Interview with Mike Rafferty, Part 2: Learning to Play

This interview was conducted by Mike Casey (MC) and Paul Wells (PW).


Mike Rafferty playing in East Montpelier, Vermont. Photo by Brad Hurley

Mike Rafferty playing in East Montpelier, Vermont. Photo by Brad Hurley

PW: What kind of flute did your father play?

MR: The flute, he got, from my understanding, in Loughrea. There was somebody selling a flute. And my father went in to buy something, and to pay a bill or something. This is the story I have; I believe it’s true. And this guy was selling a flute. My father tried it out. And whatever he asked, they bargained, anyway! And he didn’t pay the bill, or he didn’t buy what he wanted, he bought the flute. He neglected something else, whichever it was, I’m not too sure.

PW: I was just wondering about the source of instruments in those days.

MR: Yeah, there was nobody making them, sure. People didn’t have the money to buy them either. It was just like the button accordion, they weren’t making them.

PW: Where did you get your first flute?

MR: I worked in the bogs in Kildare and there were two people selling a flute and I bought it. And it was a good one. It had no slide in it. And it was a right good one, I was very happy with it. And I was playing one night, this guy came in drunk, and I had it left on the chair and he sat on it and broke it to pieces. And there was a tangle in the morning, but what could you do? The flute was beyond repair. And it was 10 shillings I paid for it, at that time. What would 10 shillings be worth now? Not that much, but at that time it was a lot of money. It was a good one, it was easy to play it.

And then it was borrow. I was playing with a band then and this fiddle player had a good flute and I used to borrow the flute from him all the time. But he’d always take it home, and I’d go to the house and we’d have a few tunes. He wasn’t a great fiddle player, but for the time being I had to keep him on my side of it. And he wouldn’t sell it, because I had the money at that time to buy that flute. And he wouldn’t sell it for nothing. He says, “It’s not for sale.”

I think I had an old flute that my uncle had sent to me. It kept me going for awhile. But he had the bore hole in the mouthpiece bored wider. He was fidgety, couldn’t leave nothing alone. He had always to play with something. But it did me for awhile until a friend of mine, his uncle died, and he had an old flute, out here and, it was all cracked and this, that and the other. And there was nothing you could do with it. But I would doctor that up for a little bit.

And then, I wasn’t playing for a while, quite some time, and Mike Preston, flute player, was a member of the Tulla Ceili Band, he said “Why don’t you try the silver flute?” And I went to the music shop, and [got one] the name of it was “King.” It was a cheap flute, but it was good enough for me at the time. I struggled with that for a long time, I struggled with it all the time, but I got a better one then, an Armstrong, I think. And I was beginning to play pretty good.

And then one day I was down in Glen Echo Park, in Washington, and Jerry O’Sullivan, the piper, he says, “There’s a vendor down here,” he says, “he makes flutes, and he’s selling flutes and everything, come on down.” There was eight flute players standing around, they were all trying it out. It was a demonstration [model], of course. And, at the time I didn’t know whether it was Eb or a B whatever the case may be. When I got it in my hands I tell ya I got great satisfaction! “Jesus,” I says, “I gotta buy this.” So I went over to him, I says, “Can I buy this off you?” “Oh no,” he says, “That’s a demonstration.” But, he says, “I’ll make you one in six months.” “And sure,” I says, “I could be dead in that length of time!” Anyhow, Billy McComiskey was there, and Seamus Egan. And I conned him into it, I gave him 800 bucks for it, and it was well worth it! He sold it to me. He had pity on me. And there you have it. It was Patrick Olwell that saved my life!

Learning at Home

MC: That’s great! When your father was teaching you, how did he teach you?

MR: Watching his fingers. And it was easy, too, because he was left-handed. And he had a great way of doing it. Little sections he’d do at a time. He’d make me do that section, and as time went on he’d give me more and more.

MC: And if you got it wrong?

MR: He corrected you. “That’s not the way it’s done.” I’d go out, you see, I’d go out to the field or something and practice, although my mother didn’t mind. But I’d go out in the field and I’d practice by myself. And there was a [neighbor] he was an old Peeler, he was retired from the police, the Peelers they called ‘em then. And he used to play a bit on the whistle. And he’d be showing me things too, to me out in the field. I remember them good old days!

MC: Did your father play rolls? And all the kinds of ornaments that we do today?

MR: Oh he did, he used rolls, yeah! But if he was showin’ me he wouldn’t use them. “No, don’t learn the rolls first! The rolls will come to ya.” Just the straight notes, no rolls.

MC: Did you learn those [rolls] from him, then?

MR: Yeah, mostly. Some of them I wouldn’t think I did, some of them, but most, some of them, I have his rolls.

Places to Play

MC: After you got started playing the flute and the whistle then, where did you play?

MR: Play [at] home until you were old enough to ramble around. You’d be invited to the house dance. There was a fiddle player that used to play with me. We were invited to all the house dances, people used to throw a little party, or the “Mummer’s Spree,” we’d play at that. We used to call them the Mummers. We’d go out when we were young ones, and we’d collect money, go from house to house. Jetty Whelan and myself, now we’d be playing, we had two little fifes, and we’d play for them. There’d be a couple of people, one would be dressed up as a woman, the other guy as a “fool” we used to call ‘em. And they would dance a little bit around the kitchen floor, and we’d play a hornpipe or something like that. And then the money that we’d collect there’d be what they call a “Mummer’s Spree,” so we’d get a bottle of whiskey, and the women would be invited and they’d have to make a cake, or bread. And we had it from there, we’d buy the tea and everything else, and we’d have a night of it! “Mummer’s Spree” we called it.

MC: Who was the fiddle player [you played with]?

MR: Jack Dervan. He played with the Ballinakill Band too, but not recorded…he played in the dance halls. And then at that time there was too many flute players in Ballinakill, and I wouldn’t get my place in there, although I was good enough for it. But there wasn’t enough room for me. So, I don’t know, maybe I hadn’t the seniority, that’s what it amounted to. I had to wait my turn. But there was a band eleven miles down the road, called “Killimor,” I played with them. And we were booked, here and there, playing at the dance halls. Marquees and dances. Two nights a week sometimes, and maybe sometimes only one night a week.

I remember there was marquees in the early summer, they’d have those marquees, the football clubs or the hurling clubs would hold those marquees then, and you played for them. That’d be four hours. And the money was good, at that time. ‘Twas a pound or thirty shillings, and that was big money at that time. I was twenty-one or twenty-two years old.

PW: What do you mean by a “marquee”?

MR: A marquee is like a dome, it’s a big canvas roof, like a circus tent, and a floor put down. It could be there for three weeks or however long they want it, you know. And they’d have the different bands come in, a jazz band, or a ceili band. But when the hurlers ran a dance, there was no…it was all traditional Irish music at that time. You weren’t allowed to play even “Buttons and Bows.” Now we started “Buttons and Bows” one night and we were told to stop, or we wouldn’t get paid! That was a rule of the Gaelic Athletic Association, GAA. They didn’t want no part of England in their amateur sports, hurling and football. That was the way it was over there. Of course it’s all changed. And then the priests they ran the show over there, too, and the dance halls, most of them. But not the marquees. The hurling club ran that themselves.

MC: Who else was in the Killimor band at that time?

MR: Jetty Whelan played with me in it as well. And old Tommy Whelan played with them after I left, he took my place. The father, yeah. There was an accordion player by the name of Paddy Collins, who’s passed away a few years now. Paddy Haverty was the founder of it, or put it together. Fiddle player. Johnny Quinn, played the accordion as well. And who else…there was Peggy Haverty. She’s a fiddle player. She used to play with us as well. And we had no piano player. And we had no drummer. Except we would have to borrow a drummer sometimes. But a drummer is a big assist, playing in a band. He was more or less the time keeper, you know.

MC: Do you remember the first time that you heard the Ballinakill Ceili Band?

MR: Actually, the first time I heard them was when the record come out. I heard them on a record. That was the first time I heard them. And then they used to go like maybe for a practice, or just for a session. I would say I was maybe around 10 years of age, around 10 or 11 thereabouts, I couldn’t be sure of that. They mightn’t be all there, but Anna [Rafferty] would be there, with the piano. Kevin [Moloney], and Aggie [Whyte], and the old-timers, Stephen [Moloney] and Tommy Whelan. Tommy Whelan, by the way, used to come up the road in a donkey and cart—that was his transportation. That donkey would run like [demonstrates] up and down the road, yeah. Tie him outside, and he had a little bag of hay out there, he used to go back and he’d go into the hay barn and there was a place where they had the hay and he’d steal the hay! And he went to old Pat Rafferty who was there, and he’d say: “I stole some of your hay, Pat!” “Well all right,” he says, “so long as you’ll play a tune you’ll make up for it!”

Next: Galway to America. Mike emigrates to New York.