Taking its cue from the verses written by William Butler Yeats, there is a very prestigious prize awarded to an Irish traditional fiddler who rises above stiff competition every year to garner the honor.
In all the years that it was awarded I can think of only one recipient who excelled at fiddling and dancing as extolled in the popular poem, and that would be Kathleen Collins who won it in 1967 in Sligo just a year after becoming the first American-born fiddler to win the Senior All-Ireland Fiddle Championship in Boyle, Co. Roscommon.
Those achievements plus an iconic recording released by Shanachie Records in 1976 called simply
“Traditional Music of Ireland” established the native New Yorker as a formidable fiddler in the Irish tradition with the potential for even greater acclaim as a musician.
With the release of only her second recording this month entitled “Kathleen Collins: My Book of Songs” after 33 years some people may wonder what sidetracked her all those years on the music front.
Fans of her music need not fret about time lost because the new recording will once again have people clamoring to hear more of her music in a classic style that still places her in the vanguard of fiddlers produced in New York.
While Collins was honing her fiddle skills along with brother Dan (founder of Shanachie Records where Kathleen’s albums appear) under the tutelage of Mayoman John McGrath, the Collins family of four (including brothers Dave and Billy) studied Irish dancing with Professor James McKenna, a Kerry dancing master who was legendary in New York lore.
Early on the music and dancing had a huge impact on her, winning competitions and championships and securing a TCRG certificate to teach in 1961.
She left to live in Galway in 1965, where she kept up her music under the influence of then-husband Joe Burke and taught dance in the National schools around Galway.
Upon returning to New York in 1973 just as Shanachie Records, the seminal record company for Irish music in the 1970s and 1980s was being born, she recorded that first solo recording with James Mahon as her piano accompanist.
Her other love, Irish dancing, was now drawing her in tighter as well as she achieved an adjudicator’s degree (ADCRG) in 1976 and started teaching and judging more dancing.
Like many others she fell under the spell of set dancing guru and dancing master, the late Connie Ryan, on one of his first visits to New York in 1987 and threw herself feet first into learning the sets in Ireland and the U.S.
In a short period of time she had her own classes in the Irish enclaves around New York City appealing to many adult learners looking for new pastimes to get them out of the house and getting exercise.
Her vigorous and disciplined approach was also timely as the set dancing revival was taking off in America, particularly in New York, and she whipped several teams into fleadh championship shape at the local New York fleadhs in the late 1990s before competition gave way to a more social and frequent ceili scene.
Dancing classes kept her busy most of the week while she still took on the occasional fiddle student and occasional fiddle performances to keep her music sharp.
The new CD has been in the works for four years, delayed in large part because Collins had health issues that took precedence, including a broken hand which kept her from playing for a year.
Working with producer Gabriel Donahue was her choice as well given the proximity of his New Jersey studio (and ironically he was one of Collins’ young pupils in East Galway near his Athenry homeplace) and finding mutual time to record and engineer the project became a factor as well.
With steadfast encouragement from brother Dan, now retired, who also plays on the CD, and Clare fiddler Seamus Connolly, who befriended Kathleen when she lived in Ireland and after he came over to Boston around the same time as Collins came back to New York, it would stay on track to be finished and released.
With Dan’s participation along with some compositions from brother Dave, whose son Will also plays tin whistle on the CD, and the liner notes throughout that document the determination of their father Bill Collins to foster Irish music and dance, makes this a real family effort and treasure.
Don Meade helped write the liner notes along with Dan Collins, and producer Donahue contributed an appealing arrangement following her reading of the Yeats poem “Fiddler of Dooney” and varied accompaniment that make an attractive package around the 14 tracks laid down by the fiddle master Collins.
The final track, “The Four Mile Stone,” even has Kathleen displaying her own footwork which must yield to fine fiddle work through out the CD this time.
The CD receives its New York City launch this coming Friday, November 20 at Glucksman Ireland House as part of the Blarney Star Concert Series at 9 p.m. (www.blarneystar.com).