Sonny Murray – An Inspiration to Musicians

18 November 2009, 7:11 PM GMT

Sonny Murray – An Inspiration to Musicians

Sonny Murray – An Inspiration to Irish Traditional Musicians

Hear a recording of Sonny made by Frank Whelan in 1990

On Saturday, 14 November 2009 the traditional music world lost one of its greatest musical personalities when Clare concertina player, Sonny (Stephen) Murray went to his eternal reward. This Blog consists of some brief thoughts on Sonny’s life as outlined during his funeral mass in Ennis Cathedral on Monday, 16th November.

I personally found Sonny’s funeral mass in a packed Ennis Cathedral to be highly significant and relevant to all involved with traditional music as well as being a very moving event. Just to set the scene the mass was concelebrated by a number of priests from the Parish but with Fr. Joe McMahon, President of St. Flannan’s College and a native of Miltown Malbay, appropriately assuming the leading role. I say appropriately in that Fr Joe plays traditional music and has, down through the years, actively participated in many of the traditional activities (organising events such as Fleadh Nua, etc) where Sonny would also be involved.

Fr Joe commenced the ceremony with a brief profile of Sonny who was born in December 1920 in Knockalough, Kilmihil, West Clare. Back in those early years Sonny regularly played his concertina for House Dances which often didn’t finish until the early hours of the morning. In fact it was coming home from one such event that Sonny first met his beloved Frances and gave her a lift home on the bar of his bike. The couple got married and emigrated to Cricklewood, a district in London much favoured by Irish emigrants at the time. Irish traditional music was going through a halycon period in the 1950s with so many great musicians and Sonny became totally immersed in this rich cultural scene. However, the draw of home became too much for him and he returned to the Banner county some few short years later to settle in Ennis with Frances and daughter, Helen.

Sonny got a job as a carpenter with Clare County Council and it wasn’t long until he became deeply involved with traditional music in the County with the likes of legends such as Joe Cooley and Seán Reid. Along with these musicians he also became involved with the setting up of Comhaltas in Clare and as they say “the rest is now history”.

Getting back to the mass, not only did the Cathedral congregation contain a veritable “who’s who” of musicians from the County but most of the Kilfenora Céilí Band along with Kieran Hanrahan and Paul Roche of Stockton’s Wing had brought along their instruments. The first piece was appropriately a lovely concertina duet from Edel Fox and Timmie Collins. This was followed by all the musicians with Sonny Murray’s Hornpipe, a favourite of his which he always played along with Home Ruler and Kitty’s Wedding. During one of the quieter parts of the mass, the strains of the beautiful slow air, Mná na hÉireann on whistle echoed through the Cathedral which again was very appropriate as Sonny was also a highly talented player on this instrument. The funeral mass concluded with all musicians present in an unforgettable rendition of the Maid Behind the Bar followed by Ed Reavey’s the Hunter’s House, another two tunes from Sonny’s repertoire.

A moving tribute to Sonny on behalf of Comhaltas was then delivered by the Chairman of Cois na hAbhna, Frank Whelan. Frank, a long time friend of Sonny’s, spoke of some of his unique characteristics where he was just as happy playing for a small group of overseas visitors in a hotel lobby in Ennis as he would be playing on Tour Concerts – Sonny took part in six Comhaltas Tours, including the American Bicentennial in 1976 in Washinghton DC - or at prestigious venues such as the Glór Irish Music Centre. In addition to his enormous musical contribution such as anchor man at Fleadh Nua sessions, etc Sonny never had a problem with rolling up his sleeves when circumstances required this. Not only could be found building outdoor stages for fleadhanna but he was the man who built the wooden floor in the Cois na hAbhna cultural centre something set dancers have enjoyed down through the years to present times. Finally Frank spoke of Sonny’s “open house” approach for musicians throughout his lifetime and in particular his support and encouragement for the younger musicians. Paul Roche who later went on to marry his daughter Helen and Kieran Hanrahan were two typical examples of musicians who benefited from Sonny’s mentoring.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Sonny also had a great interest in coursing being a regular participant at Clare meetings where he won many cups down through the years for his greyhounds.

Why was Sonny special? Here was a man born and brought up in rural Ireland who was totally un-self conscious of his talents and abilities from an early age but just immersed himself in the music. He might have problems competing with some of today’s young exponents who have technique coming out of their ears but he was an infinitely better musician. Sonny was a modest but very happy man who would be totally unaware and intolerant of “musical pecking order” but rather revelled in the joys and beauty of the music.

An inspiration – unfortunately we won’t see the likes of Sonny again but we can all take example from him by, ourselves, making the best of our talents, showing the utmost respect for the music and also for all other musicians.

Go raibh míle maith agat Sonny!

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