Aggie Whyte (1920–1979) #IWD2021

To mark International Women's Day 2021 ITMA is delighted to publish this special blog in honour of fiddle player Aggie Whyte (1920–1979). Compiled by her grandson Michael Harrison it is a most fitting celebration on this day to honour this Galway woman's unique contribution to Irish traditional music.

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Cover: Aggie Whyte: traditional Irish music from East Galway (2021)

Bonnie Kate, reel; Jenny’s Chicken’s, reel [Source: “Aggie Whyte” AWR20; Recorded 1951 - Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.]

Biography 

Martin Fahy

Aggie Whyte was born in Ballinakill, Co. Galway, in 1920. Her father Tommy was a well known musician and a founder member of the Ballinakill Dance Players, later the Ballinakill Ceilidhe Band. Ballinakill was an area renowned for its musical tradition and at that time, every house boasted a fiddle or flute in the chimney corner.

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Aggie Whyte and Bridie Whyte, with their father, Tommy Whyte

Aggie's first teacher was, undoubtedly, her father Tommy, and then arrived on the scene one of those rare, dedicated teachers of traditional music, Jack Mulkere. Aggie was one of his first pupils in Ballinakill old school. From an early age, she showed great promise and it wasn't long before she was in demand at concerts, feiseanna and particularly in her own house in Ballinakill which, at that time, was a mecca for musicians from far and near.

Her earliest successes included trophies won at feiseanna in Creggs, Roscommon, Ardrahan, Gort and Ballinakill itself. All along the way, she was encouraged by her parish priest Fr. Tom Larkin, himself a fiddler and a founder member of the Ballinakill Dance Players.

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The Ballinakill Ceilidhe Band, 1938. Courtesy: Reg Hall.

Leather Away the Wattle, polka ; The Ladies' Chain, polka / The Ballinakill Céilí Band, 1938. [Source: “Aggie Whyte” AWR20; Credit: Oldtime Records]

In 1938, Aggie travelled to England with the band. On returning from London, they made recordings in Dublin under His Master's Voice label. From then on she was a regular member of the band and they travelled extensively. Incidentally, one of their engagements was playing at the 21st Birthday party of Lord Killanin, later to be President of the Olympic Council.

By now, Aggie had become a household name. This was due to her success in 'Newcomer's Hour' on Raidió Éireann and her participation on many radio programmes in Ireland, England and Scotland. During post war years, Aggie featured in reciprocal folk music programmes with Irish, Dutch and Italian radio stations. She paid many visits to Dublin and the 'Calling House' was of course 'The Pipers Club'. Here she partnered the Rowsomes, Searys, Recks and many others. 

In January 1951 Alan Lomax and Robin Roberts undertook the work of systematically mapping by recordings, the folk or oral music tradition of Ireland. Recordings had already been made by Brian George of B.B.C. in 1947. Accompanied by Séamus Ennis, they travelled to places in Ireland where Irish was spoken and music played. With the co-operation of Séamus Ó Duilearga and Séan O'Sullivan of the Irish Folklore Commission, Raidió Éireann and the B.B.C., a collection of recordings was issued. Solo recordings of Aggie are featured in this collection, as well as with the band and a duet with her sister, Bridie, entitled, 'The Mason’s Apron', adjudged by Séamus Ennis as being a perfect fiddle duet.


Extract on Aggie Whyte from 'Lomax in Éirinn' (Aisling Productions, 2018). Courtesy of Declan McGrath.

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Aggie Whyte and Bridie Whyte performing 'The Mason's Apron'

The Mason's Apron, reel / Aggie Whyte, fiddle, ; Bridie Whyte, fiddle. [Source: “Aggie Whyte” AWR20; Credit: Recorded 1951 - Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress. Courtesy of the Association for Cultural Equity.]

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Aggie, Séamus, Maureen & Kathleen Ryan

In 1952 Aggie married Séamus Ryan, a Cork man with a great love of the Irish language and culture. In 1953, their twin daughters Kathleen and Maureen were born. The following year in 1954, Aggie won the All-Ireland Senior Fiddle Competition in Cavan, a win she prized all her life. She also won All-Ireland honours in duets with Joe Burke, and with bands, notably the Leitrim Céilí Band. She also played and toured with the Tulla Céilí Band. In 1958, Aggie won the Oireachtas Gold Medal for Fiddle, and the Oireachtas Duet competition with Peadar O'Loughlin – another great feat.

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Aggie with the All-Ireland trophy, The Coleman Cup
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Oireachtas Gold Medal

Along with competing, Aggie and Séamus became popular and most competent adjudicators at county, provincial and All-Ireland level. Of Aggie, her co-adjudicator Fr. P.J. Kelly once said:

Along with her artistic accomplishments, was also her ability at fleadhanna to adjudicate with real skill. I could face my audience with complete self assurance once I had talked it over with Aggie.

In the Whyte family the music was not confined to Aggie alone. Her sister Bridie, an accomplished fiddler, joined her in recordings and radio and television appearances and also in a later grouping of the Céilí Band. Eva, a versatile ballad singer featured also on radio and was nationally known for her renderings of 'The Little Thatched Cabin'. 

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Aggie with her sisters Eva and Bridie

There was a constant stream of musicians to Aggie's home in Ballinakill. Joe Burke was a regular visitor; so was Peadar O'Loughlin, Séamus Connolly, Eddie Moloney, Mickey Hanrahan, Willie Clancy, Paddy O'Brien, Paddy Carty and many more. Fr. J. Solon, C.C. Portumna, recorded a wealth of this music. There was always one who got into the act at the most inopportune time - Pudsy, the black and white terrier, who barked in the middle of the recording!

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Agge Whyte & Eddie Moloney, 1937 [Courtesy of Reg Hall]

Rattigan’s Reel, Miss Thornton’s (Reels) – Aggie Whyte & Eddie Moloney. [“Aggie Whyte” AWR20; Credit: RTÉ Archives]

Aggie's help to aspiring fiddlers was always forthcoming. Although she never taught the fiddle, yet she shared her expertise with young musicians. She was ready to show them correct positioning and intricate triplets or correct phrasing. 

I was fascinated with Aggie’s playing. I remember one night seeing Fr. PJ Kelly and herself performing in concert in Boula Hall, outside Portumna. Aggie had a particular bowing pattern in the reel, ‘The Chattering Magpie’. I discussed this ‘bowing swing’ with her. There and then, on the spot, she showed me how it was done.
Aggie’s music had a profound influence on me. It was different from anything I had heard up to that point in my musical life. To me, her playing was ahead of its time!! She was respected by so many of her contemporaries in the world of Irish Music. She was ever so giving with her music. A joy to watch and to listen to! Aggie Whyte was a lovely woman and a friend to all. 
-- Séamus Connolly

The Doon, The Donegal, St Anne’s (Reels) – Aggie Whyte, Séamus Connolly (Fiddle) & Joe Burke (Flute). [Source: “Aggie Whyte” AWR20; Home tape recording – Aggie Whyte Archives]

Aggie's musical life continued throughout the 1970s. In 1971 the family journeyed to East Durham, a holiday centre in the Catskills, in Upstate New York. There, Andy McGann, Mike Rafferty, Tom Comiskey, Jack Coen, Pat Mulvihill, and the Kehoe family came and joined in the sessions. 

Also during the '70s, Séamus and Aggie really enjoyed performing in the local Seisiún productions.

In February 1978, Aggie was invited to University College Cork, where a seminar on fiddling styles was held. Aggie represented the East Galway style.

Nature hushed on the 16th August 1979 when Aggie Whyte Ryan said her final goodbye to Ballinakill and the country she loved so well. This wonderful musician who had so often recorded at His Master's Voice, now responded to her heavenly Master's Call and the appointment she had to fill at the Seisiún in Birr, was kept in Heaven.

The darting lúidín, nimble fingers and sweeping bow hand were now at rest. (lúidín =little finger)
Martin Fahy
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Aggie, Séamus, Kathleeen and Maureen

Memories from Aggie & Séamus’ Twin Daughters 

Kathleen and Maureen

We were born and raised in the townland of Cappacon, in the parish of Ballinakill in East Galway. Ballinakill was a place synonymous with Irish music and great musicians. From the 1920s, when the Ballinakill Dance Players group was formed, to the present day, generations of musicians with the unique East Galway style have entertained audiences throughout Ireland and beyond.

Dad was a school principal in Moyglass National School. Mam was a housewife who looked after us all. She had a special gift, a great mastery of the fiddle and a unique style. An early memory takes us back to lying in our beds at night - many nights - listening to the sound of fiddles, flutes and accordions playing jigs and reels with rhythm, life and great passion. We would tiptoe to the top of the stairs, peep down and watch in wonder. Little did we realise that we were listening to the legends of traditional music; Joe Burke, Eddie Moloney, Paddy Carty, Séamus Connolly, Fr. PJ Kelly, Auntie Bridie, Peadar O'Loughlin, Chris Droney and many others from Clare, Paddy O'Brien and friends from Tipperary. The door was always open and all were welcome. When Mam and Dad visited other musicians, we were always brought along. Sessions in Séamus Connolly's in Killaloe, Elizabeth Crotty's in Kilrush, Sean Reid's in Ennis, come to mind.

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Aggie Whyte and Joe Burke

The Road to Skye, jig; The Nightingale, jig / Aggie Whyte, fiddle; Joe Burke, accordion

As I write this, I’m listening to a lovely recording by Aggie Whyte and Peter O’Loughlin from the early sixties. She was a very fine musician and her fiddle playing was a great example of the old music that one could enjoy all around Ballinakill and South East Galway at that time. She could bring an expression and interpretation to very old music that was unique and very much part of the local style and tradition. Aggie Whyte combined beautifully and brilliantly with flute players like Eddie Moloney, Jack Coughlan and Peter O’Loughlin who had the same gift and wonderment about their music. I had a long musical association with Aggie and to this day I value and appreciate memories of great fun, music and friendship with herself and Seamus Ryan in their house. I learned a lot about music too, at the foot of the Ben Hill.      ----- Joe Burke

At seven years of age, we got two quarter-size fiddles, hand made by Dick Stanley, a fiddle maker who lived near Ballinderry in North Tipperary. We were taught by Mary Donoghue, a member of the well-known family band of Sean Donoghue and his five sisters from Tynagh, Co. Galway. 

We played with Mam and sang with Dad, who was a fine traditional Irish singer. At that time, there were many charity concerts held in parish halls all over Ireland. Dad was MC at many of these, so we all went along. We produced a 20 minute item with music, song, dance and a few stories as 'The Ryan Family' or more informally as Séamus, Aggie and the Twins!

During the 1960s, we performed on some Teilifís Éireann productions. It was so exciting for us to go up to Dublin and walk around the studios, getting autographs from the stars - Gay Byrne, Brendan O'Reilly, Bunny Carr and others.

A wonderful memory we will never forget is the time Fr. P.J. Kelly spent with us when he was home from his missionary work in the Fiji islands. After morning Mass in Woodford, Fr. P.J. would be down to play his compositions with Mam. It was a great privilege to listen to his beautiful music brought to life by Fr. P.J. and herself.

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Aggie Whyte & Fr. P.J. Kelly
I could write pages on the joy I know she has brought to so many during her lifetime. And as one who has been around the world, I know that hers is a well-known name in all musical gatherings of the Irish and those who love Irish tradition. She will be greatly missed but her inspiration will continue on.

To me personally, a friend in a special way has passed on. How Aggie's encouragement and keenness made me write the little pieces I did, is something I shall always appreciate. Knowing that an artiste of her gifts could appreciate these pieces was an incentive to try some more.

I can also say that I have met no one - and I mean no one - who could pick up a new piece of music as accurately and so quickly or who could interpret a piece for correct expression - and in doing so, read the mind and feelings of the writer. This was a great gift. And then when she was satisfied that the piece was familiar to her, she could embellish it in a particularly Aggie style - that is unique.
-- P.J. Kelly

Every summer we spent some time in Lisdoonvarna, at the Kincora Hotel, owned by fiddler Sonny Mullins and later by Andy and Bridie Griffin. We loved Lisdoonvarna. We made friends and met some wonderful people there. Night after night, musicians would gather - Micho Russell from Doolin, Kitty Linnane and the band from nearby Kilfenora, the McCarthys from London and the McNamara family from Liverpool. Musicians came and went but the music was always wonderful and the Clare sets were a joy to dance. An abiding memory is packing the car up, going back to the Kincora for one last tune and then staying for another few days! Great times!

We were a very close family unit - where one went, we all went! In 1971, we spent a summer in America, in East Durham in upstate New York. It was an exciting time. There, Andy McGann, Mike Rafferty, Tom Comiskey, Jack Coen, Pat Mulvihill, and the Kehoe family came and joined in the sessions.

In the early ‘70s, we were part of a Seisiún group, produced by Auntie Bridie's husband, Martin Fahy. Comprised of family and friends, we performed in venues in Galway, Clare and Offaly. It was a great success and full of fun, laughter and great entertainment. In 1979, we had left home, married and started our families. Mam and Dad still performed with the Seisiún group.

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From back L-R: Mairtín O’Connor & Eddie Moloney; Aggie Whyte Ryan & Bridie Fahy; Martin Fahy, Séamus Ryan & Séan Gavin; Maureen Ryan, Máirín Fahy, Ger Fahy & Kathleen Ryan’. Courtesy of Comhaltas Traditional Music Archive
Listening to these old recordings of Aggie Whyte brings me right back to times and memories that I’ll always cherish of the early days of my musical journey and meeting and playing with such wonderful people. As I mentioned already, they bring back such lovely memories and I consider it a great honour to have played music and had such craic with this ensemble.

Aggie's fiddle playing style was very East Galway. Beautifully paced and very eloquent and definitive with a lovely sense of ornamentation. Her music was sweet and powerful all at once and is a great reference for fiddle players.
-- Mairtín O’Connor

On 16th of August, as she prepared to go to the County Arms Hotel, Birr, Mam suddenly passed away. She was fifty-nine years old. It was a terrible personal loss for us. For many, it was a musical loss of a great fiddler, renowned in her own time and remembered to this day.

We remember Aggie as a great mother, who loved her family, her music and incidentally, her fashion. She was always beautifully dressed. She was almost as famous for her fashion style as she was for her fiddle style!

The memories, inspired by this album, remind us of our mother's talent as a fiddler and of the great musicians who played with her. They kept the traditional music alive to pass on to new generations.

Aggie's legacy is in safe hands. Her nieces and nephews, the Fahys, have played their music all over the world. Her grandson, Michael, completed the circle in 2005, when he won the All-Ireland Senior Fiddle title that his granny Aggie had won 51 years before.

Go raibh maith agaibh as na cuimhní geala, a Mham agus a Dhaid.

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Michael Harrison, grandson of Aggie Whyte

This International Women's Day blog also celebrates the release of Aggie Whyte’s posthumous fiddle album, Aggie Whyte: traditional Irish music from East Galway (Aggie Whyte, 2021)

Compiled, mastered & produced by Michael Harrison, Aggie's Grandson, it consists of almost two hours of music. The collection is made up of solos and ensembles featuring Fr. P.J. Kelly, Eddie Moloney, Peadar O’Loughlin, Joe Burke, Elizabeth Crotty, Micho Russell, Paddy Carty, Séamus Connolly, Paddy Fahey, Jack Coughlan, Áine Hynes, The Ballinakill Céili Band, and her husband Séamus Ryan singing alongside her twin daughters Kathleen and Maureen.

The release of the album has of course generated great interest within the traditional music community, and Michael has featured on radio programmes across the country. Michael's knowledge, respect & affection for his grandmother shines throughout the interviews.

RTÉ Radio 1 The Rolling Wave with Aoife Nic Cormaic

BBC Ulster Blas Ceoil with Caoimhe 'Ceol' Ní Chathail (from 00:34:00)

Clare FM The West Windwith Paula Carroll (from 01:04:30)


The Making of the Album

We are delighted that as an extra bonus to this blog on Aggie we include here a piece written by Michael Harrison, Aggie's grandson on the making of the album.

Although I did not have the opportunity to meet my grandmother, I always felt a close connection to her through the music.
Michael Harrison

I remember listening to Aggie’s fiddle playing for the first time when I was a young boy. My mother asked the local parish priest for a loan of a reel-to-reel player he had so she could listen to old recordings of Aggie and friends. Ger Fahy, my cousin, then digitised some of these recordings and sent them on CDs to my mother. I listened to them and I was taken aback by her accuracy, her technique and the fantastic drive in her playing. I sometimes played these CDs at night while I fell asleep with the tunes remaining in my head the following morning. I was particularly fascinated by the beautiful blend and spark that occurred when she performed with other musicians of that era, particularly flute players. 

Nearly twenty years later, I dug out the old reel-to-reels that were stored in a battered suitcase in the attic at home. We chose a reel entitled 'Aggie & P.J. Kelly'. I played it on that same reel-to-reel player. Myself, my mother Kathleen, and my wife Janine, listened to Aggie and Fr. P.J. Kelly performing some of Fr. Kelly’s wonderful compositions together. Immediately, I felt that these recordings needed to be heard. 

I listened to the 24 reels, most of which were recorded and collected by Fr. Solan, and I noted the musicians, the tunes and quality of each recording. I contacted ITMA about these recordings and they were very excited about them. They digitised this collection for me and I could then begin the process of restoring and remastering them. I thoroughly enjoyed my visits to ITMA and getting to know the staff there. They are always very welcoming and were fantastic at helping me source recordings of Aggie from their archives. My mother told me that RTÉ had recorded Aggie at various times so that was my next stop. From there, I contacted every archive in the country sourcing recordings of my grandmother as well as overseas, namely, the Alan Lomax Collection. 

At this stage, I had a lot of recordings of Aggie with quite the mix in sound quality. I had no experience in audio restoration or remastering, but I knew how I wanted the music to sound so I decided to learn how to do this. There were some tracks that I felt were almost beyond restoration but the musicality was so good that I couldn’t ignore these tracks. I wanted to achieve the clearest sound without affecting the original timbre of the instruments as well as keeping in some of the charm to these home made recordings. 

To gain a deeper insight into Aggie as a musician and as a person, I wanted to speak to those who played alongside her and knew her quite well. This was also a great excuse for me to meet and speak with musicians that I looked up to! The first stop was Joe Burke. I always heard about the amazing performances they put on and the numerous competitions they won together. It was great to hear Joe speak about Aggie and the respect he has for her. I then spoke to Séamus Connolly and he was very excited about this project. Many memories came flooding back to him. When I finished speaking with Joe and Séamus, they got in touch with me again at different stages providing me with photos and any other memories they had without being asked to. This really showed me how much Aggie and her music meant to them. When I met with Seán Moloney, he kindly provided me with tape recordings and also shared his experiences of producing the recording of his father, Ballinakill flute player Eddie Moloney, with whom Aggie performs on this album. On another occasion, my mother and myself met with Frankie and Seán Gavin. It was a great opportunity for mam and the Seán Gavin to reflect on the Seisiún group they performed in when they were growing up together and to share their stories about Aggie. 

I contacted Ann Kirrane, Chris Droney’s daughter, to arrange a visit to Chris’ house in Belharbour to speak about Aggie and that musical era. It was an honour to meet such a legend in the music. He recalled one morning as he was guiding his sheep down the road he saw a car parked up at a gate. In the rear window he spotted a drum with the name 'Ballinakill Céilí Band' on it. He looked in and saw that members of the band, including Aggie, were asleep in the car. They were on their way to a performance but the car had broken down. Chris invited them back to his house. One of the members of the band spotted a concertina beside the fireplace and asked who played it. It was of course Chris’ and a great night of music was had. Chris thought very highly of Aggie’s fiddle playing and reflected particularly on her bowhand saying: 

she had a bowhand that went from Belharbour to Ballinakill 

The greatest source of information on my journey was of course from my mother Kathleen and my aunty Maureen, Aggie’s twin daughters. They had a huge input to this collection of music, photos and information. Many visits and phone calls were made when deciding the music and artwork to ensure that this was an accurate reflection of their mother. Kathleen and Maureen have such as strong bond and it was great to listen to them as they went down memory lane together. It was even better to see them dispute the accuracy of these memories in front of me! 

Although I did not have the opportunity to meet my grandmother, I always felt a close connection to her through the music. I hope you enjoy this collection that is an insight to the life of Aggie Whyte with her family and friends.

Croí

I wanted the proceeds of the sales of the album to go to a good cause that in some way was linked to Aggie. I learned from my mother that Aggie died of a heart attack.  She told me about ‘Croí’, a charity whose aim is to lead the fight against heart disease and stroke, with a particular focus on the West of Ireland. They are delighted to be part of this project. ind out more about Croí and how to support its work.


ITMA would like to thank Michael Harrison and everyone who has contributed to this blog, including those who have given permission for recordings to be shared online. 


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