Brendan Tonra at The Cultúrlann

By Frank Kennedy

The legendary fiddler and composer Brendan Tonra recieved a very warm and gracious céad míle fáilte on his recent visit to the Cultúrlann.

Brendan, a native of Gowlan near Doocastle on the Sligo-Mayo border, emigrated to America over forty years ago and has resided in the Boston area ever since. Perhaps best known to musicians as the composer of the popular Tonra’s Jig, Brendan has composed literally hundreds of tunes. He composed his first tune in 1954 at age 19, entitled the Gowlan Reel, when left at home digging potatoes while his father went to a County Council meeting. Brendan related that since then ‘many tunes have come to me while riding the bus or subway, sitting quietly at home, at work, or most anywhere it seems.’

Last year Brendan, together with his close friend Helen Kisiel, collaborated to publish a book of his tunes, totalling nearly 100 compositions. It is entitled ‘A Musical Voyage with Brendan Tonra.’

Says Brendan, ‘My father played the fiddle and my mother knew all the tunes, but I didn’t learn the fiddle from my father. I just picked it up when I was seven or eight years old and my mother showed me how to get the notes. Then my grandfather, John Henry, left me his fiddle, so after that I learned to play, listening to recordings at my Aunt Peg Ryan’s house. She had a phonograph and there I heard recordings of Michael Coleman and Paddy Killoran. At about age 16, I started playing at porter sprees and dances, hearing the likes of Johnny ‘Watt’ Henry, Pack Spellamn, Mick Joe Ryan, Jim Durcan, Johnny Cawley, and others, playing in the local Sligo style.

Once a month, a fine night of music was had in the local creamery, musicians playing for the dancers who battered out the sets on the stone floor, ‘and you wouldn’t need a mike, either,’ says Brendan. Kennedy’s in Doocastle was always a good place for a session, especially on a Fair Day. The boss of the house always had a fiddle or a flute under the counter, and once the music began, the poor cows were soon forgotten.

Brendan continued playing music in Boston with the Tara Band whose members included Mickey Connolly, accordion; Larry Reynolds, fiddle; Frank Neylon, flute; Tom Garvey, piano; George Shanley, drums; and Terry Landers, accordion. Later he joined the Connacht Céilí Band formed by Mike McDonagh which, over the subsequent years, made a record and two tours to Ireland.

Brendan’s visit to the Cultúrlann coincided with Tionól Leo Rowsome and the special recognition programme for Séamus de Brún. Brendan contributed to this memorable event with a workshop programme on Saturday and an appearance in the Saturday evening concert, accompanied by Helen Kisiel. He also had the opportunity to meet many Comhaltas members and delegates, as well as traditional musicains from various areas of the country. As Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú stated in his comments ‘it was indeed a pleasure to welcome a living legend of traditional music’.