Artist of the Year, 2003

Earle Hitchner at the Celtic Cafe

Mike Rafferty Is Irish Echo's Traditional Artist of 2003

Embodying East Galway music at its best, he has distinguished himself as a player and teacher in America for half a century


By Earle Hitchner

[Published on January 28, 2004, in the IRISH ECHO newspaper in New York City. Copyright © Earle Hitchner. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of author.]

A number of "Ceol" readers have reminded me that there are many Irish traditional musicians on both sides of the Atlantic who distinguish themselves year in, year out, and thus deserve serious consideration for Traditional Artist of the Year, the Irish Echo's highest accolade for traditional music.

I agree. But it's only part of the reason why the honoree for 2003 is Mike Rafferty, a 77-year-old flute, whistle, uilleann pipes, Jew's harp, and lilting master from the village of Larraga in the parish of Ballinakill, East Galway. Rafferty, who's lived in the U.S. since 1949 and resides in Hasbrouck Heights, N.J., did indeed have an impressive past year in music. It's just not noticeable in the usual way of a sparkling new album or multiple guest spots on the recordings of others.

In 2003, Mike Rafferty taught advanced flute to adult students on a one-to-one basis each week at his home, was a music instructor at the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham, N.Y., and the Swannanoa Gathering in Asheville, N.C., participated in céilís sponsored by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann's Michael Coleman branch at the Kerry Hall in Yonkers, N.Y., and Michael Rafferty branch (named for him) at the VFW Hall in Bogota, N.J., and gave one of the year's best concerts on March 28 with button accordionist Billy McComiskey and keyboardist Felix Dolan, plus daughter Mary Rafferty on whistle, at lower Manhattan's Blarney Star pub.

Tom Madden of Glen Ridge, N.J., taped that concert, and the double CD (22 tracks totaling over 85 minutes of music) he made is a prized possession of mine. The sound quality is remarkably good, considering Madden taped from a front seat in the audience, and the playing is the pure drop, full-bodied and immensely appealing.

But Mike Rafferty's own rigorous musical standards would not allow the two-CD package to be released commercially. He simply wasn't comfortable with some of the imperfections he heard in the playing. This had nothing to do with ego or vanity. It was about cherishing and revering the tradition enough to get it completely right and to present it in the best possible light.

For Mike Rafferty, getting it right and presenting it in the best possible light include an unfrenetic pace. "Fast music is like fast talk: you can't understand what the person is saying," he said during my interview with him last February in his N.J. home. "We're playing for other people, but we're also playing for ourselves. I like to play Irish traditional music at a nice, easy tempo. No speed. That's how I learned it, and that's how I teach it."

That flowing, rolling, soulful, artfully unhurried style of East Galway playing can be heard throughout the three exceptional albums Mike recorded with his daughter Mary: "The Dangerous Reel" in 1995, "The Old Fireside Music" in 1998, and "The Road From Ballinakill" in 2001. (All three CDs are available at

An unfaltering tastefulness threads through Mike Rafferty's playing, and many of the tunes have uncommon settings that convey a freshness and vibrancy rarely equaled elsewhere. With advancing age has also come advancing skill for Rafferty, whose commitment to improvement--for himself, for his students--never wavers.

"Since I retired [from the Grand Union supermarket company in 1989], I've brushed up on my music and I practice a lot," he said. "I think I'm playing better than ever, and I'm enjoying playing more. I play a little bit every night for myself. Tunes come into my head, and I have a tape recorder to take them down. That's my method."

It's a method from which every Irish traditional musician can learn. Many clearly have, including flute and uilleann pipes player Brian Holleran and Mary Rafferty, a former button accordion and whistle player with Cherish the Ladies. In a liner note for "Hand-Me-Downs," her excellent solo album in 2002, Mary Rafferty mentioned her father's tape recorder and the tapes he'd make--all labeled "Learn these tunes, Mary."

His diligence and devotion to Irish traditional music have made Mike Rafferty not only one of its finest performers and instructors, but also a source of inspiration for countless others. The Irish Echo is proud to honor Mike Rafferty as its Traditional Artist of 2003. He joins an illustrious line of previous awardees: Charlie Lennon, James Keane, Joe Derrane, Seamus Egan, Joanie Madden, John Whelan, Mick Moloney, Liz Carroll, Kevin Crawford, and Séamus Connolly.

The following were also seriously considered for the Irish Echo's Traditional Artist of the Year.

DENNIS CAHILL: Of Kerry lineage, the Chicago-based guitar partner of Clare fiddler Martin Hayes has carved quite a reputation for himself as an album producer. In 2003, Dennis Cahill produced or co-produced such recordings as Brendan Bulger, Marty Fahey, and Kathleen Gavin's "Music at the House," John Skelton and Kieran O'Hare's "Double-Barrelled," and "John Daly." All are superb.

DON MEADE: For a decade at the Blarney Star/Biddy Early's and, in fact, for the past two decades in Manhattan, he helped to run a distinguished series of weekly Irish traditional music concerts. After the Friday night series at Biddy Early's ended in late November, he linked up with New York University's Glucksman Ireland House to launch a new monthly series of concerts this year. The N.Y. metro area's Irish music community owes Meade a debt of gratitude for his dedication.

The top 10 Irish traditional albums of 2003 appeared in last week's "Ceol" column. Here are albums 11-20:

11. "Double-Barrelled," by John Skelton and Kieran O'Hare ( Flutes and whistles weave in joyous harmony from two Midwest-resident instrumentalists deserving far wider recognition.

12. "Traditional Irish Music From London," by John Blake, Lamond Gillespie, and Mick Leahy ( Further proof of stellar Big Smoke music, featuring Blake on flute, guitar, and piano, Gillespie on fiddle, and Leahy on bouzouki.

13. "Bavan," by Méabh O'Hare and Conor Byrne ( Riveting culmination of five years of playing together by Belfast fiddler O'Hare and Dublin flutist Byrne.

14. "Michelle O'Brien, Aogán Lynch, and Gavin Ralston" (e-mail: Fiddle, concertina, and guitar in expert proportion, with O'Brien's fiddling a particular standout.

15. "Handprints," by Donna Long ( She just ended an eight-year keyboard run in Cherish the Ladies, but this glistening solo debut should put her right back into the spotlight.

16. "Hidden Fermanagh" ( Ballinaleck-born Cathal McConnell of Boys of the Lough fame unearths trad treasures of his native county with several other talented musicians on the first of two CDs to be issued with a 172-page book.

17. "Re-Joyce," by Máire O'Keeffe, John Faulkner, Jackie Daly, and Dónal O'Connor (contact: Glaise CD at 011-353-61-228721): Instrumental performances are a special treat on a recording cut in 1997 and released only last year.

18. "An Ocean's Breadth," by Mick McAuley (Shanachie): Solo showcase for gifted Kilkenny singer, composer, accordion, concertina, and whistle player, with an able assist from Solas bandmates.

19. "The Poet & the Piper," by Séamus Heaney and Liam O'Flynn (Claddagh): Loam-rich verse compellingly recited by its Nobel Prize-winning author, plus the pristine uilleann piping and whistle playing of O'Flynn.

20. "Frankie Gavin 2003-2004 Collection" (4-CD release with no catalog or website information): De Dannan fiddler performs with Máirtín Ó Connor, Gary Hastings, Joe Derrane, and the late Stephane Grappelli: what's not to like?

Space limitations prevent a full listing of all the notable music recorded in 2003. But my list of honorable mentions includes Patrick Mangan's "Farewell to Ireland," "John Daly," Dervish's "Spirit," Karan Casey's "Distant Shore," Michael Hynes and Denis Liddy's "Waifs and Strays," the Poozies' "Changed Days, Same Roots," North Cregg's "Summer at My Feet," Michael Cooney's "A Stone's Throw," Peter and Noel Carberry's "The Pipes Are Calling," Jim Eagan's "At Reavy's House," Solas's "Another Day," Neil Mulligan's "An Tobar Glé," Con Moynihan and Denis O'Connor's "Sunday After Mass," Donall Donnelly and Brian Hanlon's "Driven," "The Conversation of the Waves," "Sessions From An Teach Beag," "Ennis Céilí Band," Paul Smyth's "Up and Away," London Lasses & Pete Quinn's "Track Across the Deep," and Gary Hastings's "With Fife & Drum" (CD and book).

Also: the Chieftains' "Further Down the Old Plank Road," Gerry Diver's "Diversions," Cara Dillon's "Sweet Liberty," Máirtín Ó Connor's "Rain of Light," Dennis Botzer's "The House," Jim McKillop's "The Road From Ballybrack," Meaití Jó Shéamuis Ó Fátharta's "Bóithríní An Locháin," Christy O'Leary and Bert Deivert's "Song's Sweet Caress," Liam Murphy's "The Full Circle," Seán O'Driscoll and Larry Egan's "The Kitchen Recordings," Karl Nesbitt's "The Good News," Gráinne Hambly's "Golden Lights and Green Shadows," Niall Ó Callanáin and Band's "Live," Ceilizemer's "Shalom Ireland," Slide's "Harmonic Motion," Seán Garvey's "The Bonny Bunch of Roses," Cyril O'Donoghue's "Nothing But a Child," David Kincaid's "The Irish-American's Song," Tom Cussen and Tony Howley's "There's Always Room in Our House," and "Tommy Kearney: The Master Pipers, Vol. 2" (grandfathered in from 2002).

Author: Earle Hitchner