An Interview with Catherine McEvoy


Catherine McEvoy

Catherine McEvoy

Catherine McEvoy was born in Birmingham in May 1956, both her parents having emigrated there from Co. Roscommon in the 1940s. Her father, Paddy, comes from an area six miles from Strokestown called Kilmore. His father, Mark McEvoy, was an accomplished flute player in his time, playing at local house dances and fairs for many years. Mark came from a large family, many of whom were also very fine musicians. Sarah, Catherine’s mother, also comes from Strokestown, and, in her younger days, was a very good traditional ballad singer. Both her parents remember many musicians around the Strokestown area, including Jimmy Tighe, a flute player, Pat Caslin, a fine fiddle player, and a character called Mutty Flanagan who was the local postman in Strokestown and also played the flute.

This great wealth of traditional music from Roscommon was very well reflected among the musicians who played in Birmingham as Catherine was growing up. This was especially true about the Birmingham Céili Band, one of the most popular bands of the 60s and 70s. During the 1960s there was a great tradition of Roscommon flute players playing with the band, including Frank Jordan from near Ballaghadereen, Frank Flanagan from Cloonsuck, and Paddy Joe Maloney. The founding members of the band, the Lawrie family, come from the Knockvicar area of Co. Roscommon. It was through the Birmingham Céili Band that Catherine, at a young age, was to have her first introduction to traditional Irish music.

Catherine’s older brother John, himself a very well know fiddle player in both Ireland and England, had a major influence on her in those early days. John was very enthusiastic about traditional music and often brought home records of such great musicians as Denis Murphy and his sister Julia Clifford, Máirtin Byrnes, the Galway fiddle player, and Jimmy Power, a fiddle player from Waterford who lived in London. One of the first records to be brought into the McEvoy household was an old ’78 recording of Michael Coleman.

At the age of 13, Catherine started taking lessons on the accordion. Her teacher was Kathleen Lawrie, a well respected musician in Birmingham at the time, and member of the Birmingham Céili Band. Soon, Catherine became a member of the band herself, playing initially on the piano. When Tom McHale, the whistle and flute player from Tulsk, Co. Roscommon left the band in the early 1970s, Catherine took up the flute. Though she had no formal training, she soon began to master the instrument and built up a large repertoire of tunes. The other flute player with the Birmingham band at that time was Frank Carty from Ballaghadereen. Catherine also played in duets with her brother John, and later teamed up with Brendan Mulvihill, a fiddle player from the Bronx, New York, who was living in Birmingham at the time.

Catherine continued to spend a lot of time listening to tapes of such musicians as Séan Ryan from Tipperary and the Killina Céili Band. Many of these tapes were lent by Paddy Ryan, the Roscommon fiddle player who was also a member of the Birmingham band. All traditional recordings and Radio Éireann broadcasts were listened to with great interest. Many of these had a significant influence on the musical life of the McEvoy household. Numbered among these were the recordings of Seamus Tansey and Roger Sherlock and one of the first LP’s of traditional music called All Ireland Champions featuring Paddy Canny, P.J. Hayes, and Peadar O’Loughlin, all from County Clare. Catherine remembers being given a present of The Tribute to Coleman record which features the music of Joe Burke, Andy McGann, and Felix Dolan on piano. Shortly afterwards, Catherine met Felix Dolan who accompanies her on this recording.

It was in the early 1970s that Catherine met another person who had a lasting influence on her music. That was the great flute player, composer, and singer from Ballyfarnon, Josie McDermott. He was accompanied on his many visits to Birmingham by another famous flute player, Peg McGrath. “Peg was the first woman I ever saw playing the flute,” says Catherine. Catherine spent many holidays in Ireland around the Knockvicar/Boyle area of Roscommon. Many’s the night was spent playing in Dominic Cosgrove’s in Boyle in the company of Patsy Hanly, the flute player from Kilroosky who Catherine holds in the highest esteem. Often, on these occasions, Catherine would pay a visit to Keadue to hear Josie McDermott play in the group “Flynn’s Men.” Also in this group were Tommy Flynn on fiddle and Liam Purcell on accordion. Catherine remembers Josie as always being very encouraging towards young musicians and he was particularly impressed with her playing as a young flute player.

Catherine McEvoy in a session with James Kelly

Catherine McEvoy with James Kelly, Friday Harbor, Washington, March 2002
Photo by Paul Wells

Catherine continued to play regularly with the Birmingham and all around England and Ireland at Fleadhanna, Céilis, Fleadh Cheoil and Oireachtas competitions until she decided to move to Ireland in 1977. Her going away present from Kathleen Lawrie was the Rudall and Rose flute which she had been playing and still plays to the present day. The flute is a rare Rudall and Rose from the early 19th century which has no tuning slide.

In 1975 Catherine met her future husband Tom McGorman, himself a very accomplished flute player. After Catherine moved to Ireland, she and Tom spent many weekends in Drumshambo, Co. Leitrim, playing with Packie Duignan, Tom and Nellie Mulligan, and many others. Around this time Catherine frequently visited “The Four Seasons” pub in Capel Street where John Kelly senior played regularly. Sessions there also included Paddy O’Brien, the accordion player from Offaly, James Kelly and Daithí Sproule, all of whom are now living in the States, and John Kelly Jr. who Catherine now plays with on a regular basis. Thus Catherine continue to expand her musical repertoire.

Some of the best music around was to be found upstairs in the “Four Seasons” on a Thursday night during the early 1980s, with John Kelly Jr. and John McEvoy on fiddles, Mick Hand and Mick Gavin on flutes, and Jacinta McGorman on piano and concertina. Another frequent visitor to these sessions was the well known Dublin fiddle player Tommy Potts. From 1984-1988 Catherine was a member of “Macalla,” the first all-female traditional group. In more recent years she has been one of the senior flute tutors at the Willie Clancy Summer School in Milltown Malbay, Co. Clare. She now lives in Co. Meath with her husband, Tom, and three children, Jane, Ruairí, and Fergus.

(Reprinted with permission from the liner notes to Catherine McEvoy’s CD, “Catherine McEvoy with Felix Dolan: Traditional Flute Music in the Sligo-Roscommon Style,” Cló lar-Chonnachta, 1996.) Catherine’s first solo CD, “Catherine McEvoy with Felix Dolan: Traditional Flute Music in the Sligo-Roscommon Style,” is available from common distributors or directly from Cló lar-Chonnachta


Q: It may be hard to put the elements of a musical style into words, but could you try to describe the Sligo-Roscommon flute-playing style compared with the other prominent regional styles (Galway, Clare, etc.)? What are some of the things that make it distinctive?

A: The Sligo/Roscommmon style could be described I suppose as flowing, but yet rhythmical. The Sligo style makes use of the breathing to phrase the tunes, of course depending on the individual player as well. There is also a lot of use made of ornamentation, e.g. short rolls and long rolls. Take for example the playing of Roger Sherlock or Seamus Tansey. Rhythmical and flowing with lots of rolls. Another good example of Sligo flute playing is John Joe Gardiner (1893-1979) who came from near Ballymote, Co. Sligo.

I suppose many of the flute styles have been standardised because of the availability of commercial recordings.

Josie McDermott’s playing is available on CD (Darby’s Farewell). Another fine example of Sligo flute playing.

Galway flute playing is very smooth and silky, and I think they probably play a different set of tunes, maybe influenced by such musicians as Paddy Fahy.

Leitrim flute playing has a very strong breathy rhythm with maybe not as much ornamentation as Sligo/Roscommon.

It is quite hard to make very definite distinctions between the main flute playing areas. You can hear similarities between Tom Morris (1889-1958) from Glenamaddy Co. Galway, and John McKenna (1880-1947) and Tom Drumkeerin in Co. Leitrim.

Q: Many listeners (myself included) have been struck by the pacing of the dance tunes on your CD with Felix Dolan — these tunes have a wonderful laid-back lift to them that is a welcome contrast to the hard-driving speed that you hear so often on recordings today. Could you comment a bit about the benefits of playing tunes at a more relaxed pace?

A: In some ways it can be harder to play slower – it requires more breath control – but it really has to come from within. You have to be able to feel a tune to appreciate it. Each tune has its own mood — some are naturally slow and others fast. I think the music has to be lively, but that does not necessarily mean faster. It’s the rhythm that you put into the tune and how it is phrased and ornamented that gives the tune the lift. If the music is “churned out” at speed it loses all meaning and just becomes a string of notes.

Catherine McEvoy and Chris Norman 2001

Chris Norman and Catherine McEvoy at Boxwood 2001
Photo by Paul Wells.

The speed that I play at does vary according to mood, and who I am playing with. If I was playing with Peter Horan or Patsy Hanly I would be inclined to play slightly faster. In Dublin I play with some musicians from a Clare background and so I’d be inclined to play slower. When I play by myself I tend to play at a relaxed pace, because that’s what I find most comfortable. Many groups who record commercially would feel the need (especially playing to live audiences) to make an immediate impact with their music — I suppose the best way to do this is hit them hard with a fast pace. Once you start fast its hard to slow down — like driving a car!!! I still prefer the horse and cart!

When you play tunes more relaxed you have time to think of the beauty of it, the phrasing, maybe who you learnt it from, who it reminds you of etc. Felix Dolan who accompanied me on the CD is a relaxed sort of person as well — so we played comfortably together.

Q: Could you tell us a bit about the flute(s) you play? The liner notes on your CD refer to an old Rudall and Rose. It sounds to me like it has an unlined headjoint — it’s got a very “woody” tone.

A: The flute I play is a Rudall and Rose and has no tuning slide and a solid wood unlined head joint. It dates from around the mid 1820’s. It probably had two head joints but one must have got lost over the years — it may have had a tuning slide. I got it in Birmingham (it was given to me), and I have been playing the same flute for the past 25 years. It does have a very woody tone which is also quite soft. It blends very well with other instruments especially fiddles.

Q: On the hornpipe “O’Donnell’s,” it sounds like you’re doing some tongued “tick-a-tah” triplets on a few notes. I rarely hear this kind of ornamentation being done by Irish flute players! Many Americans have the misconception that “real” Irish flute or whistle players never tongue any notes or ornaments; could you comment on this?

A: The sound on the track O’Donnell’s is not actually tonguing. It is a sound made from the throat. The only way I can think of describing it is maybe the way a bird warbles. Josie McDermott used it on the flute and it was from him that I got the hornpipe O’Donnell’s.

You can hear a similar technique used on a hornpipe on “Fluters of Old Erin” (flute, piccolo and whistle recording of the 1920’s and 30’s released on Viva Voce 002). There is a hornpipe called Dwyer’s played by a William Cummins (1894-1966) who came from Roscrea, Co. Tipperary. He uses the same technique and it is a great piece of flute playing.


Q: Could you tell us a bit about some of the players who have influenced you the most?

A: I have listened to so much music over the years that I suppose in its own way it has all influenced me in some way — but certain people do stand out. Tom McHale who was a whistle and flute player from Tulsk, Co. Roscommon. He lived in Birmingham for a few years and I think he was more widely known for his whistle playing — but he was a fine flute player and actually used to play the flute I have now. He has a brother Mike McHale who lives in the Catskills and is a fine musician. Then Josie McDermott would have been a huge influence and I listened to him a lot on his trips to Birmingham, and also when I went to Ireland on holiday. I listened a lot also to Seamus Tansey and Roger Sherlock. I loved Tansey’s vibrant music and Roger’s subtle variations in the tunes. Also older players like Tom Morris (Morrison), John McKenna, and Packie Duignan from Leitrim.

Catherine McEvoy at Friday Harbor, Washington

Catherine McEvoy at Friday Harbor, Washington.
Photo by Paul Wells

I also listened to many fiddle players like Denis Murphy, Julia Clifford, Sean Ryan from Tipperary, and Paddy Canny, P.J. Hayes, Sean McGuire etc. It is great to be able to appreciate all styles and try and understand them. I suppose I naturally developed the Roscommon/Sligo style from playing so much in that area when I was young and my parents being from there. There were a lot of Roscommon musicians in Birmingham at that time: Frank Carty — flute from Ballaghadereen, and Frank Jordan, another great flute player from Roscommon.

People can have an influence over your musically, but you might not necessarily end up playing like them. Their attitude to the music can influence you.

In later years I met John Kelly Senior and he had such a wealth of knowledge about the music and life in general. He always had a great respect for the music which I very much admired.

Q: As a flute teacher as well as player, could you give a few tips that might be useful for beginners? How about a few hints for more experienced players too?

A: (1) Listen to as much music as you can, not just commercial recordings — try and get hold of old recordings as well. There are a lot being re-issued now.

(2) Play slow when learning, take your time to play the tune correctly, and don’t be in a rush to brush over things.

(3) Concentrate also on getting a good tone. Have plenty of patience it can take a long time — but sure what’s the rush! I’m playing over 25 years and I’m still learning!

(4) If you have a new flute, keep it well oiled: it takes more looking after than the old ones.

(5) Make sure you tune the flute correctly when playing with others.

(6) I wouldn’t dream of giving advice to more experienced players, they could probably teach me!

(7) Be yourself when playing. Don’t try and copy anyone or you’ll never really be at ease playing. Just develop your own style naturally.

Thanks to Paul Wells for the photos