100 years of music in Roscrea - Roscrea Through The Ages

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100 years of music in Roscrea

History > History 1

A Hundred Years of Roscrea Music
Compiled by Dick Conroy
Roscrea is a very old town. It proudly proclaims itself to be the third oldest town in Ireland! It has a proven history going back almost 1,500 years. Its musical heritage is also of the finest order. Many of the Comhaltas members have achieved fame in Fleadhanna since the branch was founded in 1962.

Comhaltas are very proud that the Roscrea branch has continued to flourish without a break since that date. During that time, local members have trained successive generations in the skills of traditional music, song and dance.
During the years since its foundation, many of its members have brought glory and honour to the branch at county, provincial and All-Ireland level – in all age categories. In recent times, members such as Tadhg Maher, Paul Ryan, Theresa Larkin, Jim Egan, Francis McDonald as well as at this stage all members of the Costello family have become almost household names for their achievements in traditional music.  Bands such as the Mountain Road Céilí Band and the Móinín Céilí Band have also won fame in traditional circles. The branch has also had great success at Pléaracha, Scoraíocht and Ceol and Gheimhridh competitions down through its years. Currently, the branch has 80 members and remains very active with weekly sessions and regular visits to local nursing homes and St Anne’s houses.  The branch is more than willing to provide entertainment, music, song and dance for concerts, carol singing and other functions.

The tradition of music playing, song and dance has for long been a noted aspect of Irish life. For generations, musicians, singers, dancers and storytellers have handed on their experience to a new generation of performers. These initially would have been in the homes of the locality (tithe céilithe), where with little to do by way of entertainment at the end of the day, the “instrument” was produced. Collections of players and listeners developed over time and soon the ”moving concert” rotated from house to house in a given area. While most people would relate this to local rural life, the same was also true of towns and villages. Roscrea had many such tithe céilithe.

Our story of Roscrea Music begins in the 1930’s with the great Billy Cummins and his band. Billy was born in 1894 and died in 1966. This band began as most did as a bunch of musicians performing in their own homes – tithe céilithe or rambling houses as they were sometimes called. The music was traditional. Billy himself favoured the flute. Others played the fiddle and accordion. It soon transpired that noted musicians were requested to play for parish socials etc. The beginnings of the Cummins Band were on their way. Billy’s son Paddy recalls in his diary that at these parish socials it was traditional music – “none of that pop” – parish priests were in a supervisory patrol and wouldn’t allow any other kind of music.  

Billy Cummins made a commercial recording in July 1930. It was a recording of O’Dwyer’s Hornpipe, which Billy played on the flute. A mention of this and a full transcript of the hornpipe have appeared in Treoir. Billy Cummins and his band performed on Radio – then 2RN – in 1934. The membership of the band was loose - often just four, but other times as many as seven – mostly coming from relatives and friends who played regularly together in the tithe céilithe. The band seen here made a total of four broadcasts in 1934. Two of these were from Roscrea itself, while they travelled to the Henry Street Studio for the other two. As an historic link, one of the Roscrea broadcasts came from the Temperance Hall – which is being used as a venue for the Fleadh Cheoil na Mumhan competitions in 2004 – the original year of publication of this article. This band eventually became the Billy Cummins Radio Band. It “graduated” to playing popular music for Dance Halls throughout the Country – lasting as a band into the late 1960’s. A great credit to his ability is the fact that at 72 years of age in 1965, Billy entered the Offaly County Fleadh Ceoil and won the Hammond Cup for his flute playing in the senior category.
The next large step in the history of Roscrea’s Music making would have been the founding of the Roscrea Operatic Society in the late 1940’s. It performed many of the popular operettas down through the years, and still does so. Each year just after the Easter Period, is the week in which it puts on its performances. This involves many weeks from Christmas devoted to rehearsals and stage construction. Many of the early Comhaltas members were also members of the Operatic Society.
The next milestone in Roscrea’s musical heritage was the arrival in the town of Davy Collins. A native of Dromtrasna, Abbeyfeale in west Limerick where he learned to play and love music. Davy chose a roundabout way of getting to Roscrea – he spent almost 20 years in Clonmel first! He was instrumental in the founding of Roscrea Branch of Comhaltas in 1962 – and it has remained in unbroken existence since then. Davy was a powerhouse for Roscrea Comhaltas. He was never happier than when he was passing on the tradition to the next generation. He worked diligently for many years.   
 Finally the rewards of his labours began to happen – the picture shows Davy and the group that won the Ceol an Gheimhridh Competition in 1986.
Many of this group are well known in Comhaltas circles today and some are passing on the tradition themselves.
During his lifetime he played for feiseanna, concerts, competitions and sessions. Davy taught and encouraged many young musicians who went on to compete at every level of competition. He never lost the desire to play a tune and on his 80th birthday celebration he couldn’t be stopped!  In 2001, as part of the 50th anniversary of the founding of Comhaltas, the Tipperary County Board, in recognition of his outstanding contribution to traditional Irish music, honoured Davy. He also received the accolade of becoming a “Roscrea People of the Year” in 2002.
Over the years, many of the protégées of Davy have brought honour to themselves and the Roscrea Branch.
The Mountain Road Céilí Band was, like many a band of the time, made up of a core group of players and others who played with them from time to time before eventually leaving the group. It was a band of the seventies, which left its mark in the annals of traditional music and is still spoken of today.
The main musicians were Davy Collins(R.I.P) and Jack Dyer(R.I.P) on fiddles, Ted Brophy(R.I.P) on button accordion, Noel Troy and Mai Ryan (Phelan) on piano accordion, and Michael Dyer on flute. Other musicians that were part of the group at different times were the Cooney Brothers from Littleton who played drums and Christine and Joan O’Grady from Roscrea.
They played at céilíthe around the area and in February 1977 they featured in the programme “Céilí House” on RTÉ Radio1. At this time both Christine and Joan O’Grady were with the band and Christine had a solo spot on the programme. Breda Collins, Davy’s daughter and a girl with a lovely voice, also took part in this broadcast and had a solo spot too. They also appeared on the RTÉ TV programme “The Mountain Lark” in 1977 hosted by Seosamhín Ní Bheigligh. Both Brendan and John Collins were members of the band then and Séamus Hoctor was on drums. Davy and Ted played for the dancer on the show that night.
They met and played regularly in Johnny Broder’s pub and on one occasion Ciarán Mac Mathúna came to the pub to record items for his show “A Job of Journey Work” now still remembered among us “older generation” on the radio and on Sunday mornings as “Mo Cheoil Thú”. At this recording Ciarán recorded Johnny himself dancing as he was so good at tapping out the time – shades of Din Joe and Rory O’Connor!
Perhaps their greatest moments of all was when they represented their branch and province at two All-Ireland finals both of which were held in Listowel – one was located in the old cinema while the other was hosted in a marquee.
Sadly many of the players in this band have gone to their eternal reward but this fine tradition of céilí band music continues to the present time.

It was the late 1960’s when the O’Grady sisters first started to play Irish music. They were taught the tin whistle by their grandfather, Jim O’Grady. In the early 1970’s as new members of Comhaltas Joan and Christine began to compete at Fleadhanna Cheoil. From that time on they learned many new tunes from Ted Brophy, Davy Collins, the Collins Brothers from Killea and in fact any musician they became acquainted with a new tune had to be learned. The won many awards in the ‘70’s.  

Theresa Larkin was a member of the Ceol an Gheimhridh winning group in 1986. From an early age Theresa has been full of music. Influenced by her grandfather she began to play. Not only was she part of the 1986 group, but she was also a member of the under 15 Céilí Band that won the Muster Fleadh Cheoil in 1987. These were only the beginnings of her career. Today she is an accomplished artist having original recordings and worldwide tours to her credit. She now runs her own successful school of music.

Paul Ryan has made a name for himself on the worldwide stage for his participation in the “Lord of the Dance” tours. He’s not only an accomplished dancer, but also a champion flute player. Now a national teacher, he also runs his own school of music and dance.
 The contribution of the Costello family to traditional music is well appreciated here in Roscrea as well as throughout the country. Each one of them, Dara, Cliodhna, Lisa, Alan and Aisling are All-Ireland Champions in their own disciplines. They are members of the Móinín Céilí Band (seen opposite)
Tadhg Maher is one of our rising stars today. From under 12 to his now Senior level, Tadgh has won award after award for his singing, lilting and whistling at Fleadhanna, Scór na nÓg , Scoraíocht and Fleadh Nua. He’s now teaching in Coláiste Phobal here in Roscrea following his graduation from Limerick University where he studied Music in and is rapidly becoming a household name for his singing of both traditional and new ballads. He performs with the Brú Ború Group. He has received a “Roscrea People of the Year” Award on many occasions.  
 Seen here holding Tadhg Maher’s award is Pat Joe Whelan at the annual “Roscrea People of the Year” ceremony. Originally from Knock, he is now living in Cois Carraig in Roscrea and is a great composer of poetry and ballads.
His beautiful compositions 'Where the Moneen River Flows', “Lovely Roscrea Town” & “The Place I Once Called Home” have won the Tipperary Fleadh Cheoil Newly Composed Ballads competition for each of the three years 2002-2004. All his ballads have been sung by Tadhg. At   Fleadh na Mumhan 2004 he launched his first book of collected poems, songs and reminiscences entitled “Tales in Songs and Stories…Heroes of Renown ”

This article is by no means a definitive one. There is much more work to be done for it to be an “historic” work and this remains a task for another day. It tries only to illustrate the proud tradition of music we have here in Roscrea over the past century. It also shows the wealth of talent that was and is in our town. The future of this tradition rests secure with the young Roscrea Branch members of Comhaltas, who are already carving a name for themselves at Fleadhanna Cheoil.

For example, the under 12 Banna Cheoil and the under 15 banna cheoil, both were awarded 1st place in the Tipperary County Fleadh cheoil which took place in Cappawhite in 2004. Not only that, but both the under 12 and under 15 Grúpa Cheoil Damer also were awarded first place in the same year. The under 18 Grúpa Cheoil Damer also qualified in third place at the same fleadh. This surely is a record for any club to have so many qualifying in the same year.

So, as you see, far from this being the end, it is but a new beginning.

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