The Long Road from Ballinakill

By Paul Keating - PRO CCE North America

The small Irish road sign outside the house in Hasbrouck Heights directing you to Galway is but a small clue that there is an unofficial “Teach Cheoil” here in the Northern New Jersey home of Mike and Theresa Rafferty. For decades, musicians have received a warm welcome in their home here on countless occasions as it is the very embodiment of what Comhaltas is all about in preserving and promoting traditional Irish music and the people who cherish it. While Mike Rafferty may have immigrated in 1949 to America from his homeplace in Larraga near Ballinakill, it is clear that the music of his beloved East Galway remained firmly placed in his heart.

Like many Irish immigrants before him and after him holding onto the music ensured that his native land would never be forgotten.

Down through the years fortunate were the CCE concert tour musicians who garnered a resting spot at 229 Baldwin Avenue because they received much more than bed and board with the Raffertys. Artists like Joe Burke, Paddy Glackin, Patsy Hanly, Brian McNamara, Ivan Goff and Micheal O’Raghallaigh know the experience all too well and happily made the exchange of sleep for the opportunity to swap tunes and yarns with the Galway master long into the night. They came to know what many of his friends in America realized was one of Mike Rafferty’s most endearing qualities, that Irish music was meant to be shared with others for the enjoyment of it. He loved to hear others play music and, of course, they were delighted to hear one of the great exponents of the East Galway style of music who seemingly gets better with age.

Now 78 years old and with the responsibilities of raising a family and work long behind him now, Mike Rafferty devotes much of his time to Irish music. As many of us know from seeing the smiling face that once graced the cover of Treoir magazine happily playing away at a Fleadh, CCE Convention or session, these are very good times for him and us. Since he retired in 1989, he has been on a mission to keep as many tunes “above ground” as he can including much of the music that he got from his father’s time back in Ballinakill. Mike and his daughter Mary have recorded quite a few tunes that he attributes to his father Tom “Barrel” Rafferty who like Mike played the whistle, flute and the uilleann pipes. Their three recordings together in the past decade ‘The Dangerous Reel’ (1995), ‘The Old Fireside Music’ (1998) and ‘The Road from Ballinkill” (2001) pay homage to the tradition of handing down the music in the family as they are joined by Mike’s brother Paddy the lilter and sister Kathleen the singer and son-in-law Donal Clancy who is married to Mary.

Proving that learning and relearning music can be a life-long exploration (and why not when you are enjoying it as much as Raff), he has now produced his first ‘solo’ CD entitled ‘Speed 78’ fittingly enought there in his New Jersey home with the encouragement and able assistance of his daughter Mary and her husband Donal Clancy.

Surprisingly that a man who has appeared on a Comhalta tour of America, at the prestigious Smithsonian Institute’s Festival of American Folklife for the 1976 Bicentennial celebrations in Washington DC and subsequent Green Fields of America tours along with the Milwaukee Irish Fest is only getting around to it now. Yet the new recording captures the essence of what the music means to him now in his golden years when he can reflect on it and still experience it as if he was hearing it for the very first time.

The CD title draws directly on the inclusion of two reels ‘The Shaskeen and the Green Blanket’ learned froma 78 rpm vinyl record of the old Ballinakill Traditional Dance Players (or Ceili Band as we more commonly know them). A photo depicting the label appears on the inside of the CD booklet which in charming simplicity evokes Mike’s genuine admiration for the people who inspired him along his musical path. The title also suggests that he is still going strong at age 78 and perhaps a playful twist on his well-documented insistence that the music should not be played too fast or it loses its flavour. Enhancing the CD are five spoken interludes or stories captured during the house recordings that put other selections in context and give listeners a chance to experience what it is like to share some time with Mike and the source of his inspiration. For instance before we hear Mike playing his father’s newly reconditioned uilleann pipes (refit from a left-handed set to a righ-handed set by pipemaker and friend Benedict Koehler) for the jigs ‘Garret Barry’s’ and ‘The Woods of Old Limerick’ we learn they were made by Leo Rowsome for his father who had gone blind and lost his teeth which hampered his flute playing.

Rafferty includes tunes that he learned from his own flute students like the composition of Paul Well whom he met in Nova Scotia entitled ‘The Bower’ and ‘Ceo na gCnoc’ from Brian Holleran, the North American Provincial Youth Officer who plays the flute and the pipes thanks to Rafferty. Comhaltas Live, the CCE internet channel provided a source for John Brady’s ‘Fr John’s Jubilee’ which Mike’s media savvy wife Terry insisted he learn as a good flute tune.

Displaying both generosity and appreciation for an old Galway friend Joe Madden from Portumna and the younger New Jersey fiddler Willie Kelly who has an affinity for the older style of playing in East Galway and Clare, Mike both performs with them and allows each a solo slot for their own selections. With Mary (accordion), Donal (guitar) and also the incomparable Felix Dolan (piano) also on board, this latest recording conveys the best of the Pure Drop and an unbroken link with Rafferty’s native Galway and Eire that can be relished for years to come.

This old-timer is active enough to support a CCE branch named after him, perform in a tasty old-style ceili band led by daughter Mary and featuring Willie Kelly, Felix Dolan and Donal Clancy and the occasional concerts and workshop like the Catskills Irish Arts Week. You can try and keep up with him at which is also a good link to obtain all their recordings.