Six years ago, Brendan Mulvihill, Andy O'Brien and Bill McComiskey were just getting to know each other driving down Interstate 95 to a blind gig at the Dubliner pub on Capitol Hill. The stocky O'Brien had just arrived from Ireland so broke that he was using a New York subway token as a guitar pick. Fiddler Mulvihill had also just landed, down and out from England; there were, he recalls, only "four strands of hair left on my bow."
McComiskey had been raised in an Irish pocket of the Bronx learning accordion styles from older immigrants. They were a disparate trio who had first met a few nights earlier in a New York pub. They never even rehearsed before stepping on the Dubliner's stage ("We were half-drunk and played with our coats on," they remembered). What the three had in common was a love for -- and a vast repertoire of -- traditional Irish music, particularly the lively dance melodies and rhythms of the jigs and reels that had been overwhelmed in this century by the commercial dominance of ballads.
What was originally slated as a month's engagement turned into a four-year stay; "nobody ever said anything and we just kept on playing five or six nights a week," O'Brien admits. In that time, Washington developed into a haven for authentic Irish music, and the Irish Tradition (ass they eventually called themselves) was clearly at the center.
For a time, you could find traditional Irish music seven nights a week here, and there were frequent ceilis (dances). That scene has shifted to the blue-collor, community-oriented evirons of Baltimore ("It's like Brooklyn is to Manhattan," says McComiskey, who liked it so much he moved there; the other two remain in Washington). "The people are more serious, but the crack is great once you get used to it." ("Crack" is an Irish term indicating when people hit it off through music or conversation -- sort of like rapport).
People in Baltimore also maintain the traditional emphasis on dancing. At the home-base Gandy Dancer, says O'Brien, "there's a huge dance floor that they keep very well-waxed. People who go into that bar have great respect for the floor. You can't be acting the fool." O'Brien's accent is molasses-deep; "couple of beers" comes out as a cooople a bierze." Baltimore is also a base for national touring; the Tradition has been around the country, down to Mexico, up to British Columbia, back to England and Ireland. Tonight, they play three sold-out shows at New York's fabled Gerde's folk club, a concert that will be broadcast live over that city's National Public Radio station, WBAI.
These days, members of the Tradition lament, the "crack" in Washington is not as good as it used to be, and the Tradition has had to look elesewhere for it, as well as for work and appreciation. Their appearances in Washington are limited now, to parties and ceilis and an occasional concert. Much of it has to do with the transient, well-heeled nature of Washington (and particularly, Capitol Hill) audiences. Says the mutton-chopped Mulvihill, "We could have gone in there with green hats and sung 'Give Ireland Back to the Irish,' and they would have said, 'That's traditional.' They had nothing to go on." Instead, the Tradition educated audiences even as it was entertaining them with a new world populated with ancient animated jigs and reels; in the process, the band inspired dozens of area folk musicians to explore the taditional music of Ireland as avidly as they were exploring bluegrass and the stylistically similar roots of old-timey American music. Among the groups tracing their style to the Tradition are Celtic Thunder, the Hags and Boiling Spuds.
For McComiskey the band's success is vindication for the often solitary musical training he went through as a child. His father, though supportive, still keeps him informed of job openings in the neighborhood. "It was one of those things you couldn't share, 'cause these guys [his instructors] were 63, 70. They were great guys but they were old, the last of their kind. But if it wasn't for those guys taking the time to show me a tune, I wouldn't be playing."
Irish music has survived being handed down from generation to generation, says McComiskey. "it's like a language, you have to be around the people who play it." He and Mulvihill (whose father is a well-known fiddler) learned well enough to walk off with a number of first places in the prestigious All-Ireland instrumental competitions during the late '70s. The awards are highly prized overseas; "here it kept us from being fired at the Dubliner for a while," they all laugh.
"nobody ever got to be a big star playing Irish music," says McComiskey in a second-generation accent that is less pronounced than those of his compatriots. "But there are people who love to play for hell of it, sitting around the kitchen with a big pot of tea, learning tunes, 30 people in a room." And there are the memorable nights -- the Cellar Door running out of beer; Teddy Kennedy celebrating a political victory at the Dubliner "like a true Irishman" -- and silly memories of a dead-drunk Mulvihill falling into the lap of a 500-pound woman, "like landing on a trampoline," as he remembers fondly.
And there's Connecticut Rep. Stewart McKinney's annual St. Patrick's day bash on the Hill (it took place last Friday), which has been a Traditional affair five of its seven years. On a Saturday afternoon, the musicians are still laughing about the House punch -- equal parts vodka and champagne, with a hunk of lime sherbet tossed in to make it green. "Two glasses of that stuff and your eyes are really rolling," says Mulvihill, whose copious belly is a way station between barrel and pot. "One glass", O'Brien corrects him. "we taught them a simple Irish dance and they all got into the spirit."
And at the center of that spirit for the musicians is the indefinable "nea" (pronounced "nyah"), the trancendent moment when the new blood connects to ancient tradition. "You have to put the nea into it," they say of what separates their music from the rest. McComiskey remembers his early years in New York: "You could always tell the non-Irish guy when the musicians played," by his hesitation, or American mannerisms, or lack of respect. "It took a pile of generations for it to happen in New York."
You wait and watch, listen and learn, says McComiskey, "and then all of a sudden, you have it . All of a sudden, it goes from wrong to right." All of a sudden it went from three musicians inadvertently thrown together to the Irish Tradition.