The Music Master of Dromard

Paddy Reynolds, 1920 - 2005

By Don Meade

Patrick “Paddy” Reynolds, one of the great Irish fiddlers of our time, was born on December 17, 1920 in the parish of Dromard in north County Longford to James and Mary Ann Quinn Reynolds. Paddy had to steal his first tunes on the fiddle, using an instrument reserved for his eldest brother James. He first took James’s fiddle to a hiding spot under a table where, concealed by the overhanging cloth, he stealthily picked out tunes with his fingers. Gaining confidence, the bold youngster took both fiddle and bow to play in a barn. Other family members overheard the music and his secret was out. James wasn’t too happy about sharing the fiddle with his younger brother but Paddy’s precocious talent could not be denied.

Paddy’s chief musical inspiration in his early years was his mother, whom he remembers as “a fine violinist in her own right with a smooth bowing style and excellent fingering”. His aunt Ellen, who also lived on the family’s 67-acre farm in the townland of Garvary, was another important influence. Ellen didn’t play an instrument, but she was a good singer and lilter and Paddy picked up many tunes from her “diddling.” He also credits the 78-rpm recordings of the great County Sligo fiddlers Michael Coleman and Paddy Killoran as other important sources of inspiration.

Music came easily to Paddy. “If I had a tune in my head, I could play it,” he recalled. By the age of 10 he was performing with a group called “The Moonlight Rovers” at local house parties and dances. One of Paddy’s proudest memories of his early years was a night he played with the great uilleann piper Leo Rowsome at a concert in a local hall.

As the youngest son, Paddy was not destined to inherit the farm and had to look elsewhere for work. During World War ll he was employed by a Protestant farmer across the border in County Fermanagh, where he got first-hand experience of the treatment meted out to local Catholics by the sectarian “B-special” constables. Coming home late one night, he was stopped by the specials, accused of ripping down a Union Jack, roughed up and thrown in jail. “I didn’t do it,” Paddy said, “but I’ve often wished that I had.”

After the war, Paddy worked on the Ballyshannon hydroelectric project in County Donegal. Despite the heavy physical labour, he still found time and energy to form and lead a group called the Four Provinces Céilí Band, which performed at concerts and dances in Donegal, north Leitrim and Derry. When the work at Ballyshannon dried up in 1948, Paddy, like so many thousands of Irishmen before him, took an emigrant boat to America.

After arriving in New York via Halifax, Nova Scotia, Paddy stayed briefly in Staten Island with his sisters Helen and Mary, who had preceded him to the city. He and Mary then moved to Brooklyn, where Paddy got his first musical jobs in America as a singer and fiddler in a trio with John and Nancy Ryan. It was on one of these gigs that he met his future bride, Elizabeth “Lily” Roughneen, a fellow immigrant from County Mayo. Paddy and Lily married in 1951 and took an aprtment at 149th Street and Cypress Avenue in the Mott Haven area of the south Bronx. Infamous in later years as a centre of arson and urban decay, Mott Haven was at that time a thriving Irish neighbourhood with an extraordinary concentration of great fiddle players.

The greatest of them all was a County Sligo man, James “Lad” O’Beirne. Paddy’s friend John Stenson, another Sligo fiddler, took him to meet Lad, whom he described as “the greatest fiddler in the worlk.” Paddy soon came to share that opinion. “I was amazed at what Lad could do,” Paddy recalled. “He was a great fiddler, but very unassuming, and the most intelligent man I ever had a conversation with.” Paddy became a regular participant in O’Beirne’s Friday night sessions, gatherings attended by New York fiddle greats who included Paddy Killoran, Paddy Sweeney, Tim Harte, Larry Redican, Martin Wynne and Louis Quinn. The renowned composer Ed Reavy was a frequent visitor from Philadelpha. Under Lad’s tutelage, Paddy acquired more technical sophistication, smooted the rough edges of his fiddling and perfected a polished and urbane interpretation of the County Sligo style.

Another fiddling neighbour in Lad’s circle was a young Irish-American named Andy McGann. Paddy and Andy became friends and musical partners and over the next three decades played together at hundreds of parties, weddings and dances, including Gaelic League céilís and the annual United Irish Counties Feis. Paddy Killoran helped establish the young duo’s reputation by referring to them some of the many gigs that his own band did not have time to take themselves.

Button accordionist and bandleader Joe Madden recalls that when he arrived in New York from County Galway in 1960, Paddy and Andy, together with Larry Redican, were known as ” the big three,” and regarded as the city’s Irish musical elite. This high-powered fiddle trio formed the core of the New York Céilí Band, an ensemble that included the late button accordion genius Paddy O’Brien, Galway flute player Jack Coen and a young pianist named Felix Dolan. Paddy travelled with the band to Ireland for the All-Ireland fleadh cheoil held Boyle, County Roscommon in 1960, where the New Yorkers were ignominiously disqualified from the competition for borrowing the drummer from their rivals in the Tulla Céilí Band!

In the 1960s Paddy and Lily moved to Brooklyn, where they raised their daughter Mary and two sons Stephen and James, who in classic Irish-American style grew up to become, respectively, a New York City policeman and a priest in the Brooklyn archdiocese. In Brooklyn, Paddy was active as a music teacher, working in partnership with the late accordionist John Glynn. There were few opportunities for Irish traditional musicians to perform in public in those years, but live television offered an occasional outlet, especially around the time of St Patrick’s Day, and Paddy appeared on the Ed Sullivan and Merv Griffin shows.

The international Irish music revival of the 1970s created a new audience for traditional music, and Paddy finally got a chance to put his fiddling on record. In 1971 he collaborated with button accordionist Charlie Mulvihill and pianist Felix Dolan to record eight solo and duet tracks for Sweet and Traditional Music of Ireland, a Rego Irish Records LP that also included cuts from button accordion virtuoso James Keane. Paddy and Charlie’s contributions to that disc were later reissued on the Kells Music CD The Atlantic Wave. In 1977 Paddy and Andy went into the studio with a then-obscure guitarist named Paul Brady to make a duet LP for Shanachie Records, a disc widely regarded as one of the greatest Irish fiddle recordings of all time. Paddy can also be heard on the 1990 Green Linnet CD My Love in in America recorded at an all-star fiddle concert at Boston College. He featured prominently in From Shore to Shore, a 1993 video documentary on Irish music in New York City, and played for a dance scene featuring Brad Pitt in the 1997 columbia Pictures film The Devil’s Own.

Paddy was active in the Irish musical life of New York well into his eighth decade. He performed at dozens of concerts and festivals, as well as countless informal pub and house sessions. Paddy had a reputation as something of a curmudgeon, but his bark was far fiercer than his bite. His home in Staten Island, where he and Lilly moved in the 1970s, was always open to musical visitors and he was exceedingly generous with time and advice for younger musicians. Paddy was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the Mid-Atlantic region of the Irish traditional music organization comhaoltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in 2002 and received a similar honour in 2003 from New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House. He passed away in Staten Island on June 15, 2005 at the age of 84.