New York Fiddling Icon Andy McGann

By Earle Hitchner - 'Irish Echo'

One of the greatest fiddlers in the history of Irish traditional music, Bronx-born Andy McGann lost his fight with cancer on July 13 at Cabrini Hospice in New York City. He was 75 years old.

Along with Chicago’s Johnny McGreevy (1919 - 1990), Andy McGann proved beyond a shadow of doubt, that a US born fiddler could hold his own against the musical best that Ireland had to offer. The respect and admiration for Andy McGann in Ireland culminated in 1990 when he was chosen the honorary president of Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, held in his ancestral County of Sligo.

The son of a father from Ballymote and a mother from Keash, Andy McGann took up Irish step dancing before gravitating to the fiddle after hearing one of his parents’ friends play it. From ages 7 to 12, Andy took lessons from a US born fiddler Catherine Brennan Grant.

In 1935, the same year he started studying with Grant, Andy met Sligo fIddling legend Michael Coleman (1891 - 1945) for the first time when Coleman, who knew Andy’s father, dropped of a music stand at the McGann family home on 140th Street and Cypress Avenue. ‘My father attempted to get a hold of Michael to teach me the fiddle, but he wasn’t interested in teaching beginners from what I understood’ Andy said.

Four years of playing violin in the orchestra of Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx further developed Andy McGann’s technique, and during occaisonal visits from Michael Coleman, the teen-aged Andy, no longer a tyro, would play some tunes with him. This informal musical relationship would last up to the time Coleman died.

Another musician who had profound influence on Andy McGann’s fiddling was Kilavil native James ‘Lad’ O’Beirne (1911 - 1980), son of Phil O’Beirne, who once taught Coleman. “Technically, Lad was brilliant, one of the most capable artists I can think of”, said Andy, who also played at times with yet another superb Sligo fiddler, Paddy Killoran (1904 - 1965).

But it is with two non-Sligo instrumentalists, Galway button accordionist Joe Burke and Longford born fiddler Paddy Reynolds, that Andy McGann forged his most memorable recorded partnerships.

‘A Tribute to Michael Coleman’ marked McGann’s formal commercial album debut at age 37. He recorded it with Burke and pianist Felix Dolan for Shaskeen Records (Burke’s own imprint) in just five and a half hours on November 11, 1965. This landmark album helped to revive interest in Coleman’s music and especially his settings of tunes, and the tight playing on it had no less an impact.

McGann’s impeccable rhythm, masterful bow trebles, seamless use of vibrato, and other sylistic nuances were finally showcased for all to hear and appreciate. His compositional ability was also revealed in ‘Andy McGann’s Jig’, now a session staple that, he claimed, came out of ‘tinkering around on the black keys of a piano one night.’ Green Linnet Records’ 1994 CD reissue of this LP is still in print.

Bookkeeping and accounting constituted Andy McGann’s daytime occupation for many yars, and the responsibilities of job and family along with too few opportunities to record, contributed to the relative smallness of his studio output. It includes ‘Andy McGann and Paddy Reynolds’ in 1976, his 1977 solo debut, ‘Andy McGann and Paul Brady’ and ‘The Funny Reel’ a 1979 follow-up to ‘A Tribute to Michael Coleman’. All three are Shanachie releases.

The link with Paddy Reynolds began for Andy in 1948 when they met at a house party in the Bronx. The two soon performed at céilidhs, weddings, and sessions and in the late 1950’s they became members of what is arguably the most talented céilí band ever to emerge from America, the New York Céilí Band.

Brian Conway, an All-Ireland senior fiddle champion in 1986, received advice and encouragement from Andy McGann. The last formal recording project to feature his fiddling is Conway’s 2002 solo debut, ‘First Through the Gate’ (Smithsonian Folkways). Extending from Coleman, the New York Sligo-influenced fiddling continuum of McGann, Conway and Pat Mangan, Conway’s own student, can be heard on two tracks there.

The funeral Mass for Andy McGann took place this past Monday morning at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church on Manhattan’s East 90th Street. It was as dignified and reserved as McGann himself. An ongoing ‘community of music’ was mentioned in the priest’s sermon, and evidence of that came during the Mass from the playing of Conway, Mangan, Dolan, Tony DeMarco, Mike Rafferty, Cleek Schrey, John Daly, Maeve Flanagan, Erin Loughran, Pat Keogh, Martin Reilly, Gabe Donahue, and Colin Lindsay.

‘Down by the Sally Gardens’, ‘Lakes of Sligo’ and two reels recorded by Coleman, ‘Trim the Velvet’ and ‘Lucy Campbell’ were among the tunes performed.

Burial followed at St Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx, where Coleman, Killoran and James Morrison are also interred. Andy McGann is survived by his wife Patricia, sons Mark, Kieran and Neal, daughter Megan and 11 granchildren.

Published on July 21, 2004, in the Irish Echo Newspaper, New York City. Copyright © Earle Hitchner.