Brendan McGlinchey (1940–2020): a Tribute

The first year of the pandemic, 2020, was a difficult year for many, and it was the year that we lost a much beloved and talented fiddle player, Brendan McGlinchey. This blog by Aoife Kelly, takes a look back at his life with reflections from some people who knew him best.

WC03 06 16 brendan mcglinchey 800
Brendan McGlinchey, 2003 / Tony Kearns

It can sometimes seem like we are losing so many of the greats from traditional Irish music at an alarming speed, and in 2020, that seemed to ring especially true. One of those greats, Brendan McGlinchey, sadly passed away in England in April of that year, at the age of 79, after a battle with cancer.

He leaves behind a loving family, his wife Margaret and three daughters, Sarah, Helen & Mary-Ann, as well as many other friends and family who miss him greatly.

Brendan will be remembered as an exceptional musician and composer, with a lasting impact on the traditional Irish music community in Ireland, England and beyond.
Aoife Kelly, 2022

Fergal O'Gara's, reel; The Lads of Laois, reel; Farewell to London, reel / Brendan McGlinchey, fiddle, and Deirdre McSherry, piano.

Early years in Armagh

Brendan was born in the city of Armagh in 1940. It was Brendan’s mother who first encouraged him to take up the fiddle and he started playing in his early teens.

In an insight into how traditional music was viewed in the 1950’s in Armagh, Brendan spoke in an interview for the book “Handy with the Stick” by Brendan Taaffe in the 2000’s about when his first fiddle teacher gave up teaching:

“I was very glad because I never wanted to play the fiddle. Armagh’s a tough place, and any male with a fiddle was considered quite effeminate. Also, we were Catholic but lived in a Protestant area of town where Irish music was known as nationalistic, as Fenian music. So my teacher gave up then after nine months and I was very glad. But my mother was quite persistent and in a few weeks she had discovered another music teacher.”

So although reluctant at first, with his mother’s encouragement and keen ear, Brendan discovered his talent and went onto win many competitions in his teens and twenties.

Brendan said of competitions:

“I never liked it. I became very nervous about going to play in the competitions. Most of the other people were the same - you’d be behind the stage and hardly able to talk to each other. But I recoginised that each time I played in a competition I could identify what I did wrong and improve on that for the next time.”

It was his first competition in the Dungannon Feis that led to him being asked to join the Malachy Sweeney Ceilí band. Brendan went on tour with them for about a year and a half throughout Ireland. It was from this touring and listening to other players that inspired Brendan to improve, he said:

I heard these lovely fiddle players, and became really interested in trying to make myself better.
Brendan McGlinchey

Malachy Sweeney Ceili Band
Malachy Sweeney Céilí Band

Move to England

At the age of 18 and finding it difficult to get work as a Catholic in Northern Ireland, Brendan moved to England.

Bobby Casey, Martin 'Junior' Crehan, Joe Ryan, and Peadar O'Loughlin, Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, 1992. Image: Tony Kearns

There he played with some of the greats like Bobby Casey, Joe Ryan and Roger Sherlock, and Brendan enjoyed his time in London greatly.

The scene in London was out of this world
Brendan McGlinchey

Brendan McGlinchey in London / Brendan McGlinchey, speech; Brian Lawler, speech: From: The Golden Era of Céilí Music & Dance Archive Project

However, on this occasion he didn’t stay very long, and soon returned home.

Upon his return, he quickly joined the Johnny Pickering Ceili Band in which he loved playing. Brendan said of this time:

“All of this improved my playing. The northern style is lots of bow work, and travelling with Johnny Pickering I heard Paddy Canny’s playing. When I heard him I thought it was just amazing that he could do such sweet things with his left hand. So I tried to perfect that, learn what rolls were and cuts and use them in conjunction with bow work.”

Johnny Pickering Ceili Band
Johnny Pickering Ceili Band

Front: Gerard Feighan, Brendan McGlinchey, Johnny Pickering, Margaret Pickering. Back: Patsy McShane, Tommy Hagan, Seamus Comiskey. Allison's Studio, Armagh 1959

In this excerpt from Brendan's interview with Brian Lawler you can hear him speak about starting to play the fiddle, and about the céilí bands he was part of in his early years.

Brendan McGlinchey, speech; Brian Lawler, speech. From: The Golden Era of Céilí Music & Dance Archive Project

He stayed home for two years before returning to London again, and shortly thereafter moved to the south of England where he worked as a nurse.

In 1974 he recorded his album Music of a Champion but soon lost the motivation to play. Brendan said of this time:

“I married and started a family and just didn’t take the fiddle out of the case for 15 years, until 1993. I listened to music, of course. To all sorts of music, but I didn’t listen to much Irish music and I had lost all of my contacts in Ireland. Sometimes I’d be sitting at my desk at work and a jig would come into my head. I’d use a pencil to finger the tune. There were various people at work who played a bit and someone did ask me to play at a party. I said sure, I’ll have a go at it - but I had no motivation to play. My wife once got me some tickets to hear the Boys of the Lough and I had a tune on Aly Bain’s fiddle afterwards, but in the fifteen years I just played those two times”.

Brendan settled in Chichester with his wife Margaret, and they had three daughters, Sarah, Helen and Mary-Ann.

In 1993 a small stroke led Brendan to re-evaluate his life and take up the fiddle again.

Brendan said:

“The doctors told me that if I had a second one that would probably be it. It was quite a shock and suddenly I thought of just three things: my family, Ireland, and my music. So immediately I took my fiddle out of the case and started to play. It was very difficult; I had no coordination and I couldn’t think of two tunes to play together. I knew what I wanted to do with the fiddle and so I practiced from July until December. My family was very supportive but I must have driven them crazy because I’d get up at four in the morning and start playing and I’d play straight through then until noon. I’d play one tune the whole time because I couldn’t play it properly. With the difference in timing between the two hands, I couldn’t get them to work. So I devised a little exercise and decided to just play with the left hand and forget what I was doing with the bow. And if I could perfect that, then I would work on the bow. And I remember distinctly when my fingers started to work well. On December 12th, ten minutes to midnight it all worked so well. My brain telling my hands what to do and everything working in conjunction. I suppose I played like that for about an hour and at ten minutes to midnight I put the fiddle down and ran up the stairs to my wife and said, ‘It’s worked’”.

Performance & Festivals

Brendan was a mainstay of Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy in Miltown Malbay for years as well as the Joe Mooney Summer School and Scoil Éigse at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, where he was also an adjudicator.

After returning to playing in the 1990s, he was in great demand as a performer, and played throughout Britain and Ireland. He was also part of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann tours that went to the United States of America, Australia and Europe.

PJ Crotty and Brendan McGlinchey
PJ Crotty and Brendan McGlinchey, The Central Hotel, Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, 1994. Image: Tony Kearns


Brendan’s legacy from his tunes is clear from any traditional Irish music session. His compositions have become mainstays of many traditional musicians' repertoire. 'Sweeney’s Buttermilk' and 'Splendid Isolation' being firm session favourites.

Splendid Isolation, air; Splendid Isolation, reel / Brendan McGlinchey, fiddle. Recorded at The Stray Leaf Folk Club, Mullaghbawn, Co. Armagh, 1999.

Other tunes he composed include, ‘The Map on the Wall’, ‘The Floating Crowbar’, “Crossing the Fence”, “Reilly’s Reel” & “Lawries”.

Brendan said of his composing:

“I’ve composed lots of music. I never wanted to be presumptuous and didn’t want to say I’m composing because that draws attention to yourself too much. The reason I compose is that I wanted to improve my fiddle playing. There was a period where I couldn’t really go down to the G string and up to the E without trouble, so I wrote some music where it was necessary to do that. So the compositions were exercises for me and occasionally I would play one at a session when someone would say ‘play us a strange tune.’ But I wouldn’t say it was mine. So yes, I wrote them with a degree of difficulty to improve my playing. All of my music was written for me and it was just nice that other people liked them.”

Commercial Recordings

Brendan sadly only made one studio-recorded commercial recording in his lifetime. Music of a Champion with Mary Mulholland backing on the piano was released in 1974. As well as being highly praised, this album was extremely influential to many. It included one of Brendan’s most well-known compositions, 'Splendid Isolation' which has been recorded on more than 70 albums so far. Another album of his playing was recorded by Terry Yarnell in 1973 and released as "Live at the West London Folk Club" in the 1990s.

Brendan McGlinchy Commercial Recordings
Brendan McGlinchey Recordings

Tributes to Brendan McGlinchey

Aoife Kelly, John Bowe, Séamus Connolly, John Kelly Junior, and Máire O'Keeffe

Aoife Kelly

“For me personally, Brendan was an ever-present member of an extended musical family in my home and at the Scoil Samhraidh Summer School every year. I can picture him now from those early years, with a wide smile on his face and a glint in his eye, sitting in a session with my father, John Kelly and Bobby Casey, playing tunes but also finding time to chat and laugh heartily in between! He was delighted to see us kids join in and play and just seemed so happy to be surrounded by people who loved music as much as he did.
I remember clearly being shocked at the time when I found out that he had stopped playing for such a long time earlier on his life. He just seemed to me to be so at home amongst other musicians, I couldn’t imagine him not playing.
He will of course be remembered for his talent, but he will also be remembered for his great sense of fun, and his love for music. I will miss him dearly.”

Aoife Kelly and Maire O'Keeffe
Aoife Kelly and Máire O'Keeffe

John Bowe

“I first met Brendan McGlinchey in 1961 in Birr Co Offaly he was playing with the Malachy Sweeney Ceili band, Brendan was a master musician and composer, a perfectionist in everything he did. We became lifelong friends, played loads of music together. Brendan is a huge loss to our music. RIP Brendan.”

Séamus Connolly

“Brendan Mc Glinchey and I had been good friends for nearly sixty years and we remained in touch all down through the years. I eagerly awaited every year for his Christmas card. He never once forgot to send me his annual greeting. We talked on the phone many times throughout the years and I was honoured to have him visit Boston College on a number of occasions to teach and perform. About two weeks before Brendan went to his eternal reward he inquired from me as to how I was doing during these trying (covid19) times and asked if I was staying safe. What a gentleman he indeed was. His last words to me will remain with me forever. "Be well friend, I will light a candle for you" So beautiful!!! Not long after our conversation I had a candle lit for my friend, the great master fiddle player AND gentleman, Brendan Mc Glinchey, whom I loved much!!!”

John Kelly Junior

“It was with great sadness that I learned of the recent passing of our friend and musical colleague Brendan McGlinchey.
I had the privilege of Teaching with Brendan for a number of years at the Willie Clancy Summer School and always found him to be modest, reserved and calm.
Brendan was one of the Great exponents of Traditional Fiddling and was a highly regarded and respected figure on the Tradition Music Scene.
Brendan from Armagh City, started fiddling in his early teens , and played with the renowned Malachy Sweeney Ceili Band and later With the Johnny Pickering Band. He emigrated to England in his early 20’s, where he eventually settled, working as a psychiatric nurse.
The London traditional scene at that time, was awash with great traditional music and Brendan played with all the greats there, such as Roger Sherlock, Bobby Casey, Finbar Dwyer etc.
Brendan was also a renowned teacher and composer and some of his tunes such as 'Sweeneys Buttermilk', 'The Floating Crowbar' and 'Splendid Isolation' have became part of our musical heritage.
Brendan was also rooted in family and was always content among his loved ones. He is survived by his wife Margaret and his three children Sarah, Helen and Mary Ann.
Ar Dheis de go Raibh a anam dilis.”

Máire O’Keeffe

“When I think of Brendan the words ‘Norwegian’ and the 'Acrobat Hornpipe' come to mind instantly!
I first met Brendan McGlinchey in the early 1990s when he came to teach at the Willie Clancy Summer School. But I had known his fiddle playing for many years before that as I was lucky enough to have a copy of his solo album ‘Music of a Champion’. My favourite track was the hornpipe set on track 3 ‘Across the Fence’ (one of Brendan’s compositions) and ‘The Acrobat’ played in B Flat. I loved his version of 'The Acrobat' and of course, the first time I got to have a session with him, the first tune I suggested was ‘The Acrobat’.
In those first few years at Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, Brendan was teaching in the classroom beside where I was teaching (along the line of classrooms up the green stairs) and so many times I would love to have been a fly on the wall and been a part of his class. I have lots of great memories of those weeks such as one day after the classes in that first week Brendan, with a glint in his eye, invited myself and Ben Lennon to Friel’s for a ‘Norwegian’. Not too sure what this entailed we duly met up and discovered that, being from Armagh, it was Brendan’s northern way of saying ‘another wee gin’. It became the regular greeting every year after that.
Another memory of that great time is towards the end of the week’s classes Brendan suggested that Martin Hayes, Brendan and myself would get together to go on tour to our individual classes – it was a great opportunity for students in our classes to experience different styles at close quarters and I’m sure many of them will particularly remember the magic of Brendan’s music.
The ‘House of Lords’ (originally the West Clare Fiddle Room) started in 1999 and I was the facilitator with the job of bringing fiddle classes in to visit with Bobby Casey and Joe Ryan. Brendan was one of the earliest tutors to arrive with his fiddle class and I remember an incredible morning listening to himself, Bobby Casey and Joe Ryan talking about Irish music in London with great stories about the musicians, the sessions and the tunes.
I will remember Brendan for his amazing command of the fiddle, his exquisite air playing, his beautiful compositions but most of all I will remember his sparkling personality, his great sense of fun and his friendship.
Suaimhneas síoraí dá anam uasal ceolmhar.”
We are overwhelmed by the many tributes and shared memories, we have read or received from so many musicians/friends. Yours and John's included and so many people we haven't met or known.
Margaret McGlinchey – Brendan’s wife

Brendan McGlinchey
Brendan McGlinchey, Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, 1997. Image: Peter Laban


Aoife Kelly and ITMA would like to thank all those who contributed to this blog. We especially thank Margaret McGlinchey, Brendan's wife for her help in writing the piece, and to all the other contributors for giving their time and effort in remembering their friend Brendan.

Thanks also to Brendan Taaffe for permission to quote from his book Handy with the Stick: Irish fiddlers in words and music / Brendan Taaffe; Mary Larsen, editor. (Mel Bay, 2009) and to Tony Kearns, and Peter Laban for permission to use images. We thank The Stray Leaf Folk Club for permission to use a recording and acknowledge use of the late Brian Lawler's 'The Golden Era of Ceili Music and Dance, 1955–1970' an oral-history audio project freely available to listen to on the ITMA website.

Written by: Aoife Kelly

Blog Editor: Grace Toland


Aoife Kelly Biography

Aoife Kelly is a concertina player and tutor as well as a researcher in Irish traditional music and folklore. She comes from a family in West Clare steeped in Irish traditional music and enjoys sharing her music and musical heritage with others.

Aoife is a website designer and graphic designer by profession. In 2019 she launched a website about the life and music of her grandfather John Kelly Senior,, that she researched and created herself.

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