March 26, 2008

by Paul Keating
THE journey taken by a person’s body after death –- or remains as the Irish quaintly say it — can sometimes be as meaningful as the life they led. When Inagh, Co. Clare native, Joe Ryan, passed away on Monday, March 10, at the age of 80 up in Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, respects were paid in Drogheda, Miltown Malbay and Inagh.

I am sure that many a head was bowed or a glass raised also in greater Dublin and London as well, where the genial fiddler was very active and had many friends through a long lifetime in the music scene.

The symbolism of this reversed final trip seemed so fitting for one of the giants of the Clare — indeed the universal Irish music scene — whose innate gift for the music spoke volumes for the humble but highly respected musician who won many prizes, including the All-Ireland senior fiddle in 1969.

At age 11, he took up the fiddle in Inagh, a crossroads village between Ennis and Ennistymon where one could shorten the road towards the West Clare village of Miltown Malbay. He took up carpentry as a trade, working first in Ennis, then Dublin, London and back again in Dublin where as a foreman he trained many a trainee joiner.

The fiddle and Irish music and Clare were always important parts of his life wherever he traveled, as he shared tunes with Bobby Casey in London, John Kelly in Dublin at O’Donoghues on Merrion Row and the Four Seasons and Slatterys on Capel Street and with Junior Crehan in Miltown Malbay. He was a regular tutor at the Willie Clancy Summer School and was even listed for Miltown this July.

Ryan was part of that seminal scene of musicians who literally recreated the Banner County in Dublin at the Mrs. Crotty’s Club on Church Street in the early 1960s.

Out of that milieu came one of the most exciting ceili bands in Irish music, the Castle Ceili Band that featured Ryan, Kelly, Liam Rowesome, Sean Keane, John Dwyer on fiddles, Mick O’Connor and Michael Tubridy on flutes, James Keane on accordion, Bridie Laverty on piano and Bennie Carey on drums.

They won the senior All-Ireland in 1965, and Ryan could still be seen proudly wearing his blue blazer from those halcyon days at special occasions many years later.

His music was recorded and documented in a variety of settings like the Castle Ceili Band; Crossroads, a Green Linnet cassette that he made with harmonica player Eddie Clarke from Cavan; Ceol An Chlar: Traditional Fiddle Music from West Clare, a CCE recording featuring Ryan, Bobby Casey, Junior Crehan, John Kelly and Patrick Kelly from Cree, and his own solo album, An Buachaill Dreoite.

His last was made in 2001 in the Kilnamona home of Gerdie Commane, a concertina player from the neighboring parish to Inagh that was aptly named Two Gentleman of Clare Music which was genuinely received and acknowledged as music that defined their generation.

Until his recent illness, he could often be found playing in Drogheda sessions like Beck’s Pub in Kilmoon, and he maintained a little carpentry shop where he made accordion and concertina cases where his exceptional craftsmanship allowed him to contribute even more to musicians who met him.

After viewings in Drogheda near his Julianstown home he shared with his brother James and James’ wife Delia, a wake was held in Queallys in Miltown Malbay. A long cortège made its way that Friday to the Inagh Church at the crossroads and its adjacent cemetery — where my own paternal grandparents and relations lay in repose — where Ryan was buried with his people.

Long-time friends Mick O’Connor, Seamus Mac Mathuna (he sang “He Shall Not Hear the Bittern Cry”) and Tony McMahon participated in the funeral rites as young fiddler Liam O’Connor played the lament “Taimse im Chodhladh” or “I Am Asleep and Don’t Awaken Me” at the graveside.

My thanks to Antoin MacGahann once again for keeping me abreast of Ryan’s passing and removal rites and for sharing the resume of this particular gentleman from Clare.