Michael Flanagan looks down from the seat of his open-top tractor and says, ‘That’s the story now, boys.’ In the past five minutes, the eighty-year-old drummer has given us his verdict on the greatest traditional musicians of the twentieth century – box players, pipers, fiddlers, vocalists, flautists, and all. He reels off their names like a sergeant major listing soldiers who did him proud in a war. His knowledge of their miscellaneous vocations is encyclopaedic.
Michael Flanagan is known locally as ‘Michael Patsy’ to distinguish him from all the other Michael Flanagans in Lahinch. Born and raised to a small farming family in the South Clare parish of Mullagh, he accepts that his claim to be the Michael Flanagan of Lahinch would have limited success. But he is probably the Michael Flanagan of Bartra, a small beach running along the coast of Liscannor Bay where surfers roam and gulls soar. This is where the bachelor farmer has lived in a small white washed cottage since 1949.
This cottage is a simple homestead of yellow walls, colourful dish towels, a big drumkit and a furry cat called Tibby. ‘The cat will manage when the man is away,’ says Michael proverbially. ‘In a country house you need a cat to keep away the mice. The rats and mice that come off the strand – if you saw the size of them! Black dirty things! Nobody likes rats and the old cat will do that job!’
Michael’s musical blood flows on both sides. His father was a kinsman of Bobby Casey; his mother counted Junior Crehan and Liam Óg O’Flynn amongst her relatives.
Michael turned to music in his teens. ‘I made a couple of tambourines at first. But I couldn’t work them so I found a good snare drum and got up with a jazz band.’ An army drum-major stationed in Lahinch taught him the finer points of drumming dexterity.
He gives his drums an impatient clatter, as drummers are wont to do, and complains that he’s been ‘a bit down’ with the weather. Sometimes it’s not easy being an aged musician. Over the years, he has donned shirt, collar and tie for the Kilfenora Céilí Band, the Mullagh Fife and Drum Band, the Clonboney Pipe Band and O’Boyle’s Famous Accordion Band. For thirty years, he drummed for the Quilty Céilí band during which time he put in a cameo appearance with the Healy Brothers. ‘I’m at it a long time now,’ he says wryly. ‘Ten bob for six hours work was very handy to pick up in those times. It was good money.’
As well as drumming, Michael can hold a tune on a tin whistle and does a bit of singing. One evening during his youth, he found himself lilting alongside a toothless old man in a small kitchen with a crowd of old women. ‘We lilted for fifteen minutes and they danced a whole Caledonian set!’
In 1977, Michael succeeded Jack McDonnell as the Tulla Céilí Band’s drummer. Over thirty years earlier, he had actually stood in for the band’s original drummer who had fallen ill on the eve of one of their earliest performances, a céilí in Ennistymon. Michael famously sent his drums to Ennistymon on the West Clare Railway, then cycled up from Mullagh with his snare drums, stand and sticks on his back. A few months after he rejoined the band, the Tulla went on tour to England. In 1982, they went on a four-week tour of the USA. Michael would return to America with the Tulla four times before the band’s final tour in 1999. In 1995, he performed with them at Croke Park just before Clare won the All-Ireland hurling final and laid the curse of Biddy Early to rest. Like Paddy Canny, he found the travelling tedious and the rewards unsatisfactory. It’s the hazard of playing in a big band – ‘there were ten of us to pay each time’!
‘Sometimes you can’t tell if its a waltz, a foxtrot, a reel or a jig,’ says Michael of modern traditional music. ‘They play them all at the same speed.’ He also struggles with modernised versions of the old Tulla classics. ‘It’s natural,’ he says philosophically. ‘Even if you’re only digging a hole with a shovel, and someone comes along to make it bigger or smaller, that’ll annoy you.’ But for all that, he is a great fan of the younger crowd playing today. He holds his neighbour Quentin Cooper in especially high regard. ‘I thought he was just a maker of musical instruments but he’s more than that. He is a genius.’
When Michael rolls out the big Tulla drum, his brow becomes suffused with emotion. ‘If I got a euro for every picture taken of this drum in England and America, I would be down in Lahinch today on the booze!’ Being part of The Tulla was possibly the greatest thing he ever did. With the sixtieth anniversary of the band underway, he is hopeful that someone out there will ‘walk down to the Tulla Céilí Band and rise it up boy’!
As such, it his annual duty to carry the Tulla drum to Miltown Malbay for the annual weeklong festival held in honour of the great Clare piper Willie Clancy every July. ‘I may be coming on eighty-three, but I have a few more nights to be done yet,’ he says, tapping his drum with a stick ‘If you don’t see this drum, then you may take it they’ve got someone else!’