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WHEN THE MULLIGANS CAME TO TOWN - Drumkeeran Community Hall, County Leitrim - 14 November 2015

The Ó Maolagáin (Mulligan) family of Currycramp, Bornacoola, near Mohill in County Leitrim has been a real force in Irish traditional music for many years, and the influence of fiddle player Tom (TP) Mulligan has been right at the heart of it. The fact that TP was born exactly 100 years ago inspired the John McKenna Society of Drumkeeran to invite the family to the village to mark the anniversary at the annual John McKenna Traditional Festival earlier in the year. Sadly, in this close-knit community, the tragic loss of the highly respected festival chairperson, Packie McPartlan, on the eve of the 2015 festival, led to the total cancellation of that whole weekend. However it was felt appropriate to re-arrange this celebration night during TP's centenary year and what resulted will live long in the memory.

TP Mulligan was one of four brothers and two sisters, and was born into a musical family in 1915. His father, Thomas, played fiddle and flute (which seems almost second nature to Leitrim folk!) but times were hard, and both Tom and brother, Colm, had to make their own fiddles from old plywood chests or whatever materials they could acquire. Tom developed a particular skill in making fiddle 'scrolls', while Colm, like many Leitrim folk, emigrated and developed his skills as a fiddle-maker in New York.

It was in 1932 that TP first heard and fell in love with the sound of the uilleann pipes after hearing the 'King of the Pipers', the great Leo Rowsome, playing in nearby Mohill. Moving to Dublin in 1935, he met Seamus Ennis, and by 1938 had a set of C# pipes, made by James Mulchrone of Abbeyshrule in County Longford, and he was on his way! TP learned from and played with piper Tommy Reck through the 30s and 40s at a time when the instrument, and indeed the tradition itself, was at a low ebb in Ireland. Before long, TP, Tommy Reck and Leo Rowsome became committee members of the Pipers' Club (Cumann na bPíobairí Uilleann), an organisation which became the seedcorn for the eventual formation of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in 1951. A further important centre was the St. Mary's Music Club in Church Street, Dublin, formed with several other North Connaught musicians in the 1950s. It was at this club that sons Néillidh and Gerry began their piping career and where brother Alphie played his celebrated Rowsome-made Felix Doran silver set of pipes. An abiding enthusiasm for the pipes encouraged TP to take son Néillidh to attend the inaugural gathering of Tionól Na Píobairí Uilleann in Bettystown in 1968.

At a time when it wasn't fashionable, and even regarded with some derision in its native land, TP loved all things Irish, and spent much time with sean nós singers in Connemara, learning the language and absorbing the culture of the area. However, the call of home was strong and the musical family spent long weekends in Drumkeeran, Drumshanbo and Mohill with local musicians like Joe 'Lacky' Gallagher, Pee Fitzpatrick and Packie Duignan. TP was a good friend of Willie Clancy and, after Clancy's death, he visited the summer school in Clare which bears his name. This event inspired him to promote the idea that the small town of Drumshanbo would be an ideal place for a similar event in Leitrim. He was, of course, quite correct, but TP sadly passed away in 1984 and never witnessed the establishment of the Joe Mooney Summer School in Drumshanbo, now a major event in the Irish musical calendar. TP Mulligan died two days after playing at the funeral of his friend Joe Heaney (Seosamh Ó hÉanaí), and his musical legacy has now passed to the younger members of the Mulligan family, many of whom played at the November celebration in Drumkeeran.

TP Mulligan remains one of the unsung heroes of Irish traditional music, so this celebration of his life was an overdue recognition of his continuing influence over so many years. It's certainly arguable that without him and a few contemporaries, Irish musical culture would be much the poorer.

On my native Tyneside, an impending visit by a group of relatives or friends of any surname might be announced by a cry of 'The Mulligans are coming!' and on this dark winter night in Drumkeeran, it all came true for me, and I'm delighted to record that I was there when it eventually did!

So, not deterred by a very wet and windy night, a large crowd assembled in the Community Hall in anticipation of a great night of music, and they were not disappointed. Even though several members of the family were on that same night at another major event at the Armagh Pipers' Club, three of TP's sons and no less than 12 grandchildren, nephews and nieces came to honour TP Mulligan's memory in an amazing informal concert.

The first set was in honour of Drumkeeran's own famous son, John McKenna, the inspiration for the annual village festival. TP's son Alphie on pipes, Alphie's sons Tadhg (fiddle), Sarán (concertina) and daughter Sabhbh (flute) did great justice to a McKenna polka set, the music continuing with family groups playing slow airs, with reel, jig and hornpipe sets in various combinations. TP's son Tom took a night off from his Cobblestone pub, that great centre for Dublin musicians, and played flute with his two daughters - Méabh on concertina and Síomha on fiddle.

However, this was not just a concert, but a night of homage to the memory of a great musician, and an important feature came next. TP's son Alphie had compiled a 25 minute film summary of his father's life. The world premiere was in Drumkeeran that night and the people sat in some awe at the carefully compiled and quite fascinating story of one of Leitrim's finest, but it wasn't long before the music started again! TP's son Néillidh and son Oisín on fiddle were at the heart of the evening, and Néillidh had composed two jigs for the occasion - The Centenary and Packie McPartlan's - the latter in honour of the late lamented festival chairperson. For this special set of tunes, Néillidh put down his pipes and played with children Caoimhe and Fiachra in a lovely tin whistle trio, a tribute greatly appreciated by Packie's many friends in the Community Hall that night.

We were later treated to some skilful and exciting sean nós dancing from Caoimhe and sister Éabha, while the third piper of the night, grandson Pádhraig, showed us that the tradition is safe with the younger generation of Mulligans. Méabh and Síomha's duet on concertina and fiddle was absolutely stunning and the whole 15 came together at times as maybe only a family can?

It had been a grand night of music and dance, but now another aspect of this amazing family emerged. TP's brother Gerry's granddaughter, Aoife Mulligan, took the stage with her guitar for a couple of traditional songs. In fine style, and with sensitive and understated accompaniment, Aoife gave us Craigie Hill and Skibbereen, much enjoyed by the crowd, judging by the applause!

Local man Sean Gilrane had ably MC'd the night with some humour, and he then invited all non- Mulligan musicians present to join the family for the finale (not quite, as it turned out - this was Ireland and there is a good pub nearby). Another magic moment came next, when a special guest was announced, no less than Gerry Mulligan, 93 year old brother of TP, still living in the family home place in Currycramp, Bornacoola! Aoife's brother Ciarán's fiddle joined the musicians for the official finale, the rousing Tarbolton Set of reels, in honour of yet another legendary son of North Connaught, Michael Coleman. After that we all headed for the tables of cakes, scones, sandwiches and pots of tea kindly provided by the women of the village, and talked about the magnificent night we'd just had!

Not a black pint in sight, no admission charge, home-made food, not a hint of commercialism, and as good a night of Irish music as you could ever wish to hear. Thanks to all the Mulligans, young and old, to the committee who put this all together, but most of all to the memory of TP Mulligan, one of the true heroes (and arguably one of the saviours) of the music we have today. The whole evening was recorded by the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA) and rightly so, for this was a very special occasion. As we all walked home (or to Wynne's pub) through the wind and rain in a small Leitrim village, we knew we'd remember the day the Mulligans came to town for a very long time indeed!

Jim Bainbridge

(with grateful thanks to Seán Gilrane and Néillidh Mulligan)