Sunday, October 30, 2011


Updated July 4, 2012 

This post honors my Irish flute teacher and mentor, Mike Rafferty, who died on September 13, 2011.  At the time of his passing, so many people posted touching tributes on Mike's Facebook page (which was and still is maintained by his family).  The most moving of those remembrances, for me anyway, was the piece written by another one of his students, Brian Holleran. Although my association with Mike was not as long or as intimate as Brian's, the essence of my relationship with Mike --- indeed, of Mike's relationship to all his students -- has much in common with what Brian describes below.  Thanks, Brian, for giving words to what many have experienced and for allowing me to share it on my blog. 

by Brian Holleran

Photo by Tom Madden, used with permission.

I began flute lessons with Mike Rafferty when I was fourteen.  My father would take me up to Rafferty's house every Friday after school.  We’d come in the side door, down the stairs, into the basement to the music room.  It was in this room that I learned, discovered, and explored an identity that I am still forging.

In the beginning I was a “tune hound.” My goal was to learn as much as possible, and Rafferty was more than generous with his music.  Some weeks I’d come home with close to ten new tunes.  But I was young and immature.  I only thought of him as a nice man who gave me loads of tunes and told me to “slow down.”  I didn't understand who he really was and what he had to offer me.

When I got to college, I wasn’t going to Rafferty’s every Friday so I had to make good use of my time.  I would bring him cassette tapes of sessions I had attended in New York City and would ask Rafferty if he could teach me some of these tunes.  For the most part he would know immediately what tune it was and show me.  There were other times when he would hear a tune and say, “I don’t play that tune, but they’re playing it wrong.”  This blew my mind!  I thought, “Who does this guy think he is?  He doesn’t know the tune but says the people who do know it aren’t playing it the right way?”  But I never challenged him…except this one time.  I asked him, “How are they playing it wrong?”  He then went on to tell me that he remembered Paddy Cronin playing the tune at a Fleadh in 1960-something.  They were at a pub and the All-Ireland Football Finals were on and that he played it with “such and such” tune.  And then he began to figure the tune out.  He managed to remember the first time he heard the tune, what was going on, and then recall the actual tune.  That day I learned not to question the man.  But I also realized something amazing.  His ear and mind were so trained he could recount moments in his life that related to tunes.  His father and uncle were musicians, so he was born listening to music and developed that ability at a young age.

It was in my first year of college that I had my musical epiphany.  I was going to sessions every night of the week, learning tunes and meeting all different types of players.  Being exposed to all of this, I realized something different about Rafferty’s style.  His was steady, deliberate, and truthful (a perfect description of the man himself).  His had an effective delivery of emotion.  Finally, I realized what he’d been trying to tell me all these years.

After this, I paid much more attention to what he did and said.  I learned tune after tune with greater intensity because of my new-found idea of what good music was. A lot of time was spent learning good habits and unlearning bad ones.  Music lessons went from the regular one-hour session to three hours, and they became much more enjoyable for both of us.

Whenever I would go to Rafferty’s and we were out of ideas for tunes to learn, I would ask him for a waltz.  Waltzes were always fun because I remembered him playing them with Joe Madden at the monthly
céilí and everyone would be up dancing and having a good time.  My parents don’t dance sets, so this is also when I would see them “cutting a rug.”  This one particular time, Rafferty gave me a tune he learnt from his uncle.  It was called “Over the Waves.”  He told me there were two flute players, Jimmy Dillon and Gilby Jennings, who would go around to different houses and be the “band.”  He remembered them playing this waltz as well.  He also remembered not being allowed to play tunes like this because they were considered “buttons and bows” and inappropriate for GAA-sponsored dances!  [GAA = Gaelic Athletic Association]

I loved this waltz and, like any other tune I would learn, went to the sessions to see if anyone else played the tune.  Don Meade, the great organizer and encyclopedia of Irish music in New York City, said to me, “that’s not an Irish tune, that’s an American tune.  There are words to it, ‘George Wash-ing-ton Bridge…' ”  This bit of information was hard to swallow.  How could a tune I learned from my old Irish music teacher -- who got it from his old uncle before he even moved to this country -- not be Irish?  So I did a little research, and it turns out this waltz was written in Mexico by a native named Juventino Rosas and published in New Orleans in 1884.  The tune became popular in the US with circuses and vaudeville shows and made its way over to Europe.  It also made its way into a country house in rural Ireland to a man who has never read a single note of music.  I love the journey of this tune.  From Mexico to New Orleans to New York to Europe to Ireland to Rafferty’s childhood home, then back to the United States to Rafferty’s basement and now to me.  The tune has been considered Mexican, American, German, Austrian and Irish -- and every one of those characterizations is correct. 

Rafferty was a vessel for that tune, just like he was for every tune he taught me and countless other people.  These tunes and this music come from a place and time that we can only imagine.  They call to mind the images with which we think these tunes were associated, and they recall images and memories from our own lives.  Knowing where I learned a tune and who I learned a tune from is very important to me.  I like knowing the names of tunes.  It gives us context.  It shows us that these tunes did not appear out of thin air.  They connect us with our culture and the people who have gone before us.  They show us that we are part of a big picture and something great in this world.

I was twenty-three the first time I was in East Galway with Rafferty.  By this time I had had nine years of tunes and stories relating to East Galway.  We went for a walk around his family’s land, and he showed me where all the people he had talked about lived.  I saw where the Maloney family of the famed Ballinakill Ceili Band came from.  Rafferty said they were tailors and made him his first suit.  He also pointed out various other musician's houses he used to visit when he was a young man.  It was as if I was discovering the ground from which the music flowed. 

While I was taking lessons, I was not only figuring out who I was musically but also socially.  Growing up with a father from Ireland and a mother whose parents were from Ireland, I considered myself to be Irish.  I played Irish music and associated with Irish people.  But when I would go to Ireland, it was a different story.  I wasn’t Irish at all.  I was only American, a Yankee.  This troubled me for a while because I didn’t know which side of the fence I was on, but Rafferty showed me what it meant to be both Irish and American.

He would tell me stories about playing at dances before he came to America, how he got a ride to the boat that brought him over and the people he socialized with when he got here.  I also heard stories about his days as a mechanic and his yearly trips back to Ireland.  When I listened to these stories, I noticed how perfectly they fit together.  They weren't exclusively Irish or American.  They were a part of one identity that Rafferty embodied, the Irish-American.  He showed me that I’m a part of this identity and that I have my own stories to tell.

I feel the goal in life is to identify who you are in relation to the world around you.  Rafferty did just that for himself and taught me the same by his example.  Rafferty is important to us all, not just as a cultural figure but as a human being. His music [traditional Irish music] is associated with people and places.  It’s a real living, breathing thing.  It reminds us of good times and bad times.  It is a part of our everyday lives.  It transcends being Irish and gets at the core of what it means to be alive. With the music he played and the tunes he gave us, Rafferty linked the past with the future and showed us how we are all connected from generation to generation.

Brian Holleran works as a high school counselor in Cleveland, Ohio, and is an active participant in Cleveland's traditional Irish music scene.  Brian recently released a CD called Traditional Irish Music on Flute + Pipes which received a rave review in The Irish Echo.  He can also be heard on the 2004 CD entitled Live At Mona's.  Brian teaches flute in Cleveland and at various Irish music festivals, passing on the tunes and style he learned from his mentor and friend, Mike Rafferty.

To see all my blog posts that mention Mike Rafferty, click HERE.

© 2011, Linda Mason Hood
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