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, a/k/a 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 and phone calls even though the official announcement won’t come until late June. The ceremony itself will be towards the end of September in the nation’s Capitol just around the time the venerable Galwegian turns 84.
There is no point in arguing that the nomination of flute player Rafferty, one of the finest traditional musicians to ever come out of Ireland to the U.S. 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 11th winner over the 27 years that has come out of 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) are all certified Hall of Fame caliber artists.
Many of them had appeared in that seminal Smithsonian Festival of American Folk Life in July 1976 that first gave prominence to the indigenous Irish folk musician or dancer on a national festival stage, and later spawned touring shows like the Green Fields of America which featured Rafferty at one point.
Since arriving on these shores in December of 1949, 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 generally in those days.
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 of CCE, Rafferty 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. Music sessions in the Rafferty Hasbrouck Heights homeplace became legendary.
With retirement in 1989, Rafferty began an extraordinary recording career that began with three marvelous duet recordings with his daughter Mary (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, at 82, he released The New Broom 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 Rafferty was reared, and the passage of time, maturing talent and quality of recording technique may have helped improve the music over the years.
But he 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.
Fittingly, only a week or so after the news spread like wildfire around the Irish community, the New York Fleadh Cheoil took place last weekend in Pearl River. Rafferty who had been under the weather health-wise for the past five weeks, seemed to receive a huge boost from the announcement and took his usual place at the Saturday night fleadh music session at the Orangeburg Holiday Inn.
Towards the end of the session, Don Meade called for a session cessation so that all those gathered in the function room could be made aware of the latest honor to befall Rafferty. Applause instantly followed the spiel and the tunes that he and Willie Kelly played afterwards.
Through the sensitive eyes and ears of Mike Rafferty, his reward came months early as he sat around a room filled with many promising young musicians and old friends who shared his love of his native music kept alive by people like him who would never take credit for it, while still feeling a pride inside for those who followed in their footsteps.
And that is 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.
I wanted to acknowledge the passing of two gentlemen while I was in Ireland who each in their own way played significant roles in fostering traditional music in Philadelphia and New York.
Two weeks ago in Philly, Roscommon native Tommy Moffitt, a musician and radio host (WTMR 800 AM) for many years down there passed away on May 11. He was a well-known and much beloved figure in the Irish community and a booster of so many things in the Irish music and dance community, particularly with the Philadelphia Ceili Group.
In 2002 he was inducted into the CCE Mid-Atlantic Regional Hall of Fame and he was very supportive of the founding of the Delaware Valley CCE branch.
Lesser known but a fervent follower of traditional music in the New York area was Mike Garry of Ballynacally, Co. Clare and Yonkers, who lost his battle with cancer on April 25 and was laid to rest on April 29. Retired from Con Edison, his smiling face under his baseball cap at a trad concert or session usually signified that the quality would be high because he knew his music and musicians.
Our condolences to their families and they will be missed.