|An Beal Bocht fireside trio of Neill Byrne, Edel Fox and Dylan Foley.
(Photo by Mickey Coleman)
Within the realm of Irish traditional music followers there is a special place for music that is played in the fireside manor so authentic you can imagine a whiff of peat in the air as you listen.
Images conjured up are those of the ould fellas sitting close to the fire sharing chunes after a hard day’s labor in the fields around the farm with one another and neighbors who rambled along for the occasion.
The music could be slow and lonesome, lamenting those who are gone below ground or emigrated, or spirited and joyous, as much of the dance music would be inspiring set dancers to go round the house and mind the dresser.
It was the music of the Irish rural community for the most part enjoyed by a humble hearth that also been carried in the hearts as the Irish men and women left the homeplace for Dublin, England or overseas to America, Canada or Australia. Listening to the tunes would always transport them back to Erin’s Isle no matter where they landed.
They were always meant to enjoyed in more intimate company, more of a niche folk art for those who truly appreciated it, and wasn’t intended for mass exploitation and marketing.
I’m waxing philosophic because the greatest thing to happen to Irish traditional music over here is a return to the house concert format where the connections between performing artists and the audience is much more socially oriented and akin to the fireside settings of old.
Back in the “roaring nineties” of the last century the ascendancy of Riverdance and the Celtic Tiger floated the boat of all things Irish and even allowed more and more Irish trad musicians to think of a making career out of playing, buoyed by more robust CD sales, concert tours and rising festivals.
Worldwide attention and fascination saw commercial Irish Trad groups join the pioneering Chieftains on some of the finest and most respected performance stages to be found anywhere.
While Riverdance is still alive and kicking and discovering new markets like China where a billion people still haven’t seen it, the commercial sales and outlets have diminished for Irish trad artists who must be more resourceful these days to promote their music.
But undeniably the standard of trad music and the numbers of people playing has multiplied significantly in that progression from the fireplace to the marketplace, and there are still many people around the U.S. who share the enthusiasm for it, even if they seek different venues to hear it.
Thankfully there is a coterie of sleeper cells around the country that are willing to invite performers on tour to come play in their houses or simpatico performance places that place the artists comfortably alongside their admirers.
These thoughts were running through my mind as I watched a trio of elegant performers on Sunday at An Beal Bocht café in the Riverdale section of the Bronx.
The featured artists were concertina player Edel Fox from Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare and fiddler Neill Byrne from Ferrybank in Waterford City, who were accompanied on guitar by our own shining New York star Dylan Foley, who also took up the fiddle on occasion which has won him All-Ireland acclaim in the past.
Playing a mixture of old and new tunes in a manner that could hardly be described as your grandfather’s style of Irish music, they played with dynamic energy and finesse that gave a vivid display of how the music has evolved.
Both Fox and Byrne would be steeped in the music from their early years influenced by some of the finest musicians in the tradition like Noel Hill, Jackie Daly or John Dwyer. They not only learned their music very diligently but are teaching it in a manner that will give it life for a good few generations to come.
They come from that generation that knows a good thing when they hear it, and have the technique and the tools modern music affords to pass it on and make it look cool. As successful teachers they continue to learn as much about the music themselves as they impart to others.