Paddy Tunney - The Man of Songs

By Séamus Mac Mathúna

Paddy Tunney, traditional singer, poet, writer, raconteur, lilter, songwriter - Man of Songs - died on December 7th 2002. He was just seven weeks short of his 82nd birthday.

In the world of Irish traditional singing in the English language Paddy was simply the King. For fifty years his repertoire of fine songs, the quality of his voice - particularly in the early years, his inimitable singing style and mastery of grace notes, phrasing and momentum, the feeling, passion and sheer excellence of his performance in full flight; all these qualities ensured that paddy Tunney set an exceptional standard not only for his peers but also for the several generations of singers who have followed in his footsteps.

It was from his mother the late Bridget Tunney that Paddy learned many of his best songs; in fact Paddy considered her a truly inspired and inspiring singer.

She was born in 1886 in Pettigo, County Donegal, the second child of Michael Gallagher and Mary Meehan.

There was a rich singing tradition on both sides of Bridget’s cradle - going back at least four generations with the Gallagher’s and at least two (generations) in the case of the Meehan’s. Paddy frequently spoke about the singers from whom his mother learned her songs; people such as her aunt Mary (known as Mary of the Mountain Streams - for obvious reasons), also her grandfather Pat Meehan and old William Monaghan (a neighbour). Paddy considered that many of her songs might have been brought to the area by journeymen, tailors, cobblers and weavers, who would have been encouraged to sing by the music-loving folk of the area.

From the early 1950’s Paddy Tunney was to be found wherever traditional music and singing was taking place. In those early years good songs were scarce, but the Tunney repertoire seemed to be endless. His songs were like manna from Heaven to young people seeking to find a repertoire. From him we learned Moorlough Mary and Lough Erne Shore, Craigie Hill and The Green Fields of Canada, Easter Snow, As I Roved Out and The Banks of Dunmore, The Blackbird, The Mountain Streams where the Moorcocks Crow and Sheila Nee Iyer, The Rambling Boys of Pleasure and My Charming Buachaill Rua.

He freely gave these, and many more, and only asked that they be sung with the respect and feeling they deserved. But he hated to hear a good song carelessly or tastelessly sung, and would protest vehemently at the ‘butchery’ of a song or tune.

Down through the decades Paddy served the cause of Irish traditional singing with exceptional loyalty. He adjudicated at Fleadhanna all over the country.

He was readily available for seminars and workshops. He served for nearly 20 years at CCE’s annual Scoil Éigse, where he passed on his songs, his singing techniques and his love for those songs to hundreds of young singers. The songs I have listed above - and many others also are widely sung today throughout the land because of Paddy’s boundless enthusiasm in promoting and teaching them.

I would like to dwell briefly on Paddy’s writings, his poetry, his translations, and his prose in its several manifestations including both the written and spoken word. He had an exceptional command of the English, combining eloquence and elegance enriched with passages of sheer poetry and phrases and local idioms now largely forgotten. A few examples to illustrate, and possibly stimulated you, dear reader to read some of this published work. These are all taken from ‘The Stone Fiddle’.

‘Meadow Mane rippled with corncrakes and scyhthe steel sang to whetstone. The air ached with the pain and joy of loving. It was the time that turned my mother to songs of love and longing. She put aside the hoops that held the cloth, where her needle and thread had wrought the most exotic rosebuds, open flowers and intricate patterns, and wove with her voice arabesques of sound that bested the embroidery. She sang me for the first time that exquisitely beautiful song: As I Roved out or The False Bride.’

Another example - part of a poem called ‘Reelsong’:

An old man bred in the mountain marrow stands up to harrow where the dancers ploughed A troubadour from the heights of glory he tells his story of love aloud. The greeshagh glows, the strong mouth quivers, from throat there rivers like rain in drouth A song that leaps down the lanes of longing and hones a hunger from the Land of Youth