Paddy Fahey (1916-2019) – The Irish Mozart


The greatest Irish composer of the 20th Century passed away, aged 102, on Friday 31st May 2019. His name was Paddy Fahey.

He didn’t compose classical music, he composed Irish jigs, reels and hornpipes. Composers of traditional/folk music are rarely acknowledged as ‘great’ composers like their classical counterparts are. However, the genius of a ‘folk’ composer like Fahey is beautifully summed up by this quote about folk tunes from the iconic Hungarian composer Bela Bartók;

In their small way, they are as perfect as the grandest masterpieces of musical art. They are, indeed, classical models of the way in which a musical idea can be expressed in all its freshness and shapeliness – in short, in the very best possible way, in the briefest possible form and with the simplest of means.”

Fahey’s compositions are of the highest level in Irish folk music, they are thus among the grandest masterpieces of Irish musical art. Therefore, shouldn’t he be acknowledged as one of Ireland’s greatest ever composers, regardless of genre?

I’d love to see Fahey recognised as a national treasure. Unfortunately Ireland has never really treasured its instrumental composers, be they composers of classical, traditional or jazz music. As an Irish composer, Paddy Fahey means as much to me as Yeats and Joyce mean to Irish writers.  Fahey is one of my heroes. I know I’m not alone in that.

Fahey’s music is played by practically anyone who has played Irish music over the past 50 years, whether they know it or not. His tunes are ubiquitous in Irish trad sessions, they have been recorded by nearly all the greatest Irish trad musicians of the past 50 years. His music has quietly seeped its way into the annals of Irish folk music without any fanfare from the man himself.

In a world when self-promotion is necessary to most careers in music, Fahey’s case is quite extraordinary. He never sought publicity or fame, never pushed his music commercially. He just played it among friends, friends shared it with other friends and within 50 years or so it has become played all over the world by thousands of musicians, of all ages.

If he were a classical composer there would be statues to him, paintings in national galleries, commemorative stamps etc. Yet, as I write this, there is nothing in the major national media outlets about his passing, other than a small notice, in the Irish language, placed obscurely on the website of our national broadcaster RTÉ.

However, I doubt Fahey would be bothered by this. He was a humble man who rarely appeared in public, never made a commercial recording, never published his compositions and didn’t even give names to his dozens of jigs, reels and hornpipes. They’re all simply known as ‘Paddy Fahey’s’ (sometimes misspelt as Fahy’s).

I don’t have a personal connection to him, I never met him, but his passing is, to me, the single biggest loss to Irish music since the blind harpist/composer Turlough O’Carolan died in 1738. So I am in deep mourning for the great man, his legacy and beautiful music.

Paddy Fahey and me

I would like to share a few thoughts on how Paddy Fahey’s music has profoundly influenced my work.

I first noticed Fahey’s music through Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill’s classic album ‘The Lonesome Touch’. It begins with this, perhaps Fahey’s best known reel.

From the outset you can hear the beautiful melodic sweep of Fahey’s music. It moves quickly from the lowest note on the fiddle, the open G string, up two octaves to the G on the E string and back down again. The tune meanders effortlessly to its perfect conclusion, like a river that knows the exact best route to the ocean. However this tune only scratches the surface of Fahey’s melodic gifts.

The second Fahey tune on ‘The Lonesome Touch’ is what really drew me into the magic of Fahey’s music.
​(It is the second tune in the video below, starting at 1’09”)

There is an indescribable quality to this, and indeed most other Fahey tunes. Some say it’s haunting, or otherworldly, or melancholic. Perhaps ‘The Lonesome Touch’ is the most apt way to describe it. Fahey’s tunes work best played by a lonesome fiddler.

It was another lonesome fiddler whose playing of Fahey’s music fully convinced me of Fahey’s sublime genius. Breda Keville comes from the same area of Ireland Fahey was from, East Galway. On her album ‘The Hop Down’ she plays Fahey’s music in a gorgeously authentic way. Her approach to pacing, phrasing, ornamentations and pitching are quite different to how most violinists play, even within Irish traditional music.

To a classical musician who doesn’t understand Irish folk music it might seem ‘out of tune’ at first, but every note here is perfectly pitched and articulated according to the mystical East Galway style. It’s the ‘in-between’ notes, bends and ornaments that give it such an otherworldly quality.

For this reason it’s pretty much impossible to play Fahey’s music authentically on an instrument which doesn’t have the flexibility to ‘bend’ notes like this. Typically that would rule my instrument, the guitar, out. Nevertheless, I became so enamoured with Fahey’s music that I was compelled to learn his music and adapt it for the guitar.

I went on a mission to find as many Fahey tunes as I could. That drew me to recordings by the Kane sisters of Letterfrack, who recorded many of Fahey’s tunes. They even played with Fahey on what may be his only televised appearance, and only national recognition, when he was named the first ever TG4 ‘Composer of the Year’ in 2001. 

Then, I heard through the trad grapevine that there were ‘field’ recordings of Fahey out there, including a CD of him playing many of his own compositions. These recordings were made by Maria Holohan for a Masters Thesis she did at the University of Limerick in the 1990’s – ‘The tune compositions of Paddy Fahey’.

The thesis contains 60 of Fahey’s tunes notated and recorded. Each one is a gem and Fahey’s playing of them is a revelation. He sounds unique. I have read there are now over 100 Fahey tunes. Indeed, some of the tunes I found on recordings are not in the thesis. One such tune is this gorgeous reel in F, which Matt Molloy recorded as a ‘hidden’ track at the end of ‘Little Musgrave’ from the classic Planxty album ‘The Woman I Loved So Well’. (The tune starts at 9’40”)

PicturePaddy Fahey & Martin Hayes, Gort 2012

With all this info to hand, a decade ago, I arranged and recorded 20 Paddy Fahey tunes and released them on the album ‘Contemporary Traditional Irish Guitar’, alongside music by other great Irish tune composers like Tommy Peoples, Charlie Lennon and Liz Carroll. 

Soon after, I thought it’d be fantastic to have a collection of ‘The Complete Works of Paddy Fahey’.  For years I’d considered trying to initiate such a project by visiting him to seek his blessing. Alas, I never plucked up the courage to meet him, I didn’t want to bother him at his home. I felt a meeting would happen if it was meant to happen, but it was never meant to happen.  I didn’t get to meet my Irish composing hero,  but I nearly did on two occasions.

Around 2006 I found out about a night in his honour being held in Craughwell, East Galway. So I booked myself into a B&B, took a 2 hour, 2 bus journey to get there and promptly arrived on time to a near empty hall. At 7.30pm, when the concert was scheduled to start, the compére, Mattie Joe Sheamus, announced to the small crowd that unfortunately Fahey wasn’t able to make it (hence the small crowd). I was thwarted in my first attempt to meet the great man. 

Then, in 2012, came a golden opportunity to finally shake Fahey’s hand, when he was honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the Cooley-Collins Festival in Gort. There, Martin Hayes spoke eloquently about Fahey’s music, comparing him to Beethoven by playing his famous G reel right after the main melody from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Martin explained how he saw Fahey’s melodies to be as good, if not better, than Beethovens. He convincingly suggested if Fahey was brought up in 18th Century Germany he would likely have become a great composer of symphonies and concertos, such was his gift for melody.

Following this, the legendary Paddy Fahey received a standing ovation from the large crowd as he went over to Martin to accept his award. I took a photo of that moment where the two long-haired fiddle legends shook hands. A large queue of people soon formed to join Martin in shaking Fahey’s hand and thank him for his great legacy. Yet, something prevented me from joining the queue.

Of course I regret not ever meeting him, but I don’t regret not going up to shake his hand that night. The queue looked quite overwhelming, and it probably was for Fahey, who was quite frail at the time. It just wasn’t the right situation for me to meet my hero. As it turns out, there was never a right situation.

Instead, I paid tribute to him the best way I know how. I composed a tune in his honour called ‘Fahey in Feakle’. I placed it in my orchestral work ‘The Clare Concerto’. Martin Hayes aptly led this tune during the premiere of ‘The Clare Concerto’. 

That premiere was one of the highlights of my life. Of course it wouldn’t have been possible without Fahey’s influence. In that piece I tried to show what it might be like if composers like Fahey were orchestral composers., blending a modern style of Irish tune composing with a modern style of orchestration.

I’ve never orchestrated any of Fahey’s tunes though, I started one once but decided it’d be best to leave them as they were. They don’t need a big orchestration, they stand alone as perfectly formed mini-symphonies and no one sounds better playing them than Fahey himself.

Due to the elusive nature of the man and his music, it is difficult, if not impossible, to convince anyone outside of the Irish traditional music world that Fahey was the greatest Irish composer of the 20th Century. He was never invited to join the so-called ‘elite’ government-approved body of Irish artists ‘Aosdána’, yet his body of work and influence outstrips most of those within Aosdána.

Most classical composers I know would balk at the idea that a composer of jigs and reels could be considered a ‘great’ composer on a par with a classical composer. However, that is their loss, they’ll never truly understand what Bartók meant when he praised folk music composers so highly.

Paddy Fahey was the personification of perfection in Irish music. Every note he composed was perfectly placed, there was nothing superfluous and nothing needs to be added to it. This is how classical musicians often describe Mozart’s music.

So, perhaps a way of getting Fahey the household recognition he deserves is to say he was the Mozart of Irish music. Eventually, as he becomes the household name he deserves to be, there’ll be no need to call him the Irish Mozart. He’ll just be known as Paddy Fahey, the greatest Irish composer of the 20th Century.

Dave Flynn, 1st June 2019

P.S. Listen to this rare archival compilation of the great man himself and judge for yourself