A young Mike Rafferty with his parents Kathleen and Tom "Barrel" Rafferty before he left for America outside his Larraga home in East Galway and later teaching at the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham in 2008 at the Shamrock House (photo by Timothy Raab) with his Speed 78 cap on the dresser in the background.
The bride of 57 years took the phone call from Washington D.C. that many had hoped would come sooner but thankfully came later at long last. She gleefully sprang down the stairs to hand the phone over to her husband with a look of excitement that led him to exclaim “Did we win the lottery”? No luck was involved in the happy phone conversation that ensued when Michael Rafferty from Larraga outside of Ballinakill, East Galway was notified that he was selected as one of the National Heritage Fellows for 2010 honored by the National Endowment for the Arts. The Missus, Aka Terry Rafferty was bursting with the great news and made a few phone calls to close friends and then word spread like wildfire over the internet even though the official announcement won’t come until next month.
There is no point in arguing that the nomination of fluteplayer Mike Rafferty, one of the finest traditional musicians to ever come out of Ireland to the United States was long overdue in a country as large as this and with so many folk artists and traditions to be recognized. Since 1982 the NEA has annually selected Master folk or traditional artists for their excellence or long history of significant contributions to our diverse traditional arts heritage and regarded as national treasures. Along with the deserved recognition they receive a cash award which is currently $25,000, somewhat short of a lottery dream ticket but the cachet and validation that it affords folk artists is priceless. Rafferty would be the eleventh winner over the 27 years that has come out the Irish traditional music and dance sphere in America. The list speaks for itself: Joe Heaney (1982), Joe Shannon (1983), Martin Mulvihill (1984), Michael Flatley (1988), Jack Coen (1991), Liz Carroll (1994), Donny Golden (1995), Mick Moloney (1999), Kevin Burke (2002) and Joe Derrane (2004).
Since arriving on these shores in December of 1949, Mike Rafferty brought a fierce love of his native music as played around the fireside of the Irish country home and was steeped in the wellspring of the East Galway/ Slieve Aughty traditional music environ. Like many an emigrant work and family took precedence as the settling in process in the New World played out. Gradually there was a seismic shift in the leadership of the traditional music scene around New York where the Galway boys took over the predominant reins from the Sligo influenced musicians going back to Michael Coleman, James Morrison, Paddy Killoran, Larry Redican and Andy McGann lineage. It was a bloodless coup as many of the newly arriving Galwegians like Sean McGlynn, Joe Madden, Martin Mulhaire, the Coens (Jack and Charlie), Pete Kelly and Rafferty happily played alongside the others as the venues where traditional music were played and respected were few and far between. They weren’t in it for the money and little was offered to traditional musicians who were paid scant attention in those days generally.
In the 1970s and 1980s Rafferty was starting to emerge as the cornerstone in that tight community both in and outside of the Comhaltas branch evolution. Through the Garden State Ceili club later to be known as the Martin Mulvihill Branch CCE, Mike was an early teacher and inspiration and eventually a branch was formed in his honor and under his own name. Rafferty was a growing influence on many young developing musicians like Joanie Madden, Jerry O’Sullivan, Willie and Joe Kelly and Billy McComiskey as well as fount of tunes, stories and not to be overlooked instilling a healthy respect for traditional music and how it is played and for whom so that it would never be dismissed as mere bog music or diddily-eye.
With retirement in 1989, Mike began an extraordinary recording career that began with three marvelous duet recordings with his daughter Mary (http://www.raffertymusic.com/), his own solo recording “Speed 78” to mark his 78th year and a bit of pun on the speed that the chunes are played at which was a pet peeve he shared with the late Joe Madden, a long-time friend. And last year the recording of “The New Broom” he released at 82 with Willie Kelly who though almost half the age of Rafferty set a new standard for playing tunes in an old fashioned manner that would please a discerning listener of any age. I had the good fortune of seeing the CD launched in both the Catskills and in Tulla, East Clare-- not far from where Mike was reared-- and the passage of time, maturing talent and quality of recording technique may have helped improve the music over the years. But Mike would be the first to say that Irish traditional music doesn’t need to be improved only tenderly cared for.
And because of people like Mike Rafferty that is a valuable lesson he has taught us down through the years. And why the powers that be in Washington D.C. saw fit to recognize a humble and gentle musician whose heart and soul is in his native music and the two countries who treasure it.