesson just the same as everybody else. There was no favourite. I know trying to teach my own kids is difficult because I wouldn't have the same routine as she had. So I sent my kids off to other teachers to learn, to get them started. My eldest boy Donal is a very good fiddle player now and an excellent piano player and guitarist.

Q. He co-produced one of your CD's?

The album 'The Journeyman' was a relatively quick project, we did it in four and a half recording days, we were in the studio seven days total. I needed the album very quickly for a tour I was doing in Germany and also I hadn't recorded for such a while that I needed to get something for myself and a new product. It was a good experience to do it and has a shortcoming I think but it captures the spirit of the time and of the live recording which is difficult to get. People go in and spend months and months going over it but I have focused this album on the tunes and material I had been playing over a number of years. Stuff that may have not been suitable for band presentations.

Also stuff that has a personal resonance for me. I have recorded quite standard tunes, the 'Boys of the Lough', the 'Star of Munster' I associate those tunes with a man I played with for years, John Joe Gardiner. John Joe would have been a contemporary of Michael Coleman. Coleman and Morrison left Sligo and went to America. They actually learnt and played in John Joe's house. John's father was a fiddle player and they went off to America and John Joe came to Dundalk in 1929 and settled there. I got to know him in the late sixties, early seventies. He was an old man then but he was actually originally a flute player. Well they all played fiddle, flute, they could interchange very easily in Sligo. He was originally flute but he lost two front teeth, a lorry went over a bump one day and he became more of a pre-dominant fiddle player after that. So I played with him, professionally, in a wee dance show including Tony Roddy and Mona Roddy, both whose kids went on to be Riverdance leaders, and John Burns, champion dancer and accordian player.

So there was a small community of very dedicated and talented people where I came from. There wouldn't be the huge community of musicians that you get maybe in Clare or other places and also we wouldn't have the tourist driven promotions that you get in other parts of Ireland. So the people who actually played music were genuinely interested in it.

We all travelled around the country learning and listening. By my late teens I was travelling around the country. There was a bar in Dundalk, Mark's bar which was a home to musicians travelling South to North and North to South, it was half way between Dublin and Belfast. Pubs weren't open on a Sunday in the North so a lot of musicians would come south to Dundalk on Saturday night and spend Sunday at home playing tunes. So that's the sort of background I have been brought up in.

Q. You are teaching this year at the Willy Clancy Summer School in Ireland. Have you taught there previously?

The Willy Clancy Summer School has been happening for the last 34 years and I was there the very first year of it. There was a good number of young musicians invited to the first one and there was six of us in the fiddle class and Sean Keane, fiddler with the Chieftains, was the teacher at the time. For me it was the first music instruction I had received outside the home really and it was great to sit in the class and learn at the age of fifteen and learn from an excellent teacher and musician.

We listened to a lot of the Patrick Kelly stuff and different tunings and all that. For us it was a great experience and we went home playing tunes that a whole lot of musicians of our own age were playing in different parts of the country. It wasn't as popular then as it is now. People asked us that first week "What are you doing in Milltown Malbay" and we were saying, "We are here for the Willy Clancy week" and they would say, "Who is Willy Clancy?" There were six in the fiddle class then. I started teaching there about five years ago. I am now a regular teacher there and now there are four hundred, nearly five hundred fiddle students alone, never mind the other instruments. And it's a great social gathering for us all.

I also have been teaching in Germany and have taught a total of twenty workshops over eight or ten years. I enjoy the teaching and I think it is important to share what we have. When I was sitting down besides John Joe Gardiner and the piano player and I was being told, "Sit down there and we'll make a make a bit of room for you" and playing music with a fiddle player whose music went back to the previous century, I think a lot of musicians don't get that sort of opportunity, the one on one thing is lost. With the big session a lot of fiddle players get lost in it, they get lost in the overall picture. Fiddle players need that little bit of one on one to help their playing. The fiddle is the instrument that suffers the most from the big session.

Q. What is your favourite instrument?

I supposed I would have to say the fiddle. I don't listen to a lot of Irish traditional fiddle playing, you become very critical of it. I would listen to swing jazz on fiddle, I enjoy that. I have a few CD's of Iranian fiddle playing and various fiddle playings around the world. Fiddle playing is a huge part of my world, playing it, teaching it, repairing it, but I don't go overboard about it.

Gerry's website: