Second City Musician Takes Firsts

By Earle Hitchner, Irish Echo

His beleaguered Chicago Cubs haven’t enjoyed success in a World Series since 1908. But 19-year-old Isaac Alderson, whose family lives a block north of Wrigley Field, enjoyed spectacular success this year in Irish traditional music’s competitive equivalent of the World Series: Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. During the weekend of August 23-25 in Listowel, Co Kerry, he became the first US-born musician to capture three All-Ireland senior solo titles in the same year at the festival, which was founded in 1951 by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.

There have been other, Irish-born competitors to win three All-Ireland senior solo championships in the same year, such as Sligo’s Deirdre Collis, on button accordion, whistle, and flute; Galway’s Fr Charlie Coen, on concertina, whistle, and flute (slow airs), and Limerick’s Louise Mulcahy, who actually took four senior titles last year, on uilleann pipes, flute, whistle, and pipes (slow airs).

What makes Alderson’s senior-level ‘hat-trick’ on uilleann pipes, tin whistle and flute all the more remarkable is that he started relatively late in traditional music, at age 13, and comes from a family that isn’t Irish or Irish American. ‘Alderson’ is probably English, he says, and ‘Isaac’ is Jewish, reflecting his mother’s side. ‘I think my parents were less than thrilled when I took up the Highland pipes in the beginning,’ Alderson said from his dorm room at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY, where he’s a sophomore, ‘and I think they were very thrilled when I ditched the Highland pipes for the Alderson’s initial brush with an Irish traditional session of top-tier players came not in Chicago but in St Louis at the Mississippi River Celtic Music Festival. He was a freshman in high school then, ‘I didn’t know any of the tunes they played, and all I had with me was a tin whistle and a loaner set of pipes,’ he recalls. ‘But I met Larry Nugent there and he became my first teacher.’

Born in Lack, Co Fermanagh, and a resident of Chicago since 1992, Nugent taught Alderson on flute and whistle for about four years. Though he was largely self-taught on the uilleann pipes, Alderson took some lessons from Al Purcell, a Dublin-born piper who learned from Leo Rowsome, and Kieran O’Hare, a native Kansas piper who lives and performs in Chicago. Other influences on Isaac include Gavin Whelan and Altan’s Frankie Kennedy for whistle and flute, and Robbie Hannan, Brian McNamara, Mick O’Brien, Séamus Ennis, and Jerry O’Sullivan for uilleann pipes.

One of the biggest influences on Alderson today is Oisín Mac Diarmada, a Clare-raised fiddler living in Sligo who won the senior title in 1999 and now performs in the band Téada. ‘One thing Oisín does that is really cool is play in different keys,’ Alderson said. ‘He’ll take a tune and find the right key for it instead of just playing it in the same key that everybody else plays it it, which may or may not be right.’

Alderson himself experimented with an unusual key in his All-Ireland senior flute competition. ‘I played the ‘Cúl-Aodh Jig’ in E-major instead of G, which is what it’s usually played in,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t going to compete on the whistle at all because I didn’t feel very confident on it the night before. But a friend convinced me to try.’ The night before, he also found himself broke. ‘I had about 26 cents left,’ he said, ‘and I sold a bamboo flute to get money to last me the rest of my trip.’

Two years ago, Alderson entered his first Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, ‘I didn’t win anything,’ he said. Last year, in the 15-18 age category, he was placed second on pipes (slow airs) and on flute (slow airs). This year he won for the first time, taking home the top medal along with the perpetual trophy in three coveted categories. ‘It was all very strange to me,’ admitted Alderson, who represents Chicago’s Francis O’Neill branch of CCÉ at the fleadh. ‘I was interviewed by RTÉ and NewYork Times. That’s more attention than I ever got before as a musician. Besides, I hadn’t been playing all that long. A lot of the musicians over there started out much younger.’

Strange or not, winning three senior titles, an unprecedented feat for a proverbial Yank in Ireland, is encouraging for Alderson in another way ‘I really love teaching music,’ he said, ‘and hope I can help people the way I’ve been helped. I want to show students that you don’t have to be Irish or Irish American to play Irish music. For me, it’s more about heart than heritage.’