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Music by the Vallelys of Armagh

14 August, 2019

The Humours of Blundell’s Grange – Music by the Vallelys of Armagh – was performed in the Muintearas concert series at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in the Droichead Arts Centre, Drogheda, Wednesday, August 14th, 2019, 1 pm.

Taking part will be Brian (uilleann pipes); Eithne (fiddle); Dara (uilleann pipes); Caoimhín (fiddle & piano); Cillian (uilleann pipes); Sheena (flute); Fintan (flute, song); Juliette Conlon-Hamill (ballad).

‘The Vallelys’ are a music family with roots in north Co. Armagh. The older among them played together as Armagh Pipers’ Club in the 1960s and ‘70s, but professional music, work,  education and travel now see them in diverse places: Brian, Eithne and Dara in Armagh city, Fintan in Dublin, Sheena in Bristol, Caoimhín and Niall in Cork and Cillian in New York.

The mould for interest in Gaelic cultural affairs in the family was cast by grandfather John as a founder of the GAA in Co. Armagh, and by his Belfast-born wife Sarah (Henry) who sang as a girl in The Anglo-German Gaelophile Carl Hardebeck’s Gaelic choir which took Feis Ceoil honours in 1897. Brian’s and Dara’s father, John, taught the older members of the group as headmaster of Blundell’s Grange National School in the 1950s; so too did his sister in the junior years. These were both Irish speakers, as was their brother Fr. Charlie, who had a deep commitment to Irish language and arts. Their other brother, Jim, Fintan’s and Sheena’s father, pioneered athletics in Armagh city and the National Athletic and Cycling Association in Ulster, and was all-Ireland pole-vault champion in the early 1940s; his brother John was a player and trainer in GAA football.

Dara alone was formally taught music, on piano, but Fintan was the first to begin Traditional music, interest sparked by Gaeltacht céilí dance, Radio Éireann broadcasts, and his parents’ singing; Brian began a few months later, having met Glasgow piper Pat McNulty and CCÉ musicians on the Stranraer ferry on their way to the Clones All-Ireland; there, Brian was bowled over by hearing the piper Felix Doran. Money in his pocket from art sales enabled Brian to get instruments, and so was formed the nucleus of the Armagh Pipers’ Club, based on the Dublin and Cork clubs: Brian on pipes, Dara on concertina, their brother Niall on bodhran, and Fintan on flute. Other musicians joined over the years, including those taught in the classes, and who themselves became teachers. The broadcast and recorded music arranged and presented by Seán Ó Riada in the 1960s was their inspiration, driving Brian to seek out and emulate ‘the pure drop’ in Traditional music; equally inspiring was Ciarán MacMathúna’s Job of Journeywork on Radio Éireann. Hunger for authentic music brought the Vallelys into contact with Tyrone musicians Johnny, James and Malachy Comac, the latter giving Fintan his first instruction on the flute. Sessions introduced them to the McIlvenna brothers of Collegeland, singers Geordie Hanna and Sarah Anne O’Neill and accordion-player Tommy John Quinn from beside Lough Neagh, Tyrone banjo players John McCann and John Hayden, and fiddle player John Loughran of Pomeroy; fleadhnna ceoil and house sessions brought them into contact with Sligo musicians Fred Finn and Peter Horan, and, in Belfast,  flute players Leslie Bingham and James McMahon, and pipers Wilbert Garvin and Sean McAloon. Concerts organised by Brian and Eithne  in Armagh brought in the revival years’ major stylists like Séamus Ennis, Willie Clancy and Paidí Bán Ó Broin, and music activists such as Séamus Mac Mathúna of CCÉ.

All of this gradually shaped a diverse stylistic repertoire in which uilleann pipes were pre-eminent; all played them. That focus introduced Brian to Breandán Breathnach and the piping world, an association which led him to become a founding member of Na Píobairí Uilleann in 1968. Indeed, Brian’s future wife, fiddle-player Eithne Ní Chiardha, had been one of those who (along with Sean Keane, Michael Crehan and Helena Rowsome) had transcribed music for Breathnach’s revolutionary 1963 tunes collection Ceol Rince na hÉireann. In these early stages the Vallelys played widely, with CCÉ in fleadhs and competitions, and in Armagh’s ‘folk club’ which was hosted by singer Matt Hughes, a relative of the family; this promoted instrumental music and song in sessions participated in by such as another cousin, singers Gerry and Brendan Garvey, members of the Makem family, fiddle-player Betty McGrane, and musicians from the area’s céilí bands – The McCuskers, Johnny Pickering, Malachy Sweeney, Hughie Trainor and JJ McKenna.

As the music developed, awareness opened up about both celebrated and forgotten music antecedents in the Vallelys’ families’ backgrounds: Brian’s and Dara’s maternal roots in Ballyhaunis, Co. Mayo had flute players and singers; Fintan’s and Sheena’s maternal grandfather had a lineage of 18th century harp-makers in Ballinascreen, Co. Derry; he played the fiddle and ran The Banba céilí band there. Brian’s Co. Donegal wife Eithne, whose first language was Irish, had a maternal lineage in music too, fiddle-players around Kilcar,  including Francie ‘dearg’ and Mickey Byrne; her grandmother played concertina. Three of hers and Brian’s sons now play professionally: Niall, on concertina, in Nomos, with his brothers in Buille, in Karan Casey’s bands, and in orchestral composition projects; Caoimhín plays fiddle and piano, a member of the band North Kregg; Cillian is the uilleann piper with Lúnasa. Fintan played solo, and with singer Tim Lyons, while Sheena played with Julie Oliver and in bands in London in the 1990s before moving to Bristol. Dara has led a most dramatic manifestation of Traditional music since the 1970s, the Armagh Rhymers, with recitations, music and masked frolic based on historical mumming traditions; Juliette, Fintan’s step-grand-daughter, plays whistle and sings; the other grand-children play flute, fiddle, concertina and pipes. The music of all of these performers has been widely recorded since the 1970s; by now there are several dozen albums, on vinyl, cassette and CD.

Visual art is a common thread to both branches of the family – Brian known now for a half century of hallmark depiction of musicians and of sports activities, Sheena for more surreal symbolism, and Dara for bold composition art. The Traditional-music paper-trail is considerable too. Eithne and Brian pioneered instrument and singing tutors and tune-books from 1973; Eithne developed teaching methodologies, and together they have led the passing on of Traditional music to thousands since the 1960s; with the APC and Caoimhín they run the annual William Kennedy Festival of Piping which celebrates a local, 18th century uilleann pipe-maker. Fintan has researched numerous books on the music, most notably the encyclopedia Companion to Irish Traditional Music; he lectured on the music at university level over many years (his audio-visual music show Compánach is featured twice in the fleadh on Saturday 17th August, and his talk on Traditional music in Irish art is on the 18th.

‘The Vallelys’ are a family of intrepid musicians rooted historically in Irish cultural and artistic expressions. They are no touring ‘band’ as such, but are a disparate ensemble of three generations of driven, committed individual artistes, people for whom performance, creativity and sharing in music are the core of their being and aesthetic drive. This concert is a vibrant snapshot of their diversity.


14 August, 2019
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