A few months ago Adèle and I visited Máire Bean Uí Ghríofa in the Ashborough Lodge nursing home in Milltown, Co. Kerry. She lay there enjoying our company without any real knowledge of who we were. We chatted about her father, her love of music, and other general bits of conversation that did not require too much detail. We sang. First I sang ‘Róisín Dubh’, a song Máire had helped me learn many years ago when rehearsing for the Fleadh. The Máire sang a beautiful song about her native Cappawhite, Co. Tipperary, where she was born in 1925. Then the three of us sang together, ‘Óró mo Bháidín’. With the innocence of a child, she told us that the three of us should practice as we had a nice blend and could be good if we practised. Máire’s illness had taken much from her but her enthusiasm and appreciation of Irish music remained.
Practice was one of Máire’s buzzwords. ‘Go home and practice that tune’. In 2001 I was fortunate to win the senior mandolin at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Listowel. After I had won the Munster Fleadh, Máire told me I had to play the tunes every day without fail between then and the All-Ireland. I called to her regularly for her to hear my progress – although the visits were as much about tea and a chat as reviewing my technique. When I did win, Máire’s advice was familiar – ‘keep practising now and you could be very good’.
Máire and I would often chat about music in her life and, in particular her involvement in music in Tralee but she would never let me record our conversations. She had a fear that she might say the wrong thing or people would misinterpret what she would say. She always focused on the positives and was quick to compliment others, even if they had clashed in the past or if her opinion differed from them. If there was anything she thought my offend somebody, she would change the subject noting that some things were best left in the past. However, she delighted in sharing memories of her father and the successes of some of the many Tralee musicians and singers whom she had mentored. She had a great passion for teaching and while I have no doubt she was a tough lady she remembered the classroom and taking pupils after school fondly, even when speaking of disagreements or divilsome characters.
I knew Máire through Craobh Thrá Lí CCÉ, to which she was totally dedicated. As a boy learning dancing with Patricia Hanafin, she was thrilled when my parents brought me along to join the Comhaltas group for a performance. By then I was learning mandolin with Jim O’Connor in the CBS Primary and Nicky McAulliffe in Teach Siamsa Finuge and so there was potential for me to join the group as a musician. Many of the others were attending the Irish school Scoil Mhic Easmuinn and had a greater fluency of Irish than I but Máire also coaxed me in this regard. For a number of years I thoroughly enjoyed participating in the Scoraíochts for Slógadh, the summer Seisiún performances in Dúchas House and Grúpaí Ceoil for the Fleadh. Máire gave us guidance but respected the talents of the group and had the wisdom to identify and incorporate these talents.
Later, when Craobh Thrá Lí became less viable in terms of competition, Máire began working with Sliabh Mish CCÉ and I performed with the Grúpa Ceoil there for a time. Máire knew I was interested in studying music and composition and encouraged me to write some harmonies for the group. She showed me how she composed harmonies on the piano, on which she often played in the house. The Grúpa Ceoil was Máire’s favourite competition and she admired a number of other teachers and the sounds they produced. Later, when I started teaching groups with Craobh na Dúglaise CCÉ, she listened appreciatively to recordings, envious of the large number of fiddles, which she thought was important for balance in a group. While always polite, on occasions where we weren’t successful, Máire’s passion and competitive spirit came through. There was one particular Fleadh result that she would mention regularly for a number of years.
Máire’s sense of humour is probably something that can be forgotten about when reflecting on her talents. It was most evident to me when we were preparing the scoraíochts. Máire was able to develop aspects of the scoraíocht script as we went along, reacting to stories in the news, basing characters on real people and, if mistakes on stage led to comedy, looked to integrate these – as when I inadvertently mixed up my lines to the amusement of those around me and, for subsequent performances, had to keep the mistake as it enhanced my efforts to act the bumbling idiot. She was thrilled when we won Slógadh in the mid-1990s, although she reckoned our show and performance the previous year was even better!
Máire often spoke about her favourite musicians and was open to listening to different musical ideas. These included Mícheál Ó Suilleabháin and Martin Hayes although she would have preferred if they had cut their hair! Although not from the area, she admired the Sliabh Luachra musicians and in particular the rhythmic capacity of the fiddle players, which differed from her own style. She was not averse to asking her former students for help in choosing music and Máire O’Keeffe provided her with some of the polkas and slides that she taught us. She spoke highly of other teachers, particularly Nicky and Anne McAulliffe and, when we were preparing for scoraíochts, would invite Fr Pat Ahern to the rehearsals and welcome any comments that he would make. She also turned to many others for help including her close friend John Mason, Dawn and Seán Seosamh Ó Conchubhair, Brian Caball and Kathleen Hayes.
Although I never met them, Máire’s husband Paddy Griffin and father, former President of Comhaltas Sailbheastar McConnmhaigh, also loomed large in some of our conversations. As was written in Treoir following his passing in 1987, ‘Paddy was neither a musician, singer or dancer but as an organiser he had few peers. He was ever-conscious of the value of the sean-chultúr and the urgent need to salvage it in all its facets for posterity’ (p. 17). Sailbheastar, from Lissycasey in Co. Clare, was a Timire for a time, travelling around Clare, Limerick and North Kerry teaching Irish, before becoming principal in Cappawhite Technical School. As her memory changed, Máire referred more to a distant past in our conversations and her admiration for her father was very evident. Máire continued the efforts of her father and husband in her own ways, much to the benefit of musicians in Tralee and surrounding areas.
Máire won the senior fiddle slow airs at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Buncrana in 1980, the same Fleadh at which the Sliabh Mis group from Trá-lí CCÉ won the senior Grúpaí Ceoil. She had a great love of slow airs and there are recordings of her in the Comhaltas Archive from 1979, recorded in Dúchas House. She was careful to match the slow airs with the songs and was always mindful of the words of the songs and their pronunciation. While her husband Paddy took great pride in the céilí bands, I think Máire preferred the opportunities presented by the potential for arrangement in the grúpaí ceoil and she would put a lot of effort into arranging her groups. She desired a quick start, often a polka, a nice slow air, something from Carolan and a lively finish. She looked to rarer tunes, some of which she took from Francis O’Neill’s Waifs and Strays of Gaelic Melody (1922) and while some favourites recurred, she never stopped exploring the tradition.
Amongst Máire’s accolades was the Bene Merenti medal for her long service to the church, playing the organ in the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Tralee for many years and previously singing in the choir in St John’s Church under the direction of Fr Pat Ahern. As Máire’s eyesight declined, she struggled to play music as she preferred to have the sheet music in front of her. Her friend, Sr Benedict Cotter, sought other organists for the church and I played there regularly, including for Christmas. Máire would often compliment the music, sometimes with a specific comment regarding a particular piece that she enjoyed.
As I spent less and less time in Tralee, I enjoyed brief chats with Máire on my visits home. One day when I called, she brought me to a chest of drawers in the hall and took out some music books. ‘Now that you have groups of your own, you should have these. I would be happier if they were used to teach others’. Such was her familiarity with her home that she could get around without any suspicion of her declining eyesight. She would insist on making tea and only later would suggest that I pour. She was proud. This made her final weeks more difficult as she became increasingly dependent on others but, on a good day, she delighted in singing or humming along with familiar tunes being sung or played to her.
The last time I visited Máire she was having a bad morning. She was like a child, arguing with her minder, refusing to take a drink from her or me. She refused to sing. She spoke only in English even though on some previous occasions she appeared more coherent when communicating in Irish. She did not wish to hear music but wanted to be left to sleep. I said goodbye as she returned to sleep. In her sleep she can, once again, share her love of music with those who have gone before and her memory will live on in the music, song, dances and comhrá of those whom she gave so much to.
Máire Griffin (Máire Bean Uí Ghríofa) (nee Conway) passed away peacefully on 22nd November 2017. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a hanam.