Monday, June 18, 2007

Tulla Ceilli Band - A Celebration of Sixty Years

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2007

It was refreshing to meet Mark Donnellan on a summer’s evening in Gort to mull over the Tulla Céilí Band and their sixty years. Mark of course doesn’t remember all those years only being on earth for about half of them, but his life, like that of Martin Hayes’ had been entwined with the band. Since he was able to play to the standard required and when there was a space available on the stage, Mark was called on to play with the band. His father Francie Donnellan sat front row with P.J. Hayes, Martin’s father, for many years. Uncannily, they both passed away within a year of one another at the turn of this latest century, Francie in June 2000 and P.J. in May 2001. Mark and Martin now carry their fathers’ mantle and play the fiddles in the band, although more often than not its just Mark, as Martin has his own very successful musical career. However, he relishes the return to the band and as Mark tells me “Martin comes every so often and when he comes everyone plays better, everyone is in great form and the band always plays better.”

Mark is the youngest of the Donnellans, the last of nine, and he is the one running the family farm in Kilmurray in east Clare. He learnt his music informally from his father at home. “He didn’t really teach. You’d be picking it up away from him – it was a handy way of doing it. I’d say if I had to go to a teacher I probably wouldn’t play at all.”

He remembers his first outing with the band, “I was about 12 or 13 when I went with them first, I was going to secondary school at the time.” For those first few years it all depended on whether or not the stage was big enough to take the extra musician.

He became a fully fledged member of the band when he was fifteen or sixteen and was given his own microphone. “I’d say Haulie got a few new microphones and I got one, I was going to all the céilís then.” Haulie is Michael McKee, one of two accordion players with the band, and also their sound man. Haulie from Feakle joined the band in 1977. Sean Donnelly is the second accordion player and he comes from Abbey near Portumna in Co. Galway. J.J. Conway on flute is a Kilfenora man and his presence means the old rivalry of the 50s and 60 between the Kilfenora and Tulla Céilí bands is never forgotten. They competed against one another year on year at the Fleadh Ceoils. Mick Flanagan on drums is the man responsible for the unique rhythm of the Tulla.

Jim Corry, a Tulla native, is the piano player with the band and Jennifer Lenihan and Martin Glynn play flutes. Jennifer joined the band some ten or twelve years ago when the late J.C. Talty left. “J.C. was gas" says Mark. “You had to be in tune, in between every set he’d say ‘Sound you’re A!’. He was some man for tunes, he knew every tune. Anytime we were ever making a CD, we’d ring J.C. and he’d have all the names of the tunes.”

Ten years ago when the band celebrated their 50th anniversary, P.J. Hayes told me that 50 musicians has passed through the ranks of the band and in all they had performed in the region of three and a half thousand gigs. Of those gigs P.J. reckoned he had only missed about three or four. P.J. was the glue holding the band together. He took on the role of leader from Seán Reid sometime in the mid 1950’s and his commitment was certainly a lot of the reason the band continued and retained its unique sound. The band was formed in 1946 by Theresa Tubridy to enter a competition in Limerick, Féile Luimní. On fiddles were P.J. Hayes, Paddy Canny, Aggie Whyte and Bert McNulty, Jim and Paddy Donoghue played flutes, Joe Cooley was on accordion and Theresa herself on piano. They won that first competition and continued as a band after that. Many other illustrious players come and went, Paddy O’Brien on accordion, Willie Clancy, Martin Mulhare, Dr. Bill Loughnane, Peter O’Loughlin and Bobby Casey to name a few. Through all the years the Tulla weathered many ups and downs, from the popularity of the 1950s to the 1970s when dancehalls started to close through to the 1990s when the set dancing revival was in full swing. At no time did the band stop or break up or did they ever consider compromising to suit the times.

In the notes to their 50th anniversary album, Martin Hayes describes how the band was run as ‘the first example of participative democracy’ he had ever encountered. Decisions are made collectively, never going against the wishes of any individual musician. Since P.J. passed away, no one has taken the lead. Mark Donnellan recalls someone saying to Sean Donnelly “Isn’t the Tulla Band kind of funny now, it’s kind of like a co-op!” This co-operative approach is possibly one of the greatest factors contributing to the band’s longevity. Everything is done in a very relaxed manner; they share the responsibility and enjoy the gigs together. The comfortable camaraderie between the band members comes through in the easy flow of their music.

This latest recording their 60th Anniversary Celebration, was recorded in Bohan’s in Feakle. (Their 50th`album was recorded in Pepper’s in Feakle).

“We do one about every ten years” smiles Mark, basically because that’s the way it has always been done. Last June, we were cutting silage at home and we all went up to Bohan’s and we cut the album in two days. Myself and Sean and J.J. met in Peppers one night and we stuck a few tunes together. Any tunes we put together we didn’t put on the album. Basically when it came to the day we just played away – we took whatever sounded good. Funnily enough none of these selections are on any of our previous recordings.” Reels, jigs and hornpipes are the fare on the new CD with a lovely flute duet featuring Jennifer and Martin Glynn, and a fiddle duet featuring Mark with Martin Hayes.

Playing in a céilí band can be quite arduous. “Its pure marathon business really” says Mark. “If you didn’t do a céilí every month, your fingers would cramp up and your shoulders and elbows would start to give in. But if you’re doing a céilí or two a month you’d be fine.”

The musical repertoire has not changed substantially during the lifetime of the band. Mark relates that sometime Sean will introduce a new tune and within a sort space of time everyone has picked it up. They don’t practise as such, they are so used to playing together as a unit that there’s no need. Lately Mick Flanagan has been taking it a little easier and while the band have had excellent drummers sit in, no-one can match Mick’s rhythmic style. “Mick is a constant” says Mark. “When we have a different drummer, we are a different band.”

It’s one of the challenges facing a band such as the Tulla, maintaining the integrity of sound whilst at the same time taking new members on board. It’s also a fairly serious commitment for any musician, to be available for whatever céilís come in, and these days most musicians have their own commitments to gigs and sessions.

The band has travelled abroad to Great Britain and North America on numerous occasions where they have been well received and feted. They played in Carnegie Hall and were presented on one occasion with the key to the city of Chicago.

They play most of their céilís now locally in Galway or Clare. McCarthy’s in Kilbeacanty has remained one of their consistent venues. “The crowd have never dwindled” says Mark, “and we play a rake of céilís there every year”.

Looking to the future, it will be more of the same, Mark sums it up very well when he says; “It was there before us and hopefully it’ll be there after us.”

‘The Tulla Céilí Band 60th Anniversary Celebration’ is available on Claddagh records

Click here to buy ‘The Tulla Céilí Band 60th Anniversary Celebration’ from the .tradnet store on Amazon.

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