Tradition bearers of north Antrim

An overview of the great and late in traditional music

North Antrim has a greater musical diversity to its credit than any other region of Ireland, and the tradition bearers I am thinking of here fall into three main categories: those who have gone before, passing the tradition down to us; the older generation today, who have kept it alive and healthy even when traditional music was unfashionable; and the youngsters who are carrying it on.

The first group includes such local legends of the past as Joe Holmes of Ballymoney, a wonderful singer, songwriter, lilter and fiddler, and from the same stable, singer and fiddle player Stumpy McLuskey from Cloughmills. Frank McCollam taught local bands in Ballycastle as well as playing the accordion and bagpipes, but it is as a fiddle player and composer—with tunes including ‘The Home Ruler’—that he is best remembered.

Archie McKeegan of Cushendall was a fine singer with a great way with song. John Rea from Glenarm did much to promote the neglected hammer dulcimer, releasing two singles and appearing on stage with the famous Irish group The Chieftains.

Jim McGill of Ballycastle was a shy fiddler who taught many young locals. Sammy Wade from Ballymoney was another man who helped to blur the so called divide between the Irish and Ulster Scots traditions, playing the bagpipes, tin whistle and uilleann pipes.

Another man who did much to preserve and ensure the continuity of the tradition was Sam Stevenson from Broughshane, for not only was he a founding member of the Derry and Antrim Fiddlers, but also made fine fiddles for future generations.

Alex McAllister of Glenarm wrote and promoted the wonderful tradition of the Antrim Rhyme—timeless stories in verse that take us back to the good old country days in amusing and poignant ways. Sam Henry, who promoted and preserved the traditional song heritage of the area, left behind a collection of over 700 songs, now used by singers up and down Ireland as the definitive source for fine traditional songs.

Fortunately the thread remains unbroken and the second group is made up of tradition bearers from the older generation fortunately still with us. Men like John Kennedy of Cullybackey stand out from the crowd, for he taught accordion, flute bands and musicians most of his life, many to All Ireland standard. Dominic McNabb of Ballycastle is a fine fiddle player and teacher. With his musical partner, accordionist Leo Brown, McNabb has anchored one Ballycastle music session for the past 25 years.

John Moulden of Portrush has carried on the great song work of Sam Henry, for not only was he instrumental in having Henry's song collection published, but he has continued to research, publish and sing the songs of the area. Moulden also plays the bodhran and the much maligned spoons.

Jim McKillop from Waterfoot is a terrific fiddle player who also happens to be one of the finest fiddle makers in the country. Len Graham of Glenarm is an amazingly talented and endearing traditional singer who has made singing his life's work, singing the songs of north Antrim on concert platforms and in pub sessions all over the world.

Another musician, worthy of note is Denis Sweeney of Randalstown, an excellent musician who has taught fiddle to countless numbers over the years, and inspired many more with his playing. Charlie Gillen from Dervock carries on where Alex McAllister left off, for he not only ‘talks the talk’ in a broad, rich country accent, but also composes many wonderful rhymes in the idiom. Fortunately, Gillen has a natural gift for reciting these little gems, which make them, uniquely, legends in his own lifetime.

Last, but not least, is Paul McAuley of Ballycastle, a full time Bodhran maker and player who has helped many youngsters take their first faltering steps on to the traditional music ladder, supplying their first home grown instrument.

North Antrim is also awash with talented highland pipers who brought home two world championship trophies in 2004.

As well as these men—or in most cases, because of these men—there is a third group we need to look at, namely younger musicians who continue to carry the mantle of traditional music in Co Antrim. As in the previous category, there are too many to mention here, but I am thinking of such musicians as harpist Marie McGowan from Ballycastle, demon accordionist Damian McKee from Dunloy, enchanting flautist Dee Havlin from Ballymoney, fiddle player Kieran Convery from Portglenone, and the awesome harpist and guitar player Eoghain O'Brien, also of Portglenone. These talents, plus many, many more, play on a world stage, but essentially, also actively pass on the tradition to the next generation.

By Dick Glasgow