While it may seem like somewhat of a contradiction, there’s no shortage of great composers within the world of traditional Irish music. It’s a tough line to walk, crafting melodies that fit within the confines of the tradition, heralding the old tunes that have come before, while still being new and different enough to excite the listener and player.
I’ve already shared with you some of my favourite tunes by the great Irish-American fiddle player, Liz Caroll. Today I thought it was high time to explore the music of one of Ireland’s greatest composers of all time – the legendary Paddy Fahey.
The Quiet Man
Paddy Fahey was born in 1926 in Buxtown, a small townland near Kilconnel in East Galway where he grew up in a musical family. His father played the fiddle while his mother was a skilled accordion player. The Fahey home was very much at the heart of a rich musical tradition and fostered Paddy’s love for traditional music.
Paddy’s father, Jack Fahey, was also founding member of the Aughrim Slopes Céilí Band, formed in 1932. Paddy became a member in the 1940s and toured with the band throughout the UK and America.
The bright lights of the city weren’t for him however and Paddy chose to remain in his beloved East Galway where he lived and worked as a farmer. A quiet, peaceful man he was notoriously private and enjoyed a life of living on the land, composing tunes on his fiddle when the mood struck.
‘His tune compositions… were lyrical and elegant, melancholic and haunting… He was was a quiet and thoughtful man who wrote quiet and thoughtful tunes.’
– The Irish Times
While the spotlight was not for him, there’s no denying that Paddy Fahey was one of the greatest musicians to ever grace the world of traditional Irish music. Throughout his lifetime Paddy composed somewhere between 60 to 100 tunes which have been adopted with open arms into current Irish music repertoire. His music is beloved by musicians far and wide. So what is it that makes Paddy Fahey’s tunes so special?
Paddy’s reclusive nature surrounded him with an air of mystery. Some have suggested that this mystique has perhaps contributed to the popularity of his music. While there may be a grain of truth to these claims, I would argue that the popularity of Paddy Fahey’s tunes is owed instead to the exquisite melodies he wrote.
‘Paddy Fahey’s music is a statement of beauty, refinement and elegance. One’s fiddle never sounds so good as when playing one of his tunes. What a beautiful legacy of music he has left us.’
– Martin Hayes
Paddy excelled at weaving melodies that were at once both old and new; challenging to play, exciting to listen to and yet comfortingly familiar. Sitting easily alongside much older tunes from a historic tradition, yet easily identifiable with that iconic Paddy Fahey sound.
In 2001, Paddy was honoured with the very first TG4 Gradam Ceoil Composer of the Year award. An honour which, despite his humble manner, Paddy graciously accepted. That same year Paddy was also awarded a Hall of Fame award by the Galway School of Traditional Music. One feels however that he was perhaps a man who didn’t fully recognise his own musical genius:
‘I’m no different to any other. I compose a few tunes, that’s the only thing.’
– Paddy Fahey
Unlike so many other great composers however, it’s a relief to know that Paddy was honoured in his lifetime and knew at least some of the extent to which his music has influenced and inspired others.
When he passed away in 2019, at the age of 102, Irish traditional music lost one of its finest composers and fiddle players.
What’s in a Name?
Not one for the spotlight, Paddy Fahey sadly never recorded an album, nor did he publish his collection of tunes. Luckily the majority of his tunes have been written down and recorded in a University of Limerick Master’s degree thesis by Maria Holohan from 1995 titled The Tune Compositions of Paddy Fahey.
Due to the wonders of the digital age, the recordings Maria made as part of her research are now available online. As a result, we are lucky enough to be able to listen to the master himself playing his own compositions in the comfort of his own home:
Paddy Fahey’s modesty also extended to the manner in which he named his tunes. Each tune was given a number rather than a title or individual name.
As you can well imagine, this can lead to to more than a little confusion. When you’re sitting at a session and someone beside you suggests playing Paddy Fahey’s Reel this inevitably leads to a discussion to determine exactly which Paddy Fahey reel they have in mind as no one can ever remember the numbering system! It also means that searching for recordings of your favourite Fahey tunes can lead you down quite the rabbit hole…
Luckily for my readers, I’ve spared you this headache and put together a few of my favourite Paddy Fahey tunes for you to enjoy (and maybe even learn) – complete with recordings and sheet music notation. Believe me, it was no easy feat!
You may agree or disagree with my choices – such is the joy of life. If your favourite tune hasn’t made the list, let me know in the comments below. I’d love to hear what Paddy Fahey tunes you enjoy playing the most. (We all know the true answer there, it’s ‘all of them’.)
Paddy Fahey’s Reel No. 14
One of Paddy Fahey’s best known and most popular reels, No. 14 is played and taught here by the legendary Martin Hayes:
Being a gifted fiddle player himself, it’s no surprised that Paddy Fahey’s tunes lend themselves so well to being played on this iconic Irish instrument. Like most of his tunes, Reel No. 14 makes excellent use of the full scope and range of the instrument.
It begins with a sweep from the lowest note on the fiddle – a rich resonant low G on an open string – up two octaves and back down again.
‘The tune meanders effortlessly to its perfect conclusion, like a river that knows the exact best route to the ocean. However this tune only scratches the surface of Fahey’s melodic gifts.’
– Dave Flynn
If you’d like to include potentially the greatest Paddy Fahey tune of all time in your repertoire, I’ve included the notation below:
Paddy Fahey’s Reel No. 20 (my favourite!)
Another iconic tune in the hands of the master of the Irish fiddle, Martin Hayes (starts at 01:07 in the video below). This is not just one of my favourite Paddy Fahey tunes, but one of my all time favourite pieces of music in any genre:
‘There is an indescribable quality to this, and indeed most other Fahey tunes. Some say it’s haunting, or otherworldly, or melancholic. Perhaps ‘The Lonesome Touch’ is the most apt way to describe it. Fahey’s tunes work best played by a lonesome fiddler.’
– Dave Flynn
Like many of Paddy Fahey’s tunes, this one always seems to me like it can’t quite make up its mind whether it’s major or minor. It’s this ambiguity that many musicians love about Fahey’s music as it leaves endless possibility for personal interpretation.
Paddy Fahey’s Jig No. 1
Aptly numbered, Jig No. 1 is one of Paddy Fahey’s most popular compositions and for good reason! Have a listen to it in the hands of none other than fiddle maestro (and a good friend of McNeela Instruments) Liam O’Connor:
You might have started to notice that one thing that sets Paddy Fahey’s music apart is his choice of key. A huge amount of Irish music is typically played in the key of of D major or G major – usually as a result of the restrictions of the diatonic instruments that largely occupy the tradition.
Paddy Fahey however, as a skilled fiddle player, liked to explore the full scope of his instrument. This included exploring different tonalities. This particular jig is usually played in the key of G minor as Liam O’Connor is above, and as is notated below. If you’ve never before braved this exciting new key, then now’s the time. Although, if you’re a keyless flute player there are definitely some extra challenges involved. It’s well worth the effort though!
Be warned however, often times people will replace the B flat in the melody with a B natural. I would advise checking in with your fellow musicians which note they intend to play before embarking on this brilliant tune at a session so as to avoid clashing notes and perhaps more importantly, to avoid offending everyone’s ears:
Paddy Fahey’s Jig No. 10
Another melody that’s full of unexpected twists and turns is that of Jig No. 10 – the first in the set below, played by the brilliant Kane sisters:
Liz and Yvonne Kane have recorded a number of Paddy Fahey’s compositions and even had the honour of performing with him at the 2001 TG4 Gradam Ceoil Awards. You can watch a video of their iconic performance here.
No.10 starts off with a similar melody to Jig No. 1 above, but sticks to a decidedly more major tonality in the first part, giving it a brighter, happier sound. The second part however takes a characteristic Paddy Fahey style turn, reintroducing the flattened note to throw the listener off the scent.
His stylistic use of accidentals (notes from outside the designated key) leaves the listener mildly uncertain of the overall tonality. This is one of my favourite qualities of Paddy Fahey’s music – this ambiguity. It leaves plenty of room for the player or indeed the listener to form their own opinions and thus become a little bit more engaged with the music.
As a result of this modal sound (neither major nor minor) Paddy’s melodies are often described as melancholy – a reflection perhaps of the reclusive life of the great man behind them:
Paddy Fahey’s Hornpipe No. 1
Paddy Fahey’s Hornpipe No. 1 is, somewhat surprisingly, not the most popular or widely known of his hornpipes, nor indeed of his wider tune collection. Have a listen to this gentle rendition from Irish guitarist and fellow composer, Dave Flynn:
I’ll admit it – my favourite thing about this tune is the descending chromatic line that you can hear at 0:04 above or see notated in bar 3 of the sheet music below. This downward semitone or halfstep movement adds a playful element to this otherwise rather traditional style hornpipe.
I also love how Paddy plays with musical motifs and again subverts expectations by repeating short snippets of the melody where you don’t expect them to happen. The structure of the second part of this tune is nothing short of genius. Simple yes, but a masterpiece nonetheless.
While Dave is playing here in the key of E major, Paddy Fahey himself recorded it for Maria Holohan’s archiving project in the key of A major. You’ll notice however that I’ve included notation below in G major… A tad confusing for the beginner musician I know, but you’ll get used to choosing a key which works best for your own instrument:
If you’re feeling inspired by the music of this legendary composer (and well you should be) perhaps you might be interested in exploring the music of another brilliant Irish fiddle player and composer, Liz Carroll. Listen to my favourite Liz Carroll tunes, and maybe even try your hand at them, in my blog post: The Best of Liz Carroll.
Alternatively, you might be itching to pick up an instrument yourself and give these iconic tunes a try. If that’s the case, why not visit my online music store? McNeela Instruments caters for all you Irish musical instrument needs, no matter how big or small. We specialise in instruments for the traditional Irish music market and cater to every player level, from complete beginner to advanced and performance.
With the right instrument in hand and these brilliant Paddy Fahey tunes under your belt I see a mighty music session in your future. Go n-éirí leat!