The late Paddy Tunney called Rita Gallagher ‘The Linnet of the Bluestacks’. Despite the Frosses native relocating to Crossroads, Killygordon a couple of decades ago, the title is indeed an apt one.
“Moving was no cultural shift” she tells me, as I sup tea and eat treacle bread with Rita and fiddler Frank Kelly in their home in east Donegal.
There are photographs and trophies galore in many of the rooms. One photo that catches my eye is of the legendary fiddler, and Frank’s great hero, Hughie Gillespie.
Along with contemporaries and fellow expatriates Michael Coleman, James Morrison and Paddy Killoran from Sligo, Gillespie, from Ballybofey, spent most of his life in Boston, and was much influenced by Coleman.
He too was one of the most influential fiddlers of his generation. Intriguingly, Frank recorded a tribute to Hughie on cassette many years ago, and one of the tunes, ‘Paddy MacGill’s’, was written by the Glenties novelist especially for Gillespie.
As the author of Songs of a Navvy, Songs of the Dead End, Soldier Songs and Songs of Donegal, Patrick would have loved Rita Gallagher. When the world’s biggest Irish music website, liveireland.com, awarded her “May Morning Dew”, the ‘Album of the Year” in 2015 , it added: “There are those who say Rita Gallagher is the best Irish female singer in the world.
“She certainly is at the top of her game on this magnificent album. This Donegal talent is unsurpassed in her grasp of sean nós singing – she is a master of the form.”
Rita’s first musical instruments were mouth organ and guitar, and she recalls a childhood full of music and song.
Folk festivals in Ballyshannon and Letterkenny were a great outlet, and she was a multi-award winner in early Fleadhanna, a three-time winner of the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann All-Ireland title for female singing in English, and in addition to winning TG4’s Gradam Cheoil in 2017, she was also awarded the Gradam na Fleidhe Nua in May of that year, and the honour of Ceannródaí (Bardic Award) from Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, in Ennis, in August.
“I suppose I always sang, but I was in my early 20’s before I got interested in traditional singing. Subsequently, I went on to compete in several Fleadhanna, and had some success.” Not untypically, the Linnet of the Bluestacks is being modest.
I’ve interviewed many singers and songwriters over the years and have always been curious as to which came first, the chicken or the egg, the lyric or the melody? Rita has no doubt: “In most cases, the tune grabs me first. I’m intrigued as to how I can interpret them, to make the song uniquely mine, to put my own stamp in it.
“If traditional musicians don’t put their own mark on a tune, there’s a danger that it might lose its appeal.”
Although songs shouldn’t change out of all recognition (her great friend, mentor and influence, Paddy Tunney, said: “Don’t be prostituting your work!”) she is adamant that you shouldn’t sing it exactly like the way you heard it. The musical instrument can be copied somewhat, but singing is different.
How does a singer and a fiddler cope in the one house? This question elicits a lot of laughter and they tell me of their friend, Kilmainham born singer, Antoine O Farachain, who, when he meets Frank Kelly on his own, asks: “Where’s the screecher?” but when he meets Rita, asks: “Where’s the scratcher?”
Frank too is a genuine aficionado, a very popular and respected fiddle player who shows me a photo of the ‘wean’ playing a tin fiddle made by his grandfather, out of an old shoe polish tin!
Frank grew up in the era of ‘house parties’ that lasted until dawn….song, music and dance. As well as the aforementioned Gillespie and Coleman, he loved the great Johnny Doherty (both attended last weekend’s celebrations in Ardara) and holds back a tear when he speaks of his dear friend, the recently deceased Tommy Peoples.
Rita talks of her great influence, Dolores Keane, with similar affection.
As I savour the last of her lovely treacle bread and make my departure, I’m struck by the appropriateness of their address. Although Dancing at the Crossroads declined in the mid 20th century, the real McCoy is alive and well here.
“You rambling boys of pleasure, give ear to these lines I write,
Although I’m a rover, and in rambling I take great delight.
I cast my mind on a handsome girl who ofttimes she does me slight,
But my mind is never easy till my true love is in my sight.”