Interview with Mike Rafferty, Part 3: Galway to America
This interview was conducted by Mike Casey (MC) and Paul Wells (PW).
PW: You said you were 23 when you emigrated to America, why did you come?
MR: There was nothing in Ireland to fulfill your dreams, [you] come out here to make money. That was my thoughts, yeah. My sister, she was younger than me, she came out before me. And she was about a year out here and she decided to get me out. Well, how it happened, I don’t know if I’d be coming out that soon, only there was a guy and he was very fond of music over there. And I was friendly with him. Well, he had a brother here in New York. And he was a detective in the police department. But anyway, his brother became simple and he was living with the two sisters. And they were afraid of him. He was starting to hide things. And you know, he just went, mentally. Got mentally ill, if you will. And they asked me if I’d stay in the house with them, ‘cause they were scared of him at night. But anyway I stayed, I did that for about three weeks and they finally decided to put him in the mental home, in the hospital. But when the brother over here heard that, he went to my sister. And he says: “If your brother wants to come to America,” he says, “I’ll put up the papers for him.” And ‘twas a good deed I did. And he says, “I want to do that for him.” And he did. His name was Jim MacDonald. And he met me [when] I came off the ship.
PW: That must have been a big change, from a small village to New York City.
MR: Yeah indeed. And everything was. Cause you couldn’t travel much in Ireland, except I went to Dublin on an excursion one time. And the music going up in the cars, I remember. And like everything else there was, in my time, you were lucky if you had a bad bicycle, that kind of thing. There were three cars in the parish of Ballinakill. And they would use them as hackneys, or a taxi kind of thing. ‘Twas rare, to see. Donkeys and carts, and horse and carts, that was the go at that time. That’s all they had.
MC: What did you do for a living over here?
MR: I worked in a private estate as a gardener. Flowers and vegetables and stuff, yeah. For about a year. And then there was an opening in the Grand Union [grocery chain] and I went to work there in the warehouse. I worked in the maintenance department. I drove the trucks for awhile and then I went in the maintenance department. Pretty close to thirty years.
Music in America
MC: When you came over here did you find music right away?
MR: Not really. The only man I came across, actually, was Jack Coen. He was out here before me. I come across him, we’d have an odd tune together. I wasn’t playing that [much]. Well, the old flute I had wasn’t much. There was a guy that was from the same place too, but he was living in Chicago and he came to visit us once. I had a few tunes with him again. He played the melodeon. And, then in Englewood, New Jersey, there was a guy that had a ceili club there. He was a Mayo fellow. He used to play there, play the accordion. And another man from Limerick played the fiddle. And I used to play with them for the dances. And we had a drummer as well. It was a little band. Englewood Ceili Band they called us. So we used to play there once a month. And that kind of kept me going, sort of. Until that died out, then that was the end of me. I wasn’t playing then for a long time.
PW: And when was that?
MR: It would be around ’55, I think it was, that died out. Yeah. ‘55 up until, then I think it was in 1971 Aggie [Whyte, fiddler from Ballinakill], came out to the Catskills. Her and her husband. And I went up there for a week. And I was trying to get back at the music. And I didn’t have a good flute at that time. I remember she turned around she said: “Why in God’s creation don’t you get yourself a good flute?” I said, “Do you know where there’s one?” I said. She said, “I wish I did,” you know? But it was a pleasure just to listen to her.
MC: What got you going on it again?
MR: I guess the Comhaltas really got me into it, when they come out here. And then there was Joe Madden, he come out ten years later after I come out. And Sean McGlynn, you’ve heard me talk about Sean. He came out too, around the same time. And they were only young kids when I left. There was neither one of them was playing, I don’t think, at the time when I had left. And, I remember Sean McGlynn saying, rest in peace, he said, “You should be ashamed of yourself from where you come from!” That was encouraging don’t you know.
PW: During the time when you weren’t playing, there was just no music happening, no traditional music?
MR: No, there was but like, every New Year’s Eve we had a party at our house and all the musicians, Sean McGlynn, Joe Madden, and whoever was around would come to the house and they were the mainstays. Paddy Reynolds, Andy McGann. Guy by the name of Gene Kelly played the melodeon. And a few more like Mike Preston of course. Jack Coen. A guy by the name of Paddy Murphy from Limerick that I was out on the ship with. Great style of playing the fiddle. And he was at the house a few times, That was around 1968, after I bought the house. There was a cellar we made room for…they could dance down there. Lots of music was played there, year after year.
PW: So you said after putting it down for about fifteen years it was almost like starting over again?
MR: Yeah it was, yeah. Learning all over again. Jack, whenever he’d be around, he would be a big assist. He had the tunes. “You know this one? You know that one?” And it wasn’t that it happened maybe three or four times. I’ll tell ya, this was a true story. You heard tell of the “Maid of Mt. Kisco”? Well they had a wedding reception [in Mt. Kisco], this couple got married. And they had the wedding reception in the house. And we were asked to play there. And Jack and I, there was no bench or seats, we sat on the stairs kind of. And we managed to play the two flutes. But a lady was going around with a tray of whiskey and once we got a couple of shots of them, I tell you, we played good together! I remember that night. And Jack would often say to me, “Do you remember the night in Mt Kisco?” We more or less had the same style.
MC: Do you think you learned more music over there or over here?
MR: Since I came over here. Moreover, since I retired, I think I learned more. I had more time for it, as they say. Yeah I learned more. I’d sit down listen to the records. And I’d put it on the tape. And of course then Mary was another great reason, when she started learning. Cause I was trying to come back. And I was trying to learn a tune on the whistle. And she was a little one, running around. And she says “Dad, give me that whistle, I can do that.” And I said “There’s no reason why you can’t.” And it started there. And I taught her a few notes of “The Wearing of the Green,” and she kept fiddling with that. And the next thing she had it off! It was in slow motion, a bit, but I kept with her.
And then Teresa and I decided that I wouldn’t have time to show her every night, so take her to Martin Mulvihill the teacher. And then any help I can, anyway I can help her I did. Sunday I used to take her on. I used to bartend on a Sunday afternoon, and there was no time to show her except that I’d spend an hour with her if I could, or a half hour. One day I spent an hour. And she came downstairs to her mother and she says “You know Dad kept me a whole hour there.” What Martin used to do, he’d put the tune on the tape recorder for her. And if I didn’t know the tune, well, I’d learn it real quick and I’d show her how to do it. And she had it going back the following week. And that was a big thing for her as well. But a lot of the students wouldn’t have it off ‘cause they had nobody. Actually Mary had two teachers.
MC: On your recordings you have a lot of older tunes that were played by the Ballinakill band or by your father.
MR: Yeah, by my father mostly. Yeah and by the Ballinakill, the old band. I think we played a few of them. “The Shaskeen,” and “Sandymount,” and a few of them old tunes. They recorded most of them I think.
MC: Are you remembering these tunes or are you re-learning them?
MR: Yeah, when you’d sit alone and start daydreaming, I call it daydreaming. They come back to you. Yes.
PW: You play the pipes too, right?
MR: Yeah, well I didn’t start them until I was fifteen. And my father was left-handed. And I had them turned upside down. He used to wander out the field. We had a little dog named Lady and she would go out with him all the time. And he’d walk, he’d wander out the field and he’d go out like by the wall and he’d go out to the road and he’d go to visit the neighbor’s house. And he was able to do that every day. But I was fifteen at the time anyway when I decided to take the pipes out. And I was playing, I was, the first time, second time, third time. I was doing it for quite awhile. So he was coming back and he was outside and I guess he was listening. My mother seen him coming and she says, “Put them away, your father’s coming in.” So I put them away and the first thing he said: “Did I hear music?” Well my mother says “I didn’t hear nothing.”
So anyway, he let it go at that and I believe a day or two later, [in the] evening or something, he was outside, ‘twas in the summertime, I never forgot it. He didn’t go anywhere, he made believe. And I wasn’t watching, I wasn’t paying attention. I thought he was going off down to see the neighbor or something. And he came back in and he says: “Don’t ever take them off!” I was getting music out of them. “How the hell do you do it?” He couldn’t figure out, I had them turned upside down. So I used to play them from there on, for awhile.