In the spring of 1946 a young piano player from East Clare called Teresa Tubridy gathered together a handful of musicians from her parish and formed the Tulla Céilí Band. A few weeks later, the band took part at a fleadh in Limerick and won the contest hands down. The now legendary Tulla Céilí Band held together for over fifty-five years before the death of its anchor, P.J. Hayes, in May 2001. Among the many legends who played with them were P.J.’s son, Martin Hayes, Willie Clancy, Bobby Casey and Dr Bill Loughnane TD. But since P.J.’s death, there is one man whose name conjures up the true magic of the Tulla. That man is Paddy Canny, a gentle giant of a fiddler, now eighty-seven years old, who lives just outside the village of Tulla.
Paddy was born in Glendree in the autumn of 1919, the youngest of three sons born to a farmer, Pat Canny, and his wife, Catherine MacNamara. Their family home was the gate-lodge to the once extensive Moloney estate. The Moloney family had left the area when their home, Kilcannon House, was burned in the Troubles and its stone ‘shoveled under the roads’.
The Irish-speaking Canny household was also a musical one. Paddy’s father was a keen traditional fiddler and specialised in teaching children how to play. ‘In his time, there was more music around,’ says Paddy with his bashful smile. ‘A lot of the musicians he knew were of an older generation. He would keep them in the house for the winter. And then there were people who would call in to visit and he would play with him and I would watch. I was able to pick it up that way.’
A close family friend was Pat MacNamara, a blind fiddler, who stayed with the Cannys during the long winter months. The style of fiddling the two Pats and their friends practised during these years was extremely distinctive, at once earnest and graceful. Indeed, there are many who insist that the entire tradition and style of East Clare’s fiddling had its origins in the Canny household.
By the time he was a teenager, young Paddy had overcome his innate shyness to start teaching his own contemporaries how to play fiddle. Among his students was P.J. Hayes and, before long, the two men and Martin Nugent of Feakle were playing at barn dances, weddings and céilís across East Clare. ‘The dances started in the schools and then moved to the parish halls. There was lots of dancing here and in East Galway. But then they built the pubs and they took over.’ Although he still attends the Willie Clancy Summer School every July, Paddy doesn’t enjoy pub sessions. He finds them too crowded and noisy. ‘In the old days if you had a session, you’d have a crowd who were genuinely interested and would either listen or dance. Now they all just keep on talking.’
It was not difficult for Theresa Tubridy to track Paddy and P.J. down and invite them on board the Tulla Céilí Band. In the early days, there was much to-ing and fro-ing to Dublin, the whole eight-piece band and all their instruments squeezed into a Morris Minor. ‘It was pure slavery,’ says Paddy. ‘You would play from nine at night until three in the morning and the wages were pitiful.’ Paddy became something of a nationwide celebrity when he won the All-Ireland Fiddle Championship in 1953. He was also a frequent guest on Ciaran Mac Mathuna’s programme Job of Journeywork. In 1956, the Tulla made their first recordings in Dublin for HMV and, in 1957, they won their first All-Ireland Fleadh title. The following year, they made their debut trip to the USA and played Carnegie Hall on the evening of St Patrick’s Day.
Paddy didn’t like all this traveling. Since his father’s death in 1948, he had been concerned for the future of the family farm. ‘My brother Micky had emigrated to England and the other one, Jack, was in Australia.’ In time, Jack would return to Ireland and help Paddy look after the farm.
At the age of forty-one, Paddy became a married man. His bride, Philomena, was a sister of P.J. Hayes. ‘Times were harder then,’ says Paddy of his relatively late marriage. ‘It took a long time to earn a few bob, to get a house together and all that kind of a crack. You had to have a bit of cash before you could get married.’
Nonetheless, sporadic tours to the USA and Britain continued until 1963. The following year, Paddy left the band and focused instead on raising his two daughters, Rita and Mary, and looking after his dairy cattle. He yielded his place in the Tulla to an upcoming fiddler from Ennistymon by name of Mike Murphy.
Paddy and Philomena worked the farm together until her death in March 2004. ‘She was a great person. But we have to keep on. I trust in the great God above. He never lets me down. I have good health apart from my feet. I get around and do what I want and I’m happy. I have people calling in to see me and that keeps me busy too.’ His daughters regularly assign him the duty of ‘grandchild watch’. And once again there is a beautiful bond evolving across the generations of the Canny family as a grandson, whom Paddy taught fiddle, now plays with The Irish Harp Orchestra.
Paddy’s last album was released in 1997. He hasn’t played much since but, in honour of my own bride, he plays ‘The Monaghan Jig’. I close my eyes and, in the darkness, I see the silhouettes of heels kicking, skirts twirling, elbows flapping, feet stomping, smile flashing, embers glowing, then fading away. His bones ache and his swollen feet hurt but Paddy Canny is at one with the soul of Irish music. He has what his wife’s nephew, Martin Hayes, might call ‘the lonesome touch’.
Paddy Canny passed away on 28th June 2008.