Widely acknowledged as one of Ireland’s finest whistle players ever, she has been described as one of the iconic performers in our time. Mary Bergin is a musician of such startling virtuosity that one could claim she almost single handedly launched the humble Irish tin whistle as a first-tier instrument onto the stage of modern day traditional Irish music.
Her name invariably springs to the lips of modern day traditional Irish musicians when they speak about their greatest musical influences, players like Joanie Madden, Fintan Vallely, Grey Larsen, Sean Ryan, and Vinnie Kilduff.
In Madden’s own words, ‘Mary Bergin… is what every whistle player should aspire to – pure trad’.
And according to Grey Larsen:
‘Bergin has a beautifully lean, pure, and economical style that allows her to play with great agility, drive, and speed, all with apparent ease.’
Thanks to her ‘infinitely melodic, perfectly ornamented, vigorous playing’ she can take her place in the Living Legends Hall of Fame.
Any whistle player or teacher worth their salt will cite Mary Bergin as a leading influencer of the modern Irish whistling style and consequently the holy grail of traditional Irish whistle playing.
In fact, her influence has served as a catalyst for an Irish tin whistle revolution.
She plays the whistle ‘left handed’ with the right hand covering the upper tone holes, like a lot of leading Irish whistle players.
Mary’s Early Years
Born in Shankill, south county Dublin in 1949 to musician parents, Bergin was exposed to traditional Irish music from a young age and took up the tin whistle at the age of 7. Her mother played violin, classical and traditional, and her father played the melodeon. Leading musicians of the time including Elizabeth Crotty, Paddy Hill and Kathleen Harrington often called to the house and music was a constant feature of the young musician’s life.
Mary started competing in Oireachtas na Gaeilge music competitions and it was there she first heard the whistle playing of a relatively young Willie Clancy, an experience that was to inform and inspire her playing for years to come, “ … he had long hair at that stage – but I was very influenced by him.”
Mary and her sister, renowned harpist, the late Antoinette McKenna, progressed to playing at pub sessions in Blackrock in the late 1960s where she met the blind whistler, Terry Horan and fiddlers Joe Liddy, Kathleen Nesbitt and John Dwyre. She then went on to discover her very first Fleadh Ceoil, sessions in Church Street and The Pipers’ Club and from that point on she was well and truly hooked, as she herself puts it, “We ate and slept and drank music.”
Her extraordinarily soulful playing enhanced by formidable technique was beginning to get her noticed, and she went on to perform at Comhaltas Concert Tours in the UK and the US alongside brilliant fellow trad musicians such as Liam Óg O’Flynn, Matt Molloy, Seamus Begley, Joe Burke and James Kelly. Comhaltas Concert Tours first started in 1972 when the first official North American Tour took place. The Tour of Britain was introduced in 1973 and the Tour of Ireland then followed in 1980.
In the early 70s she met Alec Finn in The Brazen Head pub, Dublin. He introduced her to Spiddal in Co. Galway where Finn was in the process of forming the legendary traditional Irish group, Dé Danann with Frankie Gavin, Charlie Piggott and Ringo McDonagh. She went on to co-found the Green Linnet Céilí Band and also played with Dé Danann and Ceoltóirí Laigheann.
‘… to me, in any form of music it’s the rhythm that’s the most important thing … When I look back on myself as a younger musician I would have sought out a lot of the older players. They mightn’t have been technically brilliant, or had the most amazing ornamentation, but they had something special – and it’s the rhythm.’
This understanding of what brought joy to both the player and the listener was to propel Bergin to high musical acclaim in 1979 with the release of her first album, the standard setting and an instant classic of the genre, Feadóga Stáin, a spectacular feat considering the difficulty women experienced in the male-dominated world of traditional Irish music and the perceived ordinariness of the humble tin whistle.
The album was critically acclaimed by anyone who was anyone in the trad music sphere. Renowned flute player, researcher and teacher Fintan Vallely proclaimed the “sparkling brilliance” of Bergin’s playing. Critic and music journalist, Mic Moroney, called it an album of “unparalleled discipline and metronomic groove making it one of the uncontested bedrock albums of Irish traditional music”.
The album stunned many players including a young Joanie Madden, an up and coming whistle and flute player at the time, who tells of when she first heard the album and asked what was the instrument. “That’s Mary Bergin playing the whistle,’ he said. And I said, ‘No, no, I play the whistle, that’s not a whistle – it can’t do that.’ Then I realized my God, it is the whistle.”
Mary’s Brief Absence from the Scene
In the early 80’s, Mary became a mother but she was also dealing with a marriage breakdown, so she took a step back from performance and she was rarely seen in the ensuing years, although she did contribute to Dé Dannan’s Anthem released in 1985.
“I faded off the scene in a way because I wasn’t in a position to travel, and I’d lost heart in playing because my life was on a bit of a downer”
Her long awaited second solo album Feadóga Stáin 2, released in 1992, is described as an “Everest for musicians, with tunes that grab the heart” and for many, both albums are a desert island pick as the only traditional Irish music albums they’ll ever need! Mary is accompanied by a sensational line up including, Kathleen Loughnane on harp, Dearbhaill Standún on fiddle, Joe McKenna on uilleann pipes, her late sister, Antoinette McKenna on harp, the late Alec Finn on bouzouki and guitar, Johnny Ringo McDonagh on bodhrán, Johnny Campbell on bass guitar and Tom Stephens on guitar.
The scope of Mary Bergin’s influence on the world of modern traditional Irish music is all the more extraordinary considering her discography amounts to a total of six albums, two solo and four with the stunning Dordán group which she founded with fiddler Dearbhaill Standún and harpist Kathleen Loughnane, in 1990.
The award-winning Dordán, an Irish group specialising in traditional Irish and Baroque music, released four critically acclaimed and award-winning albums including the Irish traditional music Christmas album, The Night Before … A Celtic Christmas (released in 1997) which is an absolute must have for anyone wishing to create the ultimate Celtic Christmas music soundtrack.
Gradam Ceoil TG4
In 2000 Bergin was awarded Traditional Musician of the Year for her life’s work in the world of traditional Irish music, she was the first female traditional Irish musician to receive this award and one of only four women ever to win.
The Irish Tin Whistle Tutorial
She has also released probably the most highly regarded tin whistle tutorial ever produced, Fintan Vallely describes it as a “landmark” publication, “for it is rare that the compiler would be both an accomplished performer and equally-accredited teacher”. Presented in three volumes, it is a must-read for students wishing to master the traditional Irish whistle technique and can be purchased directly from Bergin’s website. Mary tells me that she is working on the third volume as I write!
Feadóga Stáin 3
Although Bergin has yet to release Feadóga Stáin 3, she assured Mic Moroney way back in 1999 that a promise had been made to that effect. Will the 2020s finally see a third solo album by Mary Bergin? It will surely rank as an unparalleled Irish whistle trilogy!
“Essential Guide to Irish Flute and Tin Whistle” By GREY E. LARSEN
[Image: courtesy of maryberginwhistle.com]