Arts

Trad/roots: Fintan Vallely's Merrijig Creek leads listeners into the wonderland of the imagination

Teacher, musician and keeper of the Irish traditional flute flame, Armagh man Fintan Vallely has many stories to tell, possibly including why he didn't take up pole-vaulting

Armagh musician Fintan Vallely – 'There was something very exciting' about the fact that there were only three flute players in the north when he started out. Picture by Nick Lethert
Robert McMillen

SOMETIMES this column is a travesty – but I mean that in a good way. I get to speak to so many traditional musicians whose story would fill anything from a novella to War and Peace that a 1,000-word article just manages to skim the surface.

Fintan Vallely is such a musician because, not only is he a wonderful flute-player but he is also a writer on traditional music, from scholarly essays to CD reviews (not the easiest job in the world when you are honestly critiquing the work of friends and/or acquaintances) and he is also well respected for compiling the go-to reference book, The Companion to Irish Traditional Music.

Fintan is of course one of the storied Vallely clan from Armagh and I asked him where the musical dynasty began.

“I started playing when I was 14 when, one Christmas and out of the blue, I bought a tin whistle and taught myself to play it over Christmas holidays,” he recalls.

“We'd always listen to Ciarán Mac Mathúna's Mo Cheol Thú on Raidió Éireann and I couldn't believe the sounds that people were making on the whistle.

“Then my cousin, Brian, who was studying art in Edinburgh at the time, he started to play out of the blue as well. Later I found out that my mother's father had played the fiddle and had a céilí band in Draperstown, Co Derry.

“In Brian's case, he told me that he had uncles on his mother's side from Ballyhaunis who played the flute and his aunt was a choral teacher so there was a huge amount of music in his family and in mine so I suppose that's where it started.”

The music skipped a generation with the children of the people above more involved with the GAA and athletics – Fintan's father was an All Ireland pole-vault champion – while others got involved in the Irish language.

However, their children have been at the heart of the revival of traditional music in the north, mainly through the Armagh Pipers Club.

Fintan was playing music “all the hours of the day” and, living on a farm, he longed for wet weather when he could go into the house and play the flute. He learned tunes “in the flesh” in Pomeroy and Dungannon and when an uncle gave the family his old record player, the house was filled with the sounds of Ó Riada's Playboy of the Western World and Reacaireacht an Riadaigh and The Chieftains' early albums, which to Fintan (and many others) were “magical”.

He also borrowed a copy of O'Neill's tune book – driving a tractor from Armagh to Derryloughan to collect it from an uncle – from which he transcribed several tunes.

“That meant that I learned tunes without ever hearing them but I was playing them the way they were meant to be played,” he says.

It says a lot about how traditional music has progressed that Fintan remembers only three flute players in the north at that time, Malachy Comac from Tyrone, Cathal O'Connell and Eddie Duffy, so they were effectively playing in a vacuum, in the dark, so to speak.

“There was something very exciting about that,” recalls Fintan, “because we felt we had found something that no-one else knew about. It was a very private world, a very personal world and it was full of magic.”

Young people today probably have the same feeling today but Fintan believes they're learning a lot more a lot faster and their listening skills are much better than they were in his generation – and he should know. Originally known as Timber, Fintan's tutor was the first-ever guide to learning the wooden flute, first published in 1986.

“There were very few people making flutes at the time and people who wanted to learn were playing silver flutes,” he recalls. “After the tutor came out, things started to change – I'd like to think I contributed something to that – but remarkably, from 1986 to the last printing in 2007, it sold 36,000 copies. I myself sell around 250 copies a year and the publisher of the new edition, Walton's, also sell it.

“The flute seems to be an easier option for people to learn. It is easier to learn at the beginning but it's definitely not easy when you get to a certain stage with it,” he says.

Having played the flute for 47 years and taught it person to person since he was 16 years old, Fintan himself is loooong past that difficult stage and is now among the growing band of musicians who are digging deeper into the music, searching for it's essence, its purpose, its history, its metaphysics – all done with a sense of humour as well as a sense of adventure.

The first commercial gig Fintan did was in Slattery's traditional club in Dublin in 1977 where the fee was… £1. Fintan was, of course, offended by this. He was of the old school that you don't be paid for playing music but the punt was put into his pocket against his wishes.

All these traits are evident in Fintan's The Companion to Irish Traditional music, an ambitious look at the whole gamut of traditional music throughout its history, over 700 pages of insight, with contributions from the best thinkers and players in traditional music.

Fintan used the same philosophy as he used in Slattery's, calling the Companion “a labour of love”.

Another labour of love is his new album Merrijig Creek, a permanent resident of my CD-player. It's an absolute aural joy and a bit of a family affair, with various Vallely's in the mix, including Fintan's sister Sheena, also on flute, and Caoimhín Vallely on piano. Also featured on the album are fiddler Liz Doherty, percussionist Brian Morrissey, Liz Doherty and Gerry O'Connor on fiddle and Dáithí Sproule playing guitar.

The tunes might be of some vintage but it's an album made for the era we live in. Stuck at home as we are Merrijig Creek offers us a rich, uplifting hand to take us out of ourselves and leads us into the wonderland of the imagination.

Ironically, one of my favourite sets is called Homage to Brian Keenan, the Belfast man who, between 1986 and 1990, spent four and a half years in darkness as a hostage in captivity following his kidnap while a teacher in Beirut.

But each of the 10 sets has a story to tell, like Fintan himself. If I had room, I could have told you about how we talked about the future of trad sessions, the effects of technology, music reviewing, working with the group Compánach, the false Catholic/Protestant dichotomy in traditional music, his satirical songs, teaching trad in university and why he loves traditional music so much... and so much more.

It's a travesty, I tell you!

You can find out more about Fintan Valley at imusic.ie/ and I recommend you get Merrijig Creek from fintanvallely.bandcamp.com/album/merrijig-creek

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