Trad Music is a Family Affair
By Ian Warpole, Contributor
June / July 2008
A couple of years ago I went along to my regular Sunday session in Rhinecliff, New York to hear The McCarthy Brothers, and I have never been quite the same since. The three brothers and a few friends tore through reels, jigs and songs with a virtuosity and joy I’ve yet to hear again, except when I have the luck to catch them playing in New York City. I got to know the ringleader, Denny, and persuaded him to write a bit about the boys.
The brothers, in chronological order: Kevin, 37, NYC police officer (accordion). Denis, 35, NYC firefighter (fiddle, tin whistle). Brian, 23, NYC Board of Education (bodhrán). I’ll let Denny take it up from there:
The Brothers McCarthy
“All three of us were born and bred in the Fordham Road section of the Bronx from Irish immigrants. Our father Denis (from Castleisland, County Kerry) and mother Mary (Tuam, County Galway) started Kevin and myself into Trad-Irish music from an early age. While neither parent played an instrument they were both very influential in helping us learn the music.
We both went to The Martin Mulvihill School of Irish Music where Martin taught us the notion that music was so much more than just the notes on a piece of paper. If we weren’t going to play the tunes with feeling then we shouldn’t even bother playing at all. His style of teaching was a bit unconventional but it must have worked because he turned out many All-Ireland champion players including most notably Eileen Ivers and Joannie Madden.
During the mid-80s, Kevin and myself went back and forth to Ireland to compete in the Fleadh and were fortunate enough to win a few times in solo, duet and band competitions. Somehow I have four ‘All-Ireland’s’ on the fiddle. I’m not exactly sure what that can get me at the diner at three in the morning but I guess it’s a cool thing to say when there’s an awkward pause in a conversation. For example, “Sorry for your loss, ma’am. It’s terrible how your husband passed away while sitting on the toilet . . . um, er . . . did I ever mention that I won the All-Ireland on the fiddle four times?” See, it works like a charm every time.
Anyway, as me and Kevin started getting older we began the whole natural process of losing interest in playing Irish music. I think some of it was due to the fact that we weren’t getting the joy out of playing from the competition end. We were still too young to play out in a social setting (i.e. the bars) and girls were much more appealing. My girlfriend (now wife) never knew I played the fiddle for the first four years we went out. So as time went on Kevin became a cop, my dad passed away suddenly and a short time later I became a correction officer on Rikers Island. With that, no one was around to teach my younger brother Brian how to play the music, but anyway, at the time he was more interested in basketball and gangsta rap. However, we ALL never stopped listening to Trad music.
So about eight years ago, me and Kevin were out after marching in the parade on St. Patrick’s Day and heard a band called Shilelagh Law (www.halfthebottle.com) playing at a bar. A few months later it turned out they were in need of a fiddler so after a few beers and possibly a few shots, I showed up one night to their gig and sat in with them. A little while after that Kevin joined in as well. That was the spark that was needed to get us off our asses and start playing again. Three albums (currently working on number four) and hundreds of shows later we’re still at it – doing irreversible damage to our collective livers.
Which brings us back to Brian. After his failed rap career he came out and saw us playing one night with Shilelagh Law. It was there he fell for the bodhrán and picked it up instantly. He’s always had the music in him; he just never had the opportunity to play it. It was through this scene that he hooked up with some players of his own age and they formed a band called Sullivan’s Jack (www.sullivansjack.com).
These days, we are trying to recapture the years we lost not playing by going to as many seisiúns around the area and playing with as many different people as possible. Jameson’s Revenge is not so much a band as it is just a roving group of like-minded musicians who play for the sheer joy of it. We never rehearse, and the lineup of players is always different. It keeps it fresh. We also run a seisiún every Sunday up at the Rambling House in Woodlawn, the Bronx.
Like I said, there’s not much to tell.”
Thanks, Denny, for that great insight into the best of Irish-American family dynamics. If I win a Pulitzer Prize for this, I’ll be sure to buy you a pint.