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Special Memories in Tralee

THE Eleventh Annual Shindig by the Windmill at the Earl of Desmond Hotel in Tralee attracted set dancers from everywhere this past weekend. 

It had a special and emotional nod to a Bannerman whose band appeared for 10 of the 11 years running, though sadly was missing its beloved leader this time. Before Christmas, Micheal Sexton from Mullagh, Co. Clare passed on. 

The tradition continued though for the almost 500 dancers in the hall Saturday night when Michael Sexton, Michael’s son, filled the accordion chair on the weekend dedicated to his late father by sitting in with Michael Sexton Ceili Band regulars, Dave Culligan, Ralph Morgan, Caroline O’Dea and Pat Walsh.

Tears mixed with perspiration at the Kerry ceili, assuring that the rich legacy of one of Ireland’s finest dance musicians would live on, though cancer claimed another victim too soon at the age of 64.

Michael Sexton was one of the real gentlemen in the Irish ceili music community, who let his accordion do most of the talking over the years. He was privileged enough to play alongside many of the best musicians that came out of Clare. He made his own mark first as a young man with the Fiochur Ceili Band. He then worked with the seminal Laictin Naofa Ceili Band based in Miltown Malbay – alongside Willie Clancy, Junior Crehan and J.C. Talty. Sexton appeared on their recording An Irish Dance Party in 1960. 

He was recruited up county by the late Kitty Linnane and Jimmy Ward to help fill a vacancy in the fabled Kilfenora Ceili Band. Then, box player Jerry Lynch left for America and from 1960 to 1975, Sexton’s association with the KC Band was the longest tenure of any accordion player with the band according to the present day leader of the Kilfenora, John Lynch with whom I spoke by phone.

That period didn’t garner any All-Ireland Ceili Band championships for the Kilfenora (who have six titles including two three-peats) but did yield two record albums with Michael Sexton on them, Clare Ceili on EMI and the Kilfenora Ceili Band on TransAtlantic. The latter was produced by Mick Moloney and recorded in one day at the West County Hotel outside Ennis in 1974. 

From 1975 he formed one of the most popular dance bands in Clare with two mates from the Kilfenora, Jimmy Ward and P.J. Murrihy as the Bannermen. John Lynch remembered that they played at his own wedding in 1979 (and nearly all the other weddings in Clare on Saturday afternoons) before tearing off to the Armada in Spanish Point, which was a mainstay for the Bannermen on Saturday nights. 

In 1992 Sexton formed his own ceili band and it rapidly became one of the hardest-working groups, as the set-dancing revival kicked into high gear all over Ireland and into Europe and America. The Catskill promoter Gertie Bryne, who continually seeks out the most popular and best ceili bands available, invited Michael Sexton no less than five times for her Nevele Grande weekends and Winter cruises. She recognized his high regard among the set dancers.

It was at the Nevele weekends where I met Michael first as the minder of the Ceili side of the hotel. I admired his workmanlike approach to the music and his assigned gigs on the weekend.

Like the skilled craftsman, he wanted to do his best to please his customers, in this case the dancers on the floor. I always felt that he was taking it all in from his corner seat on the stage, knowing when to give that extra lift and drive (a Kilfenora trait according to John Lynch, not usually associated with music of the Miltown lads) to help keep the dancers “flying it.”

Lynch, who knows his Clare music well, said that Sexton’s ability to move the dancers like the Kilfenora made the Sexton Band one of his favorites when he was dancing on the floor and unharnessed from the banjo. Lynch also recalled that one year the Michael Sexton band played 15 ceilithe, mostly at the revamped Armada Hotel during one seven-day Willie Week that is both a testament to his stamina as well as his immense popularity. 

Thankfully there are two recordings of the Michael Sexton Ceili Band to hold onto Michael’s music, the first self-titled and the second Mad to Dance, released in 1998. Whether the band continues or not is still to be decided as Michael has a worthy heir to the accordion seat in his son Micheal, who won that rare double in 1987 of the Senior Accordion and Concertina at Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann. 

Micheal is no stranger to playing for the sets either and it remains to be seen if the other players continue on in a band under that name.

At the December 22 Mass before Michael Sexton was buried in St. Mary’s Churchyard in Mullagh, his daugher-in-law Mary delivered a remembrance entitled “Miss Me But Let Me Go.”

Gifts were brought to altar which told of a life well lived: some earth from his home place and farm, tools for the handy side of his life, a microphone which showed how well he could communicate his music, a CD to document that talent, and his Paoli Soprani Accordion with which he spread so much joy and happiness.

Finally, there was an Irish road map that guided his trips to every corner of the island to play his music. That could only tell part of the story however, as his music knew no boundaries. It spread to Britain, Spain, America and who knows where because he carried it where he could and as often as he could with a fierce pride. 

We send our condolences to his wife Betty and children Miriam and Micheal, along with set dancers and Irish musicians who will miss Michael Sexton but are grateful for the wonderful work he left behind.

Contact at  fromthehob@aol.com.


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