Frank Kelly (1936-)
Compiled by Martin McGinley. Uploaded on 7.10.20
Frank Kelly is one of Donegal’s leading fiddlers and during a lifetime of playing he has rubbed shoulders with some of the greatest names in the Irish tradition.
Born the youngest of 12 in 1936 in the townland of Mullaghaneary near Killygordon, he grew up with neighbours and visitors calling to the house for chat, music and dancing. He started to play at eight or nine on a tin fiddle made by Mickey Mór Doherty, patriarch of the Doherty clan of fiddlers. His next fiddle was made by his grandfather from a shoe polish box.
Frank learned from the local players and also from the 78s of the renowned US-based Irish fiddlers like Michael Coleman and Hugh Gillespie. Hugh was of particular interest because he was originally from nearby Ballybofeyand a relation. Hugh’s brothers Mickey and Jim were also good fiddle players.
Hugh and Frank’s first meeting was when Frank was around 12 and Hugh was home from New York on holiday. In 1964 Hugh returned to live at Carrickmagrath, Ballybofey. The two men played together several times a week until Hugh’s death in October 1986.
Frank won an All-Ireland senior fiddle title in Buncrana in 1979 and took part in the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann tour of North America that year. He has been active in CCÉ for many years, and was a driving force behind the regular CCÉ session in Crossroads, Killygordon also.
Frank’s son Bernard is a well-known accordionist.
‘Memories of Hughie Gillespie’ is Frank Kelly’s album with the late Liam Deery from Ballybofey on guitar. It was first released on cassette in 1996 and then on CD in 2019. It is available at firstname.lastname@example.org
Martin McGinley had two chats with Frank Kelly about his life in Irish traditional music. The first was on Saturday 12th September 2020, and the second on Monday 21st September 2020.
A musical household, and meeting Hugh Gillespie
Frank Kelly says there was dancing in the house at least one night a week, and often two or three nights.
“From when I was a wee fella I was sitting beside John Dan listening to the music,” he says.
John Dan McLaughlin was a local fiddler.
Two other neighbours who played were brother and sister Laurence and Alice McGoldrick (later Kelly, Donegal Town)
“They never left our house. I got a lot of music from them. It was mostly for dancing at that time – highlands, germans, waltzes, lancers, polkas, sets, more or less.”
Frank says it was his grandfather that made his first fiddle.
“I think black and brown polish came in a box that time, and he used the box to make a fiddle for his son. That son was killed at a wall at the school, the same wall we used to run around. One of my uncles gave the fiddle to me.”
As a young player, Frank also learned tunes at home from 78rpm records made by Michael Coleman and Hughie Gillespie, originally from Ballybofey but a friend, sometimes pupil and recording partner of Michael Coleman in the US.
“I learned a lot of them, but there were always things you didn’t pick up, you were missing something. I remember Hughie Gillespie was back [on holiday] in the home place outside Ballybofey and I went up to visit. First thing he wanted was to hear me play. I was about twelve at the time. He got his fiddle and gave it to me, and I played the ‘Mullingar Lea’. I had a cheek, when you think of it!
“He said: “That’s very good, young Kelly, but I’m going to learn you that tune now.” And he sat down and he went over that tune with me about ten times until I had it.”
Hughie was particular about getting things right, Frank says, in much the same way that Michael Coleman had been particular with Hughie.
“I remember Hughie talking about the time Coleman was teaching him the ‘back treble’. Hughie says he was almost ready to hit Coleman over the head with the bow when Coleman said, ‘You have it now.’ Hughie had a great bowhand. It was natural.”
Frank adds that he can’t understand people who don’t hold the bow at the frog.
“You see people holding it up the stick, but to my mind the bow is a certain length for a reason, and you should use the length of it.”
Were musicians’ ears ‘sharper’ in those days, before recorded sound made it possible to learn tunes at leisure?
“I mind when I went for the first time to fleadhs. I would have known the tunes from around here, but not those from Clare or wherever. I would be listening to a tune, not trying to learn it or anything. But the next day I could play it. I think that’s what happens when you have the interest. At the same time if you didn’t get the tune on the fiddle when you thought of it, you’d lose it!”
Frank says that people seemed to be more musical when he was growing up, around the late 1940s and early 1950s.
“There was a man called Mick Kelly who would always call in at our house on his way home at night. Every night at around twelve o’clock my brother Eddie, sister Susan and myself had to be ready to dance what we called the ‘square reel’, the four-hand reel. Mick would be wearing a big pair of nail boots and he would hit the concrete floor.
“He was full of music. He had one of those cabinet gramophones and tons of records. If there was no other music [no musicians in the house to play for dancing] he would play the mouthorgan, or the comb with tissue around it.
“Then there was John Callaghan. If you started to play, John was up dancing if there was a woman at all about to dance with him. He would usually call for John Dan [to play the fiddle] but if John Dan wasn’t there John would stand whistling and lilting a tune to me – a highland, a waltz or a reel – until I had it and would be able to play it for dancing the next time. He was full of music, and he was a good singer as well.”
John was a hardy man, Frank recalls.
“He would be dancing and the shirt would be wet with sweat. After the dance he’d go outside and dip his head in a bucket of water and then he’d sit down on the step until the next dance. If you or me did it, we’d never get up. John hardly ever even took the cold.
“But he went to Inverary [big construction projects in Argyle, Scotland] and he was never the same after that. Bad conditions and bad food. Inverary killed half of the Glen [the local area].”
Frank says that, although their house was full of music and dancing, by the 1950s interest in traditional music was fading because of social changes and new styles of music.
“The younger ones weren’t interested. They wanted the latest stuff. I was about the only young fiddler around our area. There were a few of the older players, and players from earlier that we used to hear about. John Callaghan’s father was supposed to be a good player.
“There were two Connolly men who were supposed to be very good. They didn’t play out. At night when they thought everyone was in bed they would take down the fiddle. People used to listen outside and said they were great players. But if they heard a noise or thought you were listening, they’d stop.”
Frank agrees with the view in the Tommy Peoples’ book, Ó Am Go hAm, that fiddling in East Donegal hasn’t got its due.
“I think that’s a problem with Donegal, they don’t really appreciate their own. As far as east Donegal is concerned, there was little talk about its fiddle-playing, it was more about around the coast.
“Down through the years it was all about John Doherty. The Dohertys were a very decent lot and John was a gentleman, and Simon [his nephew] probably spent more nights in our house than I did! One man who was a good friend to John was Dr Malachy McCloskey [Glenties].”
Frank said that John remarked often that he got much of his music from the playing of James Scott Skinner.
“I don’t know how he did it. But his music was more Scottish than Irish.”
Frank enjoyed a long friendship with Tommy Peoples.
“Tommy was a gentleman and a great musician. He knew all about music, but I never remember him running anyone down. Tommy and I were very good friends. He used to break out of St. Eunan’s College in Letterkenny to join Charlie Patton and myself at Hughie McGovern’s session [the Comhaltas session at Lower Main Street]. Tommy would say to me, ‘I couldn’t stay in when I knew you two were playing down here.’ He was a modest young fella.”
Some recordings made in Dublin soon after Tommy arrived there as a teenager suggest that he played more slowly than on his first two solo albums, or the Bothy Band ‘1975’ album.
“He wouldn’t have been a fast player at the start, but it was probably all fast music for the Bothy Band and the likes at the time,” says Frank.
Dances in halls, sessions in the Cross
Frank says the music was always in houses when he was growing up, unless for the few musicians who played in a band. There were local halls. He worked with his brother Laurence and a very good friend Billy Quinn in a workshop they had in a building that was formerly a hall, at the bridge between Killygordon and the Cross.
“It was an old British Army hut which was taken over from Derry. It had a great floor for dancing, maple. The floor was still there when we left. The hall’s gone now.”
Frank says that the sessions in the Cross started off in a cottage below the chapel which had been used as a local hall and then closed. The room and the kitchen had been made into one.
“There used to be great dances in it. John McNamee on the button accordion. He was a Drumkeen man and a good accordion player. Peter McConnell on the fiddle, he was from Killygordon. John Murray on the drums.
“John McNamee was a good player, and great for dancing. It was quicksteps, hornpipes, waltzes and modern waltzes at that time. There were great dances in that cottage. They helped build the Parochial hall out of what they made there.
“Whatever way John moved his feet when he was playing, we used to give him a seat by the fire in the house here and by the time he finished a tune he’d be against the back wall!
“John was no dud, he knew his music, from ‘Bonnie Kate’ to the ‘High Level’. He was just living in the wrong era. If he had come along later they’d be talking about him. There was no way of recording people at that time.
“I used to do some recording on a Grundig reel-to-reel tape recorder, but it was too much trouble. You could record handily on a tape recorder or on a phone now and nobody would know it. There was a singer used to call to our house and he’s ask, ‘Is that thing [the recorder] there?’ and if was there he wouldn’t come in.
“I had more reels of tape than enough – Joe O’Dowd, and then the time Brendan McGlinchey and Seamus Connolly played in the All-Ireland [senior fiddle competition]. But I’m not sure I even know where the tapes are now. They mightn’t be playable.”
Frank says that when the sessions were in the cottage in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, they used to put up oil lamps all round, and there would be soup and buns.
“It all went down a treat. The session went on for years and years. There were some great nights in the Cross. Then the session was moved down to the hall. They said all the facilities were there, and I suppose they were right. But the sessions were never really the same.
“It was always a CCÉ [Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann] session. Everybody would do their bit, and if three or four wanted to play together that was fine. There were no rules and regulations, unless they started playing modern stuff! Afterwards everybody played and there were some great sessions.”
Frank says that Hughie Gillespie was there a lot of the time.
“You had some high-class talent coming along. Andy McGann used to visit. Martin Wynne and his wife were there one time. Ed Reavy was there. He was a dancer, he danced in the hall.
“There was often powerful music. Tony Smith [Antóin MacGabhann] would come down, he would stay here. You had all of Tyrone and Fermanagh. John Loughran, the Nugents.”
Frank Kelly is now playing the fiddle that belonged to Hughie Gillespie, and which was used by Michael Coleman.
“Coleman made some recordings on Hughie’s fiddle.”
Frank said that Hughie mentioned about himself and Coleman meeting up regularly with Fritz Kreisler around the studios when the 78rpm records were being recorded.
“Both Coleman and Hughie knew Kreisler well. They knew a lot of people, like Henry Ford and Chief O’Neill, who produced the music books. Coleman and Hughie played Carnegie Hall.
“Hughie didn’t get the credit in Donegal that he should have done. He was a great player and a gentleman.
“For a man that had done so much, he could be very nervous. I remember when we’d go up to Dublin to do stuff for the tv, like ‘Bring Down The Lamp’, Hughie would be very nervous. Even in his own house he wouldn’t like playing on his own, he would get me to play along with him. Unless it was just a small group of two or three and then he would play.”
When Frank produced his own cassette in 1996, he called it ‘Memories of Hughie Gillespie’. He was happy with the reception it got. More recently he brought it out in CD format.
“It was done in Terry McGinty’s studio in Ballybofey. Liam Deery put down the guitar tracks afterwards. It turned out all right.”
By any standards, ‘Memories of Hughie Gillespie’ is an exceptional display of fiddling.
With a lifetime involvement with the tradition, Frank Kelly bears consideration among those in the front rank of Donegal and indeed Irish fiddlers.
Frank Kelly Master Crowley’s/Roscommon Reels