Over the past quarter of a century Frank Whelan has been the driving force behind the creation of the Cois na hAbhna Archive, which has become the largest library of traditional music recordings and material outside Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann headquarters in Dublin. Forty years after the Fleadh Nua first came to Ennis the Shragh man recalls to Joe Ó Muircheartaigh his job of journeywork and passion for the tradition.
FRANK Whelan was always going to immerse himself in the tradition when he came to live in Ennis in 1988 – that said, even if he had entertained notions about taking a back seat and concentrating on other things, it could never have happened.
He knew this after just a few days in town, when one of the first old aquaintances he met was Nora Liddy, who was secretary of the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann branch in Rathkeale, when both were based there and lived in digs next door to each other.
“I had lost contact with her, but met her in the street,” he recalls. “She was involved in a dancing club in Cois na hAbhna and she asked me to call out – I got involved in the dancing club for a while and then got dragged into a position in Cois na hAbhna.”
And so the immersion began in Cois na hAbhna, which had been built five years previously as a showcase for the tradition in the county.
In particular, Whelan was drawn to one room in the building – the Sean Reid Library. “It was only a shelf with a couple of tapes and references on it,” he remembers, “so I thought it was only right that we should have a good archive.
“I bought a tape recorder and myself and John Lyons – a bus driver for CIE and another man stone mad on music – set about driving around the county and interviewing the old musicians at the time. It was ’89 when we started – recording and collecting. We always travelled together,” he adds.
Whelan has been on the road since. Undertaking the job of journeywork around the county – recording tunes, songs and stories, so much so that a quarter of a century later he has amassed the biggest traditional music archive in Ireland outside Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann headquarters in Dublin.
“Who was the first one we went to? Dear God, who was it?” he wonders. “I think it was a woman who lived out in Carrahan. It was her 99th birthday and she was playing the concertina – Brigit Dinan and she had an unbelievable memory.
“We recorded her that night. She actually played a tune and told us the story that a few nights before she had a dream that her family had bought her a new concertina – she picked it up and played a tune that she heard from a man that came from England when she was seven.
“We asked her to play it. She wasn’t sure if she could but she took up the concertina – it wasn’t a new one because it was only in her dream that she got a new one – and was fingering away with it for a while. Didn’t she get the tune, it just came into her head. We actually put that tune onto a recording of the concertina players of Clare that we brought a few years ago.
“We went back to her every year after that – for her 100th birthday, when she was 101 and 102 and she died a few months before her 103rd birthday.
“We recorded Kitty Linnane, PJ Hayes, Paddy Canny, Junior Crehan – we spent a lovely night with Junior and he had great stories – and many more. They’re priceless now.”
As are Whelan’s own recollections from a near-lifelong fascination with the music, as he takes out his pipes and plays a tune.
FIRST it was the tin whistle, before he then took up the flute, while finally about a decade ago he became a late vocation to the pipes.
“Frank Custy brought me to the pipes,” he reveals. “He got a set of practice pipes and I started learning – I’m still learning really.
“My father played a bit of the melodeon and my mother played the fiddle, but in my youth I can only remember my mother playing once. They never had the time. We’d have a session in the house every Christmas and my eldest brother John brought the music into the school.
The school, Shragh National School, shaped Whelan in more ways than just giving him a primary education. The school helped make a footballer out of his brother Joe Joe, but for Frank it was always the music.
All thanks to Joe Hurley, then a young teacher in his first job in Clare since leaving St Patrick’s College, who nowadays is more famous for the years of service he gave to Doonbeg and Clare football.
“Joe Hurley was interested in the music and got an accordion,” he recalls. “Another lad who was going to school at the time was Pete Haugh and a unique feature of his playing was that he played the box upside down.
“My brother John, Joe Haugh and Joe Hurley decided to start a little band – Joe Hurley was the driving force of the band called the Shragh Flagellate and Accordion Band.
“There was a bit of fundraising done. We sold the tickets and bought the instruments and competed in the Fleadh in Kilrush in 1960 – that Fleadh was as big as any All-Ireland.
“We won that competition, beating Tulla and that was the start of it and I stayed with the music after that,” he adds.
And he’s still with it over 50 years later, looking forward to the 2014 Fleadh Nua as he did his first – the first ever Fleadh Nua in Dublin 44 years ago.
“I went up to the first Fleadh Nua in Dublin with Paddy O’Donoghue and Jim O’Sullivan from Kildysart. We went up in a mini and we slept in the car.
“I remember being on Parnell Square at the Garden of Remembrance and the was a 40 foot trailer pulled in and up on it was the Kilfenora.
“Kitty Linnane, Jimmy Ward and all the rest of them. That was 1970 and for the next three years after that before it moved to Ennis.
“I came to the first few Fleadhs in Ennis – what attracted me to them was the scoraíocht, which was a stage show of music and song.
“I remember a scoraíocht on in the Holy Family Hall and I joined the queue and it went all along down Station Road – it was a case of hoping against hope that the door wouldn’t be closed and we’d be left outside. It was hard to believe that those kind of numbers wanted to get in.
“It was as nearly big as the All-Ireland Fleadh that came to Ennis in 1977. It was bursting at the seams – when the All-Ireland came there was so many people that the people in tents on the Fairgreen had to move to another field, the Bishop’s Field. You’d have to be there to realise how big it was,” he adds.
The crowds have subsided, but the Fleadh Nua goes on, just as its enduring contribution to local culture goes on.
“That the crowds aren’t as big isn’t a bad thing,” says Whelan, “because what you have now with the Fleadh Nua is the real music followers. And they come from all over the world to the Fleadh Nua – that’s a great legacy to have after 40 years.”