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