The Music of West Limerick

west limerick music
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Being from Boston I can spot a Boston accent a mile away. And not only that, I can tell from what part of Boston someone is from solely by their accent. For example there is a difference between a south Boston accent and an East Boston accent.

Irish music is much the same in that there is regionalism in the music. We’ve been learning about different styles of Irish music in a class I’m taking at the  Vermont School of Traditional Music. Some weeks we have different players who specialize in different styles come and visit the class and teach us about that region. Last week fiddler Rob Ryan came and spoke about West Limerick music. Here’s what he had to say:

The following post was written by fiddler, Rob Ryan for the students of an Irish music class offered by the Vermont School of Traditional Music.

West Limerick music, like the music of the wider south-west Munster area of Ireland, has been shaped by the fiddle and accordion.

west limerick music
Vermont School of Traditional Irish Music

Much of it has been influenced by the technical limitations of the C#/D box, and some of the turns and ornamental phrases that are commonly found in the music of West Limerick, Sliabh Luachra, Cork, and West Kerry owe their origins to the idiosyncrasies of the C#/D keyboard.

The relationship between the open strings of the fiddle and the bow also informs the structure of the tunes, and the ‘home notes’ of polkas and slides often correspond to notes that can be played on the open strings, or double stopped for volume and rhythmic emphasis, both of which are very important in the context of acoustic dance music performance.

West Limerick music is most closely associated with the music of Sliabh Luachra, of which West Limerick is a part, and they share in common the polkas and slides that are part of the dance traditions of Kerry, Cork, and Limerick.

West Limerick dance music, however, is usually less urgent than the music associated with Sliabh Luachra and West Kerry, with a slightly stronger rhythmic emphasis on the first beat, and a pulse that is sometimes shaped by long notes and pauses that are left unfilled.

West Limerick musicians tend to swing the beat more heavily than musicians from Kerry and Cork, and certainly more so than those from West Kerry, where slides and polkas are played quite ‘straight’. Where a typical Sliabh Luachra setting might favour a complex run of notes to fill the space and create a different rhythmic drive from the slight ‘stretching’ of the phrase, a West Limerick version might hold the note, which creates an altogether different rhythmic ‘elasticity’. This feeling of elasticity is crucial to the correct playing of all polkas and slides, whether they are from West Kerry, East Kerry, Cork, or West Limerick, and without it, they tend to become monotonous and entirely lacking in lift.

One of the ways in which this lift is achieved, particularly in polkas, is through the creation of a strong dynamic offbeat emphasis. This is often achieved on the accordion by varying the force used to push air through the reeds, and on the fiddle through a combination of adjustments in pressure and speed applied to the long bow-strokes that characterize skillfully executed slides and polkas. Another means to achieve this effect is through manipulation of the bass keys of the accordion, and by the use of double stops on the fiddle.

West Limerick slides emphasize the ‘home notes’, which means there are strong emphases on the ‘two notes’ (OOM – PAH) at the end of phrases, where the feet either snap together, or slide together (hence the name slide) at the end of the internal phrases of the tune. On the fiddle, the easiest way to articulate this rhythm is to slur into and out of these ‘two notes’ (in other words, to change bow direction between the OOM and the PAH). Martin Mulvihill doesn’t always do this, but sometimes changes speed and pressure, to emphasize the second of the two notes, without the slight percussive emphasis of a bow change, which creates the illusion that the second beat is actually a pick-up of the next phrase. This subtle emphasis of the second beat is crucial to the rhythm of West Limerick music in particular, and the music of Sliabh Luachra in general, and among the uninitiated, this illusion creates the impression that polkas should speed up, to infinity and beyond…

West Limerick Musicians

The musician who has probably made the greatest contribution towards the preservation of the unique West Limerick fiddle style is Martin Mulvihill, who spent many years teaching fiddle and accordion in New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. He tutored many world-respected traditional Irish musicians, including Eileen Ivers, Mary Rafferty, and Willie Kelly, and he produced several teaching albums and cassette-only commercial recording on a home-made Irish label. His son, Brendan Mulvihill, is known as one of the more virtuosic fiddle players of his generation. The Green Linnet LP entitled Traditional Irish Fiddling from County Limerick which Martin Mulvihill recorded in 1978 captured the relaxed tempo of his playing, his rare simplicity of phrasing, combined with a subtly unique rhythmic lift, and above all, the abundance of humour and fun in his music.

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