Seán Maguire, West Belfast’s amazing fiddler, was part of the tradition, but he was also determined to excite it in new ways.
We lost him in 2005 but his recordings are infinitely good and various old YouTube videos show the liveliness and precocity of an artist who would not let himself be defeated.
Watch online as the light reflects off the glowing rings of his left hand. His fingers are confused and the other musicians are perplexed, delighted.
It consumes jigs, bagpipes, and set tunes, then breaks a few hearts with the slow tunes. Seán also explored Hungarian tsardas and klezmer music. He was voracious.
There were many honors in his life. He was admired both in America and in the former Soviet Union. You can see his painted image on the corner of Iveagh Street and Falls Road. He is remembered at Madden’s Bar and there is apparently a tribute near the ancestral family home in Cavan.
The traditional music community is still coming to terms with its substantial life. He was born into a family of musicians at 7 Dunmore Street in the Clonard district. He was trained in classical music, but his heart said otherwise. But this duality was the making of his style as he got rid of the key shapes and fingering given from the violin tradition.
He has been compared to violin game changers, like Stéphane Grappelli. Most likely there were references to Paganini and those fiery variations. And when you hear Seán’s deconstruction of The Mason’s Apron, you can only imagine how upset he must have upset purists with their beloved Michael Coleman records, expecting to hear more, forever.
Interestingly, Belfast blues guitarist Gary Moore also tried his hand at The Mason’s Apron, increasing speed and virtuosity.
Fast-paced play on its own may not be a virtue, but when it matches the sense of fun and dizzying possibility, you can say it’s allowable.
The Seán Maguire Music Society was formed in 2021 to continue the legacy. This year they have worked alongside Belfast Tradfest programmers to organize a festive fiddle concert at the Duncairn Arts Centre.
The musical poster was exceptional, but so were the stories and the memories.
Johnny Murphy had been a teenage pupil of Maguire and he was the evening’s entertainer. He spoke kindly but there were plenty of jokes.
He remembered the generosity of his teacher but also his fearsome side. He did not tolerate repeated mistakes and the standards were strict.
The maestro had earned his living as a mechanic, loved motorcycles and had a weakness for alcohol and the force of expression. Seán would sometimes show up to concerts without his own violin, expecting a decent violin to be provided. There was talk of trips to Donegal and meetings with legendary player John Doherty. What a collision that must have been.
When he visited the Smithsonian in Washington, the curators showed him their collection of violins made by Stradivarius. They were worth millions, but Seán was not impressed at all. Also in America, he received a beautiful bow, custom made by a master craftsman. He kept looking askance at her during the concert. “I asked for black horsehair,” he said afterwards.
The concert included Sorcha Stockman, Ciaran Ó Maonaigh and another former student, Méabh O’Hare. It was an opportunity to revisit great pieces like The Golden Eagle hornpipe, performed by the exceptional Bríd Harper. We heard from a great Baltimore player, Jesse Smith, who testified about Maguire’s transatlantic import, and how Seán remembered the name of Jesse’s dog years later.
And so the players maintained their own conversations with the man. We heard a beautiful interpretation of My Lagan Love, with all the history and connotations of this tune.
Mary Dillon showed up with a vocal rendition of Bonnie Blue-Eyed Lassie and feelings soared against the beautiful backdrop of Duncairn.
In various conversations, there was a hint that Seán’s game and his manner had fallen out of favor at some point. Certainly, concert halls have lately been more conducive to the ghostly footsteps and slow tunes of Martin Hayes and The Gloaming. This event in the city was therefore an important work of reconquest.
Dónal O’Connor, the artistic director of Belfast Tradfest, was on stage with his own childhood stories of meeting Maguire on a train platform in Dundalk. It was like an epic back-and-white movie, he recalls, as the player got out of the car in a trench coat and a big hat.
Many of us are drawn to mythology in music and Seán Maguire fulfills some of those expectations. But maybe the violinist didn’t want us to be too romantic. According to Johnny Murphy, he particularly hated two things: writing music and confessing. It is therefore more appropriate that his friends, his followers and the true warmth of the bow on the strings remember him.