Eithne Vallely (1945-)
Making a lifetime of difference
Two of the key figures in the development of uilleann piping and traditional music in Ireland in the past fifty years are from east Donegal – and both are fiddlers.
They are Eithne Vallely (née Ní Chiarda) from Lifford, and Seán Reid (1907 – 1978), who was born in Castlefin and grew up in nearby Castlederg.
Eithne helped to found the Armagh Pipers Club with her husband Brian.
Seán is a key figure in the history of Na Piobairi Uilleann, as well as being prominently involved in the early years of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Eireann. Seán played uilleann pipes and piano as well as the fiddle.
Both Armagh Pipers Club and Na Piobairi Uilleann have made significant contributions to the flourishing of Irish traditional music and musicianship generally in recent decades. Both have helped to produce hundreds of gifted musicians through their teaching programmes.
EITHNE VALLELY (b. 1945)
There was music on both sides of Eithne’s family.
Her father Harry Carey was born in Edinburgh and brought up in Glasgow. When he was still a boy he moved to live with an unmarried aunt in Corlea outside Ballyshannon, on the border with Fermanagh.
There he took his first steps on the fiddle. His cousin was a noted fiddler, Eddie Moore, and his uncles John and James Slevin also played.
Harry’s move to east Donegal came when he was employed as a clerk with Donegal Committee of Agriculture, based in Lifford. He spent his career in the town. He married Mary Doogan, who was from Kilcar in south-west Donegal and also worked there.
Mary’s uncle Brian Doogan was a noted local fiddler. MacAoidh comments in 1994: “The late Barney Doogan of Kilcar is now best remembered through a rare tape of a limited number of recordings he made privately in Kilcar. This playing shows his music to have been fully rooted in the local style.”
Eithne was born in 1945. She learned her first tunes on tin whistle at the national school in Mulroy, near Lifford, from her teacher Seán Brady, the father of well-known singer and musician Paul Brady.
She says: “Seán was a really good singer himself but he was more interested in musicals and putting on shows rather than traditional songs. But he taught us loads of marches and got us started.
“I think there was more emphasis in those days on training teachers to teach music. We learned through tonic solfa and I still use it in my head or when I’m writing down a tune really quickly on a beer mat, which I’ve done often!”
Eithne went to Coláiste Bride in Falcarragh and then St Louis Boarding School in Monaghan, where teaching was through Irish (remarkably enough, subjects had at one time been taught through French).
Eithne started learning piano and violin. She also began playing traditional tunes on fiddle with her father during the school holidays.
“I muddled my way through the traditional tunes with my dad and also during the visits to relations in Kilcar and Corlea.
“There was absolutely nobody of my age around Lifford interested in traditional music at that stage, and nobody really in the school. The nuns were into classical music and weren’t much enamoured with traditional, although there might be some tunes in the concert on St Patrick’s Day.”
Being a boarder meant that Eithne didn’t spend a lot of time at home in Lifford. During the holidays the family could be in Kilcar or Corlea.
However her father used to organise sessions in the house sometimes, and they would also go occasionally to the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann session in Letterkenny.
“My father wouldn’t have been great on the fiddle. I suppose he mainly had the tunes he had learned growing up in Corlea, like the ‘Harvest Home’ or the ‘Boys of the Lough’. The fiddlers who came to the house in Lifford generally wouldn’t have been brilliant, although I remember Jimmy Houston, who was a good player, and Frank Kelly. I remember Eddie McIntyre playing. He was the librarian.”
Eithne also remembers Charlie Tourish, from the well-known musical family of the White Cross outside Raphoe, associated with an unusual collection of tunes from the years around 1900.
“Charlie had got a practice set of uilleann pipes from Leo Rowsome and was going to Dublin to him for lessons. We had heard the pipes on the radio but we had no idea what they looked like!”
On one of the trips to Kilcar Eithne was brought over to Glencolumbkille on the day of the big August show there, and found herself on stage with a remarkable gathering of fiddlers.
“There was a lot of music around both Kilcar and Corlea when I was growing up. It did seem like there was practically a fiddle in every house in Kilcar. Teelin was also full of fiddlers. I remember that night in the hall in Glen – there’s a picture of it somewhere – and the whole stage was full of fiddlers. I had no idea who they were. James Byrne and Con Cassidy were probably there.”
In contrast to the impression Caoimhin MacAoidh got from the Brian Doogan tape, Eithne remembers her uncle being a big fan of Seán McGuire.
“He had no time for the local tunes. It had to be the ‘Mason’s Apron’ and it had to be done right. Up the fingerboard.
“Everybody played the McGuire tunes. He was very influential in the northern part of the country. Of course he played the pipes as well.
“As a fiddler he was responsible for bringing a lot of tunes into the repertoire, such as the compositions of James Hill [from Newcastle, England]. Tunes like ‘The High Level’, tunes in flat keys – you had to be very good to play them.”
In the early 1960s Eithne went to Dublin to study. She says that was when she started getting seriously interested in traditional music. Regular sessions she went to include the Clontarf CCÉ session and those in the Pipers’ Club.
“I remember Tommy Peoples when he arrived up in Dublin. He was only around 16 or 17. He took the place by storm. People were fascinated by his playing, and by these tunes which hadn’t been heard before, like ‘The Old Oak Tree’ and ‘The Glen Road to Carrick’. Those Donegal tunes that everybody learned.
“They all thought he was the greatest thing ever. I was envious. He was a couple of years younger than me and he was a lot better than I was! He was so precise and his playing was so perfect. It wasn’t that it was like classical music, but it seemed so perfect and intricate.
“He was very shy. I suppose everyone was showing their appreciation and you’d see him sitting there, 16 or 17 and surrounded by six pints. He was so young.”
While in Dublin, Eithne got involved in one of the great tune collecting initiatives in Irish music, as her husband Brian recalled in an interview: “Eithne was not only a great musician but she had been collecting and recording traditional music from an early age. She had worked with Breandan Breathnach transcribing his field recordings, many of which were published in his various Ceol Rince na hEireann books.”
Eithne remembers it was a time when more young women were getting involved in the music. A friend was Leo Rowsome’s daughter Helena.
“She had started playing the pipes, and I took a notion and started as well. We were both about 17 or 18. A load of people used to go down to Willie Clancy’s in Miltown Malbay at that time. Willie was very patient and encouraging towards learner pipers. Even if you were useless he would listen to you and help you out, and play along with you.”
On one visit there was a crowd from Armagh there. That’s when she first met her husband Brian Vallely, piper and painter. The rest is traditional music history.
“I was teaching in Dublin and then in Monaghan, which is not too far from Armagh. We kept in contact and when he was starting the classes [in 1966] I took the fiddle classes.”
The couple married in 1969. They have five children, and the eldest three are involved with trad at a professional level. The eldest, Niall, plays concertina and lives in Cork, married to the singer Karen Casey. Cillian plays pipes with Lunasa and lives in New York. Caoimhin, who plays piano and fiddle, also lives in Cork. Lorcan, who’s a visual artist, lives in Armagh and Máire Vallely works in the Barbican Centre in London.
All ten grandchildren are also musicians, both traditional and classical.
Eithne and Brian remain at the centre of things with the Armagh Pipers Club, with between 150 – 250 young people on the books every year, learning traditional music. The APC has also organised the international William Kennedy Piping Festival each year since 1994, with a ‘pause’ in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Eithne says that Brian and herself are overdue a visit to Donegal. They usually get away for a couple of months between Scotland and France every summer in their camper van but all the trips are on hold at the moment.
There’s a documentary about Eithne and Brian Vallely on YouTube,
Awards for Armagh Pipers Club
From the website armaghpipers.com –
Armagh Pipers Club, with Brian and Eithne Vallely among its founders, have received numerous awards for their contribution to traditional music education since 1982. These include the Seán Ó Boyle Award, Bass Charrington Award, Irish Music Magazine Best Festival Award, Celtic Fusion Award (Castlewellan), Fiddlers’ Green Award (Rostrevor), Gradam Ceoil TG4 Gradam Aitheantais, and in 2018, the BBC Folk Awards Good Tradition Award.
Among APC’s ‘graduates’ who feature prominently on the professional touring scene are Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn, Brian Finnegan, Barry Kerr, Niall Murphy, Niall Hanna, Cillian, Caoimhín and Niall Vallely, Leo McCann, Jarlath and Alana Henderson, Ríoghnach Connolly, Emma Robinson, Emer and Conor Mallon, Eilís Lavelle, and Méabh and Tiarnán Smyth. Bands that have included APC musicians include Lúnasa, Flook, Buille, Dorsa, Ioscaid, Nomos, North Cregg, Malinky, Cara Dillon Band, Afro-Celt Sound System, Bow Brothers, Braking Trad, Cúig, Karan Casey Band, Síoda, Reel to Reel, The APC Big Band, Réalta, Macha, Niall Hanna Band and many more.
Eithne Vallely, the fiddler from Lifford who helped to found the Armagh Pipers Club, said the development of cassette tapes made a major impact on the transmission of Irish traditional music.
“Cassette recording made life a lot easier for the traditional musician in terms of picking up tunes,” she said. “That’s what allowed musicians to develop the big repertoires in the 1970s and 1980s – much bigger than most of the older musicians would have had.
“That’s how I learned a lot of my tunes. My first machine was a reel-to-reel player and that was awkward and intrusive in terms of traditional music sessions. The cassette tape recorder made a world of difference. The only thing was you ended up with drawerfuls of cassettes with no labels on. But it was a massive help in getting the tunes.”
WOMEN IN TRAD
Women like Kathleen McGinley helped to pave the way for much greater visibility for female musicians on the Irish traditional music scene, according to Eithne Vallely, who helped to found the Armagh Pipers Club.
“In the early decades of the last century there were women playing traditional music but it was mostly in houses. They didn’t ‘play out’.
“By the time I was in Dublin in the 1960s things were changing, and there were plenty of women getting involved. But older women musicians were scarce on the ground.
“For instance I don’t remember seeing any when I was growing up and visiting Kilcar or Glencolumbkille or my father’s relatives in Corlea.
“There were exceptions, like Mrs Crotty and Lucy Farr, and you had Pearl O’Shaughnessy, Josephine Keegan and others.
“Of course, women had a limited presence in many other areas of life as well at that time. Many women had to give up their jobs when they got married. That was the way things were.”
 Mac Aoidh (1994), p. 282