Frankie Gavin: The world’s fastest fiddler on playing for presidents, jamming with The Rolling Stones and celebrating every day like it’s St Patrick’s Days

Ahead of his St Patrick’s Eve gig in Belfast, legendary fiddle player Frankie Gavin talks to Sophie Clarke about getting on like a house on fire with The Rolling Stones, performing for US presidents and why music has taken on a deeper meaning after his cancer treatment

Frankie Gavin & DéDannan
Frankie Gavin and De Dannan play the UIster Hall on March 16

Trad A-lister Frankie Gavin is primarily known as a virtuoso fiddler and founding member of De Dannan, one of the most influential trad bands of all time.

Born in Corrandulla in Co Galway, Gavin grew up in a home immersed in music.

“I was the youngest of four, so my brother and sisters all played music before me, but I started playing when I was child - I got a tin whistle for my fourth birthday and that’s where is all started,” he recalls.

When he was 10 Frankie began learning to play the fiddle and when he was 17 he placed first in both the All-Ireland Fiddle Competition and All-Ireland Flute Competition on the same day.

He credits his success to his brother Sean, who encouraged him to take up the fiddle as it was a better accompaniment to his accordion than Frankie’s original tin whistle.

“He really encouraged me and found different fiddle players for me to listen to,” he says. The Broken Pledge - “a fairly tough one,” as Gavin puts it - was the first one Sean suggested he learn. There was sound logic behind the tough love, though: “Sean said, ‘It’s as easy to learn a hard tune as it is an easy one’, and, ‘Once you get the hang of this difficult one everything else will be handy enough’.

“I got into the flute because I was absolutely fascinated by flute players, I don’t really know why, but Eddie Moloney was a family friend and was a brilliant flute and fiddler player so he inspired me.”

Frankie Gavin, Galway native and founder of De Danann
Frankie Gavin brings De Dannan to the Ulster Hall on March 16

Whilst at school Gavin would occasionally take the afternoon off to play sessions at the Cellar Bar which is what ultimately led to the formation of the iconic De Dannan in 1973.

“The band idea was always a notion of mine,” he explains. “I couldn’t get out of school quick enough; I was miserable in school – there’s nothing wrong with education but it’s not great when it’s being beaten into you.

“So, I had to figure out a way of making a living and the only thing that really appealed or that I was any good at was playing music.”

Frankie Gavin. Legendary fiddle player, Frankie Gavin, the founder member of acclaimed group, De Dannan heads the list of Gradam Ceoil recipients as Musician of the Year. A native of Galway, Frankie has played and recorded around the world, collaborating with everyone from Andy Irvine, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Costello, Stéphane Grappelli, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and in 2010 became reputedly the fastest file-player in the world, with an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. Original members of De Dannan Alec Finn, Colm Murphy & Máirtín O'Connor will join Frankie on stage in Belfast for a hugely anticipated reunion. Gradam Ceoil takes place at Belfast Waterfront on Sunday 4 February. Tickets are available from www.waterfront.co.uk or by phone on 028 9033 4455, priced £25 (£22 for concessions). Visit www.gradam.ie for further information or connect with Gradam Ceoil on Facebook, facebook.com/gradamceoil, Twitter, @GradamCeoil or search the #Gradam hashtag.
Frankie Gavin was awarded the Gradam Ceoil, the premier award in traditional Irish music, in 2018. He has collaborating with everyone from Andy Irvine, The Rolling Stones and Elvis Costello to Stéphane Grappelli and Frankie Goes to Hollywood

So far, he has recorded 16 albums with the band, released six solo albums and collaborated on a number of others. Gavin has also guested with rock stars such as The Rolling Stones on their Voodoo Lounge album and with Keith Richards on Wingless Angels.

Keith Richards and I just got on like a house on fire – it was like we’d know each other forever, we had similar tastes not only in music but comedy as well

—  Frankie Gavin

“Keith (Richards) was on vacation in the west of Ireland with his family and a friend of mine was staying in the same hotel as them,” Gavin says.

“She left a message on my answering machine telling me there were some amazing people she’d like me to meet.

“As it happened - thank God - I was travelling back from west Cork at the time so I went and met them that night. Keith and I just got on like a house on fire – it was like we’d know each other forever, we had similar tastes not only in music but comedy as well.

“So we spent half the night laughing and the other half playing music. Then he said that he’d be recording a new album in Dublin in Windmill Lane, and he’d like me to come in and do a couple of bits and I thought it was joke.

“But when the time came, I got the call and was in the studio for three or four days and I just had a ball of a time.”

In addition to jamming with fellow music legends Gavin has also performed for four American presidents, starting when he was six-years old when he played for John F. Kennedy on his 1962 visit to Ireland, then later for presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

President Obama was my favourite. Having said that though, George Bush was hilarious - he is one of the funniest people, oh my God, he’s such a character. He just giggled all the time, it was great

—  Frankie Gavin

“President Obama was my favourite,” says Gavin.

“Having said that though, George Bush was hilarious - he is one of the funniest people, oh my God, he’s such a character. He just giggled all the time, it was great.

“I met President Obama in the Capitol Building in Washington on St Patrick’s Day when the band and I performed for him.”

“I also met him in Ireland when he was in Moneygall in 2017 when he was serving pints of Guinness behind the counter and I was drinking them - it was good craic,” he laughs.

Another highlight came in 2010 when he was recognised as the world’s “fastest fiddle player” by Guinness World Records for a 150 beats-per-minute performance of The Foxhunter’s Reel in Galway.

Now, Gavin is gearing up for another memorable St Patrick’s Day as he is set to perform with De Dannan as part of Belfast TradFest’s St Patrick’s Eve Gala Concert in the Ulster Hall.

“I have a wonderful new band,” Gavin enthuses.

The concert will also feature music from Karen Matheson and Donald Shaw of Capercaille and will take place on March 16
Franke Gavin & De Dannan and Karen Matheson & Donald Shaw of Capercaillie play the Ulster Hall on March 16

“Kaitlin Cullen-Verhauz is a wonderful cello player and a wonderful singer, and her husband Ian Kinsella is a wonderful guitar player; Catherine McHugh is a brilliant piano and fiddle player and Diarmuid Ó Meachair is a phenomenal melodeon player.

“It’s exciting - we’re playing some of the older De Dannan stuff and lots of new pieces as well.”

In March 2022 Gavin was diagnosed with stage 3 esophageal cancer. Thankfully now in remission, he says that the brush with mortality has given a new perspective in relation to playing and performing, making it a much more poignant experience.

“Put it this way - I went through quite a bad time there a couple of years ago with health issues and I nearly died,” he says.

“I came through that with the grace of God and modern technology and medicine. Being able to play music again and getting back out performing again just feels like a whole new experience.

“I appreciate it so much more and I think for anyone who has been through any kind of set back of that nature and has come out the other side, life takes on a new meaning and every day is to be celebrated and every day is a special occasion.”


World renowned fiddler Frankie Gavin performs a lament marking exactly 1 year to the day that Dublin's Temple Bar Area closed down. Picture date: Monday March 15, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story IRISH Coronavirus Bars. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire
On March 15 2021, Frankie Gavin performed a lament to mark the anniversary of Dublin's Temple Bar area closing down due to Covid-19 restrictions (Niall Carson/PA)

The experience has confirmed Gavin’s belief that music has rare power: “Irish music is all about lifting people’s spirits and the joy that it brings to your heart. We should never lose sight of the fact that music is there for that purpose.

The Ulster Hall concert will be a lot of fun, he promises: “And with any luck there will be some great music thrown in for good measure,” he laughs.

Frankie Gavin & De Dannan with Karen Matheson & Donald Shaw of Capercaillie play the Ulster Hall, Belfast on Saturday March 16. belfasttradfest.com

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