by Fiona Heywood
We met up with fiddler Bríd Harper at the Cup Of Tae traditional music festival in Ardara in Co. Donegal this May bank holiday weekend. Bríd was busy that weekend, but between the concerts, the teaching and the sessions, we managed to catch a quiet moment to talk about all things fiddle, including the release of her recent CD, Inis – something that anyone who has heard her first solo CD, released back in 2015, will be understandably excited about.
But first a bit of history… Bríd is from Castlefinn in East Donegal, and was born into a musical family. Though neither of her parents played music, her grandfather, Stephen Harper, was a renowned fiddle player from the area, and her mother’s brother, Frank Kelly, is also a respected Donegal fiddler, still playing today. It was through her Uncle Frank that Bríd began learning music. He had set up Comhaltas classes where he lived in Crossroads, Killygordon, just down the road from Castlefinn, and Bríd along with two of her sisters were sent along. “We were marched off to learn the tin whistle - I was eight,” said Bríd. “Then I got a fiddle for Christmas and, as it turned out, I happened to like it.”
Her teacher at that time was piano accordion player, Pat McCabe, from Clones, Co Monaghan, who taught multiple instruments and set her on the right path, but incredibly, she had no formal fiddle tuition as such (apart from one week every year before the All Ireland Fleadh at the Scoil Éigse) and is largely self-taught. For someone who has become one of the foremost traditional fiddlers in Ireland, with very intricate ornamentation and a great bow hand, I found this quite amazing, and I asked how she taught herself. “By listening and watching,” she said. “My parents were really good at bringing us around to all the sessions, and they bought a lot of records and cassette tapes. It wasn’t just fiddle music, though – they bought Joe Burke, and the recordings of the old ceili bands – the Tulla and the Kilfenora. So we had a broad range of stuff going on there. As well as listening to recordings of John Doherty, Tommy Peoples, Sean Maguire, Kathleen Collins, Frankie Gavin, Josephine Keegan and many others, I was picking up ornaments from listening to pipers, flautists and experimenting myself. That said, I was part of a big group at those Scoil Éigse classes and I learned whatever was covered in those lessons. The tutors included Tom Glackin, Paddy Glackin, Charlie Lennon, Paddy Ryan and Kathleen Nesbit.”
The Comhaltas organisation and its various structures has been very influential in the development of many young players. When I talk to people outside of Ireland, it is almost universally held in high regard, envied even, and yet in Ireland, it is seen by some in a less favourable light, with questions over the rigours of its competitive framework and its positive and negative effects on young people. I asked Bríd what she thought about it. “We did come up through the Comhaltas competitions and the fleadhanna,” she said, “but I have to say, I never took the competitions seriously. Competing gave me an extra incentive to practice more, for sure, but I was never disappointed if I didn’t win, and getting placed was always a bonus. The fleadhanna were definitely beneficial to me as a youngster growing up because they gave me an opportunity to hear other youngsters my age play music. I loved hearing all the different styles and I used to go to listen to other competitions, especially the 15-18 age group and the senior category. The majority of musicians playing at sessions back home in Co Donegal were old, or at least a lot older! Along with the fiddle classes at Scoil Éigse, and the lectures and recitals, the Club Éigse took place in the evening time and providing us with an opportunity to play with musicians who were our own age or a little older. As the month of May approached each year, I looked forward to the fleadhanna starting and was always very excited, and then I was depressed from end of August until the following May again! In the 70s it wasn’t like now where they have festivals and summer/winter schools happening all over Ireland all the year round. Music lessons are much more accessible now, with more and more people passing on the tradition, not to mention all the opportunities for learning online. These days, I help children I teach if THEY decide to compete in the fleadh. I guide them along and the aim is to play to the best of their ability on the day and to enjoy it. Competition is beneficial in that it gives them a target to work towards. However, it is only a very small part in the process of learning music.”
Bríd now spends a fair bit of time teaching others, mainly concentrating on one-to-one lessons, in person or, throughout the recent lockdowns, though Zoom and Skype. She can also be found teaching classes at various festivals and summer schools each year. “I try as much as I can to teach by ear,” she told me. “I give students the notes at the end of the session if they need them, but it is mostly by ear. But most importantly, they must use a recording device so they can take the tune away with them. Even if they don’t get the chance to play along with it in the week between lessons, as long as they are listening to the recording, they are still learning. That’s how I would learn a lot of my music now – by playing CDs in the car when I’m driving. I’m not saying that I am able to play the tune well when I pick up the fiddle to play it, but at least I have a good grasp of it.”
When I asked what the most important things for learners to do were, in common with other artists and teachers I have talked to, she emphasised the crucial role of listening. “Well, that is number one – that they listen,” she said. “Also, that they take their time, practise, and have patience. I would prefer if a student came back the following week playing the first part of a tune properly and with good flow to a student struggling through the entire tune. So a lot of patience is required, practicing and listening intently. For the more advanced students I advise they listen to other musicians play the tune I’m teaching, that’s always going to be very helpful. Students learning today have the advantage of so many resources available online.”
The young Bríd soon won several competitions at the annual All Ireland Fleadhs. In 1988, as an adult, she won three major titles – the Senior All Ireland, the Fiddler of Dooney, and the Oireachtas na Gaeilge – quite a feat! She got married in 1990 and had five children between then and 1998, and so stopped playing in sessions and performing as much for a while. “But I was still teaching and, of course, I was always listening to music,” she said. “Then, around 2009, I did my first big gig in Carlow along with Dermot Byrne and Steve Cooney, and that got the ball rolling again about going out and playing in public. There were only, say, three or four gigs a year for the first couple of years, but then it took off. I do like to have the variety of teaching and gigging as well – I wouldn’t like to be on the road full-time, and I wouldn’t like to be teaching full-time. It’s nice to be able to pick and choose.”
She also did a Masters in Irish Traditional Music Performance at the University of Limerick in 2014/2015. “This was a year I chose to take time out for myself and also to concentrate on music,” she explained. “Among others, Charlie Lennon, Martin Hayes and Frankie Gavin gave master classes. During semester one I had Siobhan Peoples as my regular weekly tutor and Eileen O’Brien for the final semester. I enjoyed the experience of sitting in close proximity to the tutors, observing and listening to them play. It was interesting to hear their views on different aspects of the music and the music business. The Irish World Academy is a relaxed environment with comfortable surroundings. In my year group there was great diversity and that, along with a congenial environment, helped my confidence immensely.”
Bríd can now be found playing up and down the country frequently. She performs solo, but can also be found playing in a duo (often with accordion player Dermot Byrne) or in a trio with Dermot and Steve Cooney. She was part of the group, Uaine, whose recording, The Dimming Of The Day, came out at the end of 2019, just before lockdown hit. Another part of her performing life is with the Sí Fiddlers – 13 female fiddle players from Donegal who combine in a celebration of the fiddle and of the Donegal women who play it. They were featured in Issue 135 of The Living Tradition, back in 2020, and have been wowing audiences whenever they take to the stage since then. “We did a gig last week at the Scoil Gheimhridh in Gweedore, and the energy on stage was immense,” Bríd said. “There is great talent in the group. And it is interesting because we are all from different corners of Donegal, with all the different unique styles, and yet it works. It’s lovely, and I love the idea of fiddles only and no other accompanying instruments.”
Talk of the different styles of the players in the Sí Fiddlers makes me ask about the repertoire and style from Bríd’s native East Donegal, and how it might differ from the rest of the county. “I suppose there’s a bit of a difference in repertoire,” she said. “Growing up, we attended many local sessions listening to and playing with Charlie Patton, Jimmy Houston, Frank Kelly and Kathleen McGinley to name but a few. At home I was listening to recordings of John Doherty and Tommy Peoples. Then on occasion we had Danny O’Donnell from the Rosses visit our home. My father brought me to Hugh Gillespie who lived close to Ballybofey when I was in my early teens. Gillespie had emigrated to America in his early twenties and played a lot of music with Michael Coleman, therefore he had the Sligo style of playing, as does my uncle Frank and some other local fiddlers. In fact, I learned that big tune Jenny’s Welcome To Charlie on the new recording from Gillespie.”
“Danny O’Donnell lived in Scotland and America before coming back to his native Donegal and he had a great repertoire of Scottish tunes and tunes from fiddlers in America, i.e. Lad O’Beirne and Louis Quinn who both played with Coleman. So I was exposed to a wide variety of fiddle players and styles. I’ve read articles in the past saying the two greatest exponents of the Donegal style are John Doherty and Tommy Peoples, but in my ears they are poles apart as fiddle players. Therefore the very notion of a ‘Donegal Style’ seems ludicrous to me. I think it has more to do with the fact there is a strong Scottish influence in Donegal music. The other thing that sets Donegal music apart is the tune types. Mazurkas, highlands/strathspeys and barndances were not as common in other parts of Ireland. It is not surprising now that I have elements and traits of most of the above-mentioned fiddlers in my personal style.”
We move on to talk about Bríd’s new CD, Inis, which was recorded in Brittany with three Breton musicians towards the end of 2019. It wasn’t something that was necessarily planned, but the right circumstances came together and Bríd took the chance to create yet more beautiful music, this time with Sylvain Barou on flute, Uilleann pipes and duduk, Nicolas Quemener on guitar, and Ronan Pellen on cittern and viola da gamba. Bríd told the story. “During the 2018 Ennis Trad Fest, I called into Custy’s Music Shop to pick up a few things. John was inside filming Sylvain Barou and Ronan Pellen to promote their newly released album, The Last Days Of Fall. I was in the shop for ages listening to this fabulous live music while I browsed. We spoke briefly after they finished up and I had tunes later at the festival with Sylvain. We agreed to keep in touch as I knew that I was due to give fiddle workshops in Brittany in March 2019. When I arrived in March, Sylvain introduced me to guitarist Nicolas Quemener, who lives close by. The three of us did a gig together at the Toucouleur venue in Tregastel.”
“Sylvain has a studio in his house. I didn’t plan to make a recording, but I thought it was a nice set-up; it’s not like a normal studio where you go in and it’s very ‘studio like’ - I don’t work well in that environment. I like something that is more natural and more conducive to just sitting down and playing a few tunes. Sylvain’s studio was very comfortable, and he had a good set-up mic-wise. So the recording was done over two afternoons, all solo fiddle, and afterwards he sent on a few of the tracks for me to listen to. Sylvain added pipes to a few tracks and Nicolas put guitar accompaniment to a set of tunes. When I heard the results, I liked them so much l immediately thought I should grab this unique opportunity to include these three fantastic musicians who were going to bring the CD up another level! The flute and cittern were added, giving further variety. There’s a nice combination of tune sets on the album with a mixture of old tunes, new tunes and four compositions of my own.”
Inis begins with solo fiddle with two Tommy Peoples tunes - Waiting For A Call and La Cosa Mulligan, and immediately you get a sense of just what a tasty player Bríd is. At one point in our interview she said, “Who wants to listen to a fiddle-only CD?”, but on the evidence of this opening track, I suspect that many people would. She moves on to play two Charlie Lennon tunes, the first being The Abbey Tavern, where her crisp, clean playing is perfectly paced, and Nicolas’ guitar backing fits perfectly. The third track introduces three of her own tunes, a beautiful air, full of emotion, and two jigs that could easily have come from the pen of the other revered tunesmiths whose compositions she features here.
I asked Bríd if composing was a new thing for her. “It is relatively new; I’d say I started writing in 2012 or 2013, so I am still experimenting. You write stuff and then you have to go away from it, and when you come back after a month or so and listen to it, or play it, you just know whether it is going to work or not. A lot of it ends up in the skip, but some of it works. Having the confidence to air and share the tunes I write is still an ongoing struggle for me, but I’m getting there. If other musicians end up playing a tune I’ve written, then I know I have succeeded. I was delighted to be invited along with 10 other musicians/composers last year by The Rolling Wave (the Irish traditional music programme on RTE Radio 1) to write two tunes for their project, Faoiseamh. That has given me a big confidence boost.”
The highland and reel set beginning with Duke Of Gordon’s Birthday, and the set of barndances take us straight back to the heart of Donegal fiddling, the latter featuring tunes from the playing of Mick Carr and Con Cassidy. In Bríd’s hands, they couldn’t sound better. And she gives us another couple of lesser-known Tommy Peoples tunes of which she says: “I wanted to put on some of Tommy Peoples’ compositions, because he has some beautiful tunes – some are common, and some are less common - because I think they deserve to be heard and shared. He has left a wealth of material behind him and recording them is one way of keeping his legacy alive. Tommy has always been one of my favourite fiddle players. We in Donegal are fortunate to have a wealth of great fiddle players from all over the county, from centuries back to the present day. However I feel that Tommy has to be the greatest of all with his unmistakable unique style of playing and his vast array of compositions. It is also important for me, personally, to uphold the music of East Donegal.”
On some of the sets, Bríd uses a second fiddle that has been tuned down to Bb, which gives a lovely mellow sound. This is particularly pleasing on the Maud Millar set, where she is joined by Sylvain’s flute. These reels are handled so gently, with the fiddle and flute winding around each other in a flowing melodic way. They stand alone until the cittern joins them for the final tune of the set, Last Night’s Fun – totally exquisite.
There is other duet work on the CD – Bríd is joined by the pipes for The Gold Ring, and other places where she is backed by cittern or guitar, but there’s quite a bit of solo fiddle as well. It’s very well balanced. And though she is joined by this fine group of accompanists, they never overshadow Bríd or outstay their welcome. “This CD is different to my first recording in many ways. The main one being I’m in the company of three Breton musicians playing Irish traditional music. Sylvain Barou, Nicolas Quemener and Ronan Pellen are three excellent musicians who are highly regarded and respected at home in Brittany and further afield. I will say it, it is rare, but these three musicians get it! They have an innate understanding and deep knowledge of Irish traditional music and it’s very evident from their playing on the recording. Nicolas spent some time living in Ireland and played with Arcady and many other great Irish musicians and singers. Sylvain also lived in Ireland for a period and played with the band Guidewires. All three musicians provide their great expertise on this recording, adding variety and colour to the melody and the perfect rhythmic and harmonic support. When I first heard the track, Caoineadh Uí Dhomhnaill / Jenny’s Welcome To Charlie, I wasn’t that pleased with my solo playing, but then when Ronan added cittern to it, the whole track came alive and it’s now one of my favourites on the CD.”
We talk a little bit about accompanists, and what Bríd looks for when it comes to people she plays with. “For me, personally, and for any music that I like to listen to, the accompanist has a certain role. It doesn’t matter how good a musician they are themselves, they have a role as an accompanist, and that is to enhance whoever is playing, and not to be busy and doing their own thing. And I think you’ll find that whoever is good in the business is doing exactly that.” That is certainly true of the musicians with whom Bríd has worked as accompanists – Steve Cooney, John Doyle, Arty McGlynn, and these Breton fellas.
But back to the CD… The majority of it is dance music, with designated space for three slow airs which are an important element of the tradition, but there’s one track that is a bit different – the penultimate track, which is part of an O’Carolan piece called Mrs Judge. Here, Sylvain plays an instrument called a duduk – an ancient double-reeded woodwind instrument indigenous to Armenia, though with variations appearing throughout the Caucasus and the Middle East, which has a low sound a bit like an English horn. Alongside, Ronan plays the viola da gamba, a cello-like instrument, originating in Spain in the 15th century. Together with the fiddle they create a baroque-like, chamber music sound, both rich and haunting, demonstrating that there is definitely more than one string to Ms Harper’s bow. Then, to end the CD, she gives rousing versions of two classics - The Salamanca (again solo and delightful) and The Shaskeen (with the boys).
I asked what Inis meant and why she chose it as the title for this album, and Bríd gave an interesting answer. “It is one of those short words with numerous meanings,” she said. “It means to narrate or tell your story, and that is what I am doing through my music. It is also the Irish for Ennis, the place I first met Sylvain and Ronan. It also means island, and I have to say that’s how I feel sometimes as a musician and as a person. It’s hard to explain. Sometimes when I am playing my fiddle, especially in a performance scenario, it’s as if myself and the fiddle are one and we are cut off from everywhere and everyone – detached in a good way, but totally surrounded at the same time!”
“I would love to tour the new CD. At the launches to date I’ve just played solo, but hopefully before the year is out the lads will get over and we can do a few dates here in Ireland. It would be cool to do a few in France and especially Brittany next year. The CD was released at the end of March and things are slow to get going here. In fact, a lot of the gigs I’m doing now are events that were postponed from two years ago, so we are up against that too. But it will happen!”
“Finally I’d like to acknowledge the support of the Northern Ireland Arts Council for their help in bringing this project to fruition.”
Anyone with an interest in traditional Irish music really should make a point of getting their hands on Brid Harper’s music. On her website, fellow musician Neil Martin says: “Bríd Harper for me is the complete package - outstanding musicality, style, rhythm, inventiveness, commitment and technique. I very happily listen to her music from morning to night.” Couldn’t sum it up better myself!
Photo: Ryan Dineen LRD Digital
Published in Issue 144 of The Living Tradition – June 2022.