Antóin Mac Gabhann: The Master Musician of Mullahoran

By Deirdre Byrne

“A rugadh cois lochanna an Chabháin agus atá ag cur faoi are Mhachairí Ríoga na Midhe”

At the Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann in Clonmel last year, Antóin Mac Gabhann was honoured with a ‘Gradam Speisialta’ or a ‘Gradam na hÉigse’. It was not, however, Antóin’s first award of recognition, as he was made Cavan Person of the Year by the Cavan Association in Dublin in 1985. Both are an appropriate appreciation of his life, music, and work (so far!), which I will explore in this essay.

Early Years

Antóin comes from Kilcogy Upper in the parish of Mullahoran, Co Cavan. He was taught to play the fiddle by neighbour, Terry Smith. He learned tunes by ear and was soon able to join in local sessions. When Terry Smith died he studied music for a short period with Sister Brigid, while at secondary school in Granard.

In the mid 1960s Antóin came to Dublin to study at UCD. At that time, there was no commercial music scene in Dublin, and a very small music scene. Musicians played together at different sessions in the city, the CCÉ sessions, the Piper’s Club on Thomas St, and the Church St Club. Only two pubs in Dublin were allowing music at the time, Donohoe’s in Merrion Row and Slattery’s in Capel St. These were played regularly. Every Saturday night, Tony went to the local Comhaltas session in St John’s Hall in Blackrock, where he met Mícheál O’hAlmhain, the Bergin family, Joe Liddy and Pádraig a’ Cnoic (uncle of Noel Hill), from all of whom he learned a great deal. He worked a summer in London where he spent his spare time playing with the London musicians such as Bobby Casey, Tommy McCarthy, Jimmy Power, Mairtín Byrnes, Dick Sherlock and others. He played in a céilí band every Saturday and Sunday night in the Galtymore Ballroom in Cricklewood. Back in Dublin, Tony began to play with many more influential musician, such as John Kelly, Joe Ryan, John Egan, Matt Molloy, Tommy Peoples, The Rowsomes, Mick Hand, Michael Tubridy, the Glackins and many more. He joined the Green Linnet Céilí Band on formation and played with them at many céilís in the city. All of this had a major influence on his musical development, and it was probably the biggest period of growth that he had as a musician.

Although not keen on the competitive side of traditional music, Antóin is one of the few musicians to have taken the Senior All-Ireland title at the Fleadh two years in a row. He is also the only one to win it twice in one year. The 1971 All-Ireland Fleadh was postponed because of the troubles in the North. It was held the following June in Dublin, when Tony had his first win. He won again in August that same year at the 1972 Fleadh which was held in Listowel. That year he also won the Fiddler of Dooney competition in Sligo, the Fiddler of Oriel in Monaghan, an tOireachtas and an tOireachtas Coirn Crotty (for previous winners of an tOireachtas). This abundance of winnings shows how much Tony’s musicianship and style had developed in the previous years due to the influence of those he played with.

Those musicians that he played with in Dublin and London also had a great influence on Antóin’s repertoire. His repertoire is built from Dublin, Clare, the North and London and spans the fiddle tunes of the North and the ‘big tunes’ to the rhythmic Clare set tunes. He spent lots of time playing with Tyrone and Fermanagh fiddlers such as John Loughran and others in the Pomeroy/Ballygawley/Cappagh areas of Co Tyrone and the Nugents, Gallaghers, Mick Hoy, Francie Quinn, and John McManus in Co Fermanagh. He also had a friendship with the Antrim and Derry Fiddler’s Association, adjudicating at their competitions throughout the 70’s and building a friendship with many of the musicians. His Clare connections come from his wife Bernie, a native of the county. Through her he kept company with the Kilfenora and Tulla Céilí Bands.

Mullahoran Concert

In 1969, Antóin was in his final year of study in UCD. At that time, there were six priests from Tony’s native parish, Mullahoran, who worked on the missions, especially in Africa. One of those was Fr Tommy Smith, Antóin’s brother, working in Kenya. Apostolic workers formed to support the natives of the parish working in Africa. Antóin offered to hold a concert in Mullahoran to help. He rounded up all his musician friends in Dublin. Along with a crowd of supporters, they hired a bus and went up to Mullahoran. The concert was meant to be a once off, but thirty-six years later, it’s still going strong. Tony says, “It just continued”. Paddy Fallon was the Fear an Tí at the first concert, even though at that time he was not very well known. Tony knew him from the Clontarf Comhaltas session and asked him to be MC for the concert, which he was every year until the time of his death, thirty-three concerts later.

The concert has always been a good show of traditional music, singing, dancing and storytelling with no modern set-ups, an approach that Tony is obviously very partial to. Singers are always unaccompanied, and all is in ordinary traditional performance style. Many of Ireland’s good traditional perfomers have taken part in the concert over the years, including Joe Ryan, Tommy Peoples, Jimmy McGreevy, John Regan, Michael Tubridy, The Harper family, Frank Kelly, Pauline Sweeney, Nora Butler, Vincent Broderick, Paddy Bán Ó Broin and hundreds more. Patsy Hanley, Clann O’Raghallaigh and some others have played there almost every year. Some supporters who come on the bus from Dublin, like set-dancer Paddy King and Bríd Brody have been there almost every year and may have only missed one or two concerts in the thirty-six years.

The concerts were originally held on a Sunday night in March. Traditionally, concerts were held during Lent because there would have been no dances being held. As the years went on and work became more important in people’s lives, supporters wanted to be home earlier for work on Monday morning, so the concert was switched to Saturday night. A few years ago, however, a Sunday evening mass was held to commemorate Paddy Fallon. The concert was held afterwards, and the whole thing was so successful that they changed the concert to Sunday evening. The Saturday night concerts would start by 9pm and sometimes run until 1.45am and now the Sunday evening concert begins at 6pm and finishes soon after 10pm. This timing is popular and the hall is always full.

The concert is long because there are so many performers willing to play. Each participant plays only once, and only plays two selections of tunes. So many musicians come that it has become a meeting place for them to get together and have a tune. Over the years there was always a good session happening underneath the stage at the same time as the concert. It is only a matter for Tony to go down under the stage and bring up each performer. He continually ensures a good mix of music, singing and dancing and humour through the concert.

The Apostolic workers always give a kind welcome to everyone at the concert. All those who journey there will always be given tea and sandwiches on arrival, and again after the concert before heading home. This is given free of charge, as is the use of sound equipement. (Paddy Ryan also usually records the concert for Shannonside Northern Sound.) The musicians and supporters pay for the bus to Mullahoran themselves. All of this means that 100% of the takings at the door go to the missions; there are absolutely no expenses.


By 1976, Antóin and his wife Bernie were living in Baltrasna, Ashbourne, Co Meath, where they still live. There is always music in the house, and every year they hold a traditional housedance. Their four children, Seán, Áine, Bernadette and Caitlín Bríd all play music, and the three girls are dancers. The dancing comes from Bernie’s side of the family. Bernie hails from Ennistymon, Co Clare. Her family was a dancing one, and in the early 1960s, her father Michael Murphy, aunt Josie Murphy, Paddy King and Joe Crowe set up a Clareman’s Club for music and sets in Bridge St (now gone) in Dublin. At the club, they taught and danced the Plain and Caledonian Clare sets, and it is worth noting that this was all before the set dance revival. Josie always held a housedance in her home on Longwood Ave, South Circular Rd on the first Saturday of every year. The dancing took place in her very small back kitchen, with the door taken off for extra room. There was only room for one set and two musicians at a time in the kitchen, so everyone else would cool off and wait their turn to dance in the front sitting room. Tea was made all night, and there was never any drink involved. The scores of dancers kept dancing the sets all night until 5am, when the door would be screwed back on, the place cleaned up, and they would make their way down to 5.30am mass in Merchant’s Quay before heading home to bed. These housedances continued up to the early 1970s when Josie became too old to hold the dances anymore.

By 1976, Antóin and Bernie had taken up and established the housedance in their home in Ashbourne. They had frequent sessions in the house, and always had a set to go along with it. It was on a smaller scale than Josie’s housedances, but in time it grew. By the early 80s, there were 6 houses in Meath and Kildare holding regular housedances: Mac Gabhann’s, Traynor’s, Frank Kenny, Eileen McNelis, John Curtin and Paddy McMahon. There was usually about one housedance a month in one of the houses. The MacGabhann’s are the only remaining house holding the dances.

In 1995, RTE began broadcasting the housedances from Antóin and Bernie’s house on the first Saturday of every January. There have been eleven live broadcasts since and no sign of it being brought to an end. RTE bring a satellite van and also put an aerial on the chimney for the broadcast. There are always over forty musicians for the housedance, who only arrive just on time, or even a little late. There is never any time for a rehearsal, and barely time for a sound check. Tony chooses tunes for the housedance that are in fairly common currency, then writes names of the selections on large sheets that are hung from the ceiling for everyone to see. He chooses fresh tunes every year; selections are never repeated.

The Mac Gabhann housedance is an authentic type housedance in that non-commercial, ordinary musicians that are mostly young always play at it. The dancers, having grown up with the sets, dance them for the love of them.

The very first Céilí House programme on RTE Radio One of the year 2000 was broadcast from the MacGabhann household on the first Saturday of January. It was decided to mark this special programme, the first of the new millennium, with the composition of a new tune for the occasion. Antóin composed a reel and called it ‘The Millennium Housedance’. It now opens the programme every year. It was also decided to mark the significance of the first Céilí House of the new millennium by opening the programme with the most common, known, played, recorded, published and danced to tune in traditional Irish Music, Miss McLeod’s Reel. It was the first tune played at that housedance “to carry the tradition from the old millennium into the new”.

Music Promotion in Meath

Antóin’s held his first fiddle classes in Balbriggan, of whose Comhaltas branch he was a founder member in 1964. He also helped found the Seán Treacy branch in 1970. In 1978 he adjudicated the first Fidléir na Mídhe competition in Rathcairn. Feidhlím Ó Raghallaigh came second in the Under-14 section. He had no teacher, and his mother, Máire, asked Tony if he woulld take him for classes. And so began his still-continuing fiddle classes at his home in Ashbourne, Co Meath. At that time, Ríona Traynor was teaching concertina and whistle in Summerhill. Tony and Ríona always co-operated and put together Grupaí Ceoil and Céilí Bands for the Fleadhanna. Along with others, they built up Trim Comhaltas branch from zero. Previously, there were very few young musicians in the area. Trim went on to have many successes in the Fleadhanna, the most recent being the Naomh Pádraig Céilí Band, who won the senior competition at the All-Ireland Fleadh in Clonmel in 2004 and again in Letterkenny this year. The band has grown up playing together under the direction of Tony and Ríona. In 1994, Ríona died. Her memory is kept alive by a Summer School held every year, at which Tony has taught a number of times.

Around that time, there were a number of young musicians in the Ashbourne area, and Tony saw the need for a CCÉ branch there. It has since built up to have one of the biggest youth memberships in the country. It is going from strength to strength, with many prize-winners in both solo and group competitions at Slógadh, Fleadhanna Ceoil (na hÉireann) and Siamsa. Tony is still heavily involved in all aspects of the running of the branch.

Another establishment Tony has helped set up in Ashbourne is Gaelscoil na Cille. It was founded in 1981 and Tony was cathaoirleach of the organising committee and of the Board of Management. It was quite unusual for a lay person to hold this position, and even today, it is usually held by the Parish Priest. The school has grown and prospered and is now a ten teacher school. It moved into its new building in 1994. The new school building has a large hall, provided by the fundraising efforts of the parents, and this is the home of the weekly junior music session and regular concerts of the Ashbourne Branch of Comhaltas.

Lámh ar Lámh

In 2001, an anonymous sponsor, impressed by the young musicians in Ashbourne, approached Tony with the suggestion of making a CD for charity. They originally intended just one CD, but it grew to become Lámh are Lámh, a double CD and a concert.

Both Tony and the sponsor wanted to choose a charity connected to the music. Pádraig Mac Mathúna, piper, and son of Ciarán Mac Mathúna, works with the Mater Hospital Gastronintestinal Unit. He had previously organised a session for charity where reels were played for an hour non-stop. Aware of these efforts, Tony and the sponsor chose the Colon Cancer Research Unit in the Mater. The connection between the music and the cause can also be seen in some of those that have been lost to cancer, including Tony’s brother, Hugh and Ríona Traynor.

Tony brought about the project using an unprofessional approach. The idea was to utilise unrecorded good musicians and the wealth of music in the Ashbourne and Trim area. The CD provided a platform for the young talented musicians of the Ahsbourne area. Ceoltóirí Óga Cill Dhéagláin and the Naomh Pádraig Céilí Band feature on several tracks of the CD. Antóin drew up a list of forty-five of his pupils from the fiddle classes that were still actively playing. Thirty-three of them (including myself!) responded and played together as Many Strings for the CD. It was also decided to use some prominent names in the traditional music scene, such as Sean Keane, Liam O’Floinn, Arty McGlynn, Noel Hill, and others to help sell the album. The tracks for the CD with these musicians were recorded in studios, but the rest, the majority, were recorded in Tony’s house in Ashbourne in one weekend in April, with the Mac Gabhann traditional live housedance on the Saturday night. Alongside the music the rhythmic sound of the dancers’ feet, occasional cheers and spontaneous lilting from the audience can be heard. Two family recordings can also be found: Tony and his four children, and Muintir Uí Raghallaigh from Rathmoloyn. There are three Connemara singers amongst the music, Paddy Allen, Colm Ó Méalóid and Nollaig Ní Laoire, all unaccompanied. A favourite part for many people is the tremendous lilting of Séamus Fay, which was recorded at the house dance. Most of the tracks are ‘one take’, including those of the housedance.

The first CD is called Cairde an Mhater and includes the studio tracks. The second, An Damhsa Tí, is the housedance. It was decided not to sell the CD in the shops because of taxes, profits and distribution costs. All costs were covered by the sponsor, which means that 100% of sales go to the Mater. It was sold by direct means, and the generosity of people selling it.

As part of the launch of the CD, Tony and the musicians from Ashbourne travelled to an tOireachtas in Castlebar, Co Mayo. They had been asked to play a piece in a concert. As with the nature of the festival, it was after 12 midnight before the group got to play. As they began some lively reels, several of the Sean Nós dancers spontaneously got up to dance. As it turned out, nearly every Sean Nós dancer in the country was present and also wanted to do their bit! The musicians had to play reels continuously for the dancers and were exhausted when they finally got to finish.

A dedicated concert was also held in the National Concert Hall in Dublin to coincide with the launch of the CD. Again, the sponsor covered all the costs so that all proceeds would go directly to the Mater. The concert featured those also on the CD. It was compered jointly by Ciarán Mac Mathúna and Kieran Hanrahan.

There was no stage rehearsal before the concert. A rehearsal was held in the Gaelscoil in Ashbourne the night before, but, unsurprisingly, only about one their of the musicians showed up. It ended up being more of a meeting rather than a rehearsal. During the ‘meeting’ Tony made a comment that summed up the whole project: “We’re not an orchestra, and we’re not going to act like one!” On the night of the concert, the performers got a quick pep talk through the show on the night, backstage, during the first half of the concert while Noel Hill was playing on stage. The programme of tunes was stuck on the back of each fiddle and everyone just went out and did it.

The climax of the concert was the finale, a re-enactment of the housedance, with over seventy musicians playing together on stage, with three half-sets in front. There was also several vivacious Damhsa ar an Sean Nós and a spirited brush dance to the many reels played. Overall it was a ‘colourful and lively’ stage performance, everyone wearing multicoloured t-shirts embellished with the Lámh ar Lámh logo.

The night ended with a standing ovation from the audience of over 1,000, a fitting tribute to the hard work and generosity of Antóin, the sponsor and the participants.

Cape Breton Connections

The first Irish emigrants arrived in Cape Breton, Novia Scotia, over three hundred years ago. Irish culture has survived there quite strongly. Tony and Bernie have visited Cape Breton many times since 1985 to visit friends they have there: Donnie and Margaret Gillis. Tony met the Gillis’ while they were holidaying in Ireland and looking for a session in Dublin. Tony broguht them to a session and a lasting friendship developed. The Gillis’ are active members of the Cape Breton Fiddler’s Association; Donnie is a fiddler and Margaret a dance teacher. Tony has visited them in Cape Breton and played at the Cape Breton Fiddle Festival.

Tony Today

Tony teaches not only at his home Ashbourne, but in Mullahoran, Glasgow, and at various festivals and workshops. Over the years he has taught at Féile Ríona Traynor, Boston College, West Virginia, the Lorient festival in France and others. He travels on many concert tours, which have included Na Ridirí World Tour and the Comhaltas Tours of Britain, the United States and Canada. He has also performed on a number of occasions in Japan.

Antóin is a purist when it comes to traditional music, fiddle-playing, Irish language and culture. He has a tremendous respect for the old traditional musicians, whose music he says is much more distinctive than the fast syle of music we hear today. The older musicians learned their music while growing up with it; thus it became inherent to them, a part of their very nature. Musicians today learn from a much wider variety of sources, and have a completely different style of playing.

Antóin is a continuously active promoter of fiddle-playing, traditional music, Irish language and culture. He is extremely keen to see it passed on to new generations, “ó glúin go glúin”. His attitude is traditional, yet refreshing; Tony is an ambassador of our culture.