Ómós: Brendan McGlinchey

Brendan McGlinchey

Renowned fiddler and composer, Brendan McGlinchey, died in England on April 25 at the age of 79. Universally acclaimed for his playing, his invention and his good humour, he exerted a significant influence on a generation of musicians and especially fiddlers – leaving a legacy of affectionate memories and tunes that have become firmly embedded in the traditional music canon.

Born in Armagh City in July 1940, Brendan McGlinchey began playing the fiddle at his mother’s insistence at the age of 12 with local teacher John Conway, followed by Archibald Collins in Portadown. Although initially reluctant, he soon began to win medals. After he won a competition at the Dungannon Feis at the age of 15, he was invited to join Malachy Sweeney’s céilí band where he was exposed to the music of the two great Sligo fiddlers, Michael Coleman and James Morrison, along with Paddy Canny and Seán McGuire who also had a major influence on his playing style. Brendan stayed with the band for about a year and a half, and in that time toured around Ireland, where, as he called, “I heard these lovely fiddle players, and became really interested in trying to make myself better.”

After that, he began to enter competitions, although again very reluctantly.”I never liked it,” he said. “In competitions, …people became very disappointed in not coming first. If you happened to come first, then lots of people wouldn’t speak to you for a while.”

When he was 18, Brendan went to seek employment in London where he encountered several other emigrés including Bobby Casey, Roger Sherlock, Tommy McCarthy and Joe Ryan. After a brief spell in England, Brendan returned home where he joined a new céilí band, set up by Johnny Pickering from Markethill – which also toured extensively throughout Ireland. Around this time, he was exposed to the playing of Paddy Canny – endeavouring to emulate his left-hand technique. Brendan went on to win All-Ireland titles in all classes – engaging in a keen but good-natured rivalry with Séamus Connolly of Clare at successive Fleadhanna Ceoil na hÉireann before emigrating to London again in the 1960s.

One of Brendan McGlinchey’s most influential recordings was made with Mary Mulholland: the album Music of a Champion, was released in 1974 and has since been acclaimed as a model of complete fiddle playing for all up-and-coming fiddlers. The album included one of his most famous compositions, Splendid Isolation. Originally inspired by the disintegration of a musical collaboration, the reel has been recorded at least 70 times – and was played by Brendan, himself, as a moving slow air since the early 1990s. 

He gave up fiddle playing for a number of years from the mid 1970s until the early 1990s, before making a memorable comeback on RTÉ. Since then, he was in great demand as a performer in concerts in Ireland and Britain as well as on Comhaltas tours of America, Australia and Europe. He also taught at summer schools throughout Ireland and Britain and was a familiar presence at Fleadh Ceoil na hEireann as an adjudicator. His other widely performed tunes have included the reels, Sweeney’s Buttermilk and The Floating Crowbar.

Musician and composer, Dave Flynn recounts that he once sat in on a fiddle class being given by Brendan McGlinchey. When a young fiddler was unable to identify correctly a reel she had just played, Brendan said: “I can tell you it’s actually called Sweeney’s Buttermilk. You know why I know that? Because I composed it.” But he added that it wasn’t the first time someone played him one of his own tunes without knowing that he composed it.

In a fulsome tribute to one of the city’s favourite sons, the Armagh Pipers’ Club said:

“Brendan was already established by his early 20s as a star in the Irish traditional music scene; he had played with the Armagh-based Malachy Sweeney Céilí Band in the late 1950s, before breaking away with Johnny Pickering of Markethill who formed his own Céilí Band in which Brendan played for several years.

During this time Brendan, despite disliking the ethos of musical competitions, treated them as a learning opportunity and won many All-Ireland titles as a fiddle player.

“There was a famous and friendly rivalry with Clare’s Séamus Connolly at successive Fleadhanna Cheoil na hÉireann, though neither Brendan nor anyone else matched Séamus’ eventual tally of ten solo fiddle championships.

“Brendan, who had previously worked for a short time in England, emigrated to London in the 1960s. Although he gave up playing from the mid-1970s until the early 1990s, he later resumed his musical career and was in great demand as a performer, teacher and adjudicator.

“He spoke of how in his youth he ‘failed’ as a student to classical violin teachers, but found his own way in; his bowing was largely self-taught from listening to northern and Scottish players, while the playing styles of Galway and Clare were the sources of his left-hand ornamentation. His best-known compositions include Sweeney’s Buttermilk and The Floating Crowbar.

It was something of a coup for Armagh Pipers Club to persuade him to return to Armagh city in 1993 for a concert attended by over 500 people.”

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