Kathleen Harrington (1897–1984) #IWD2022

To celebrate International Women's Day 2022, Mick O'Connor pays tribute to the role of Sligo fiddle player Kathleen Harrington, née Gardiner, in promoting Irish traditional music during her lifetime.

IWD2022 Blog Kathleen Harrington Mick O Connor
Kathleen Harrington. Photo courtesy Mick O'Connor
As a mark of respect, particularly on International Women’s Day, I would like to give an outline of Mrs. Kathleen Harrington’s role in promoting Irish traditional music during her lifetime,
Mick O'Connor, 2022

When ever the role of women involved in Irish traditional music is discussed, Mrs. Kathleen Harrington’s name frequently comes to the fore. Although there were numerally few women actively involved in playing traditional music, the few who were publicly active, were universally respected. The names of Aggie Whyte, Bridie Lafferty, Mrs. Crotty and Tilly Finn spring to mind. Undoubtably there were many others who only played at home but the musicians named above were the ones I was privileged to encounter.

Top from left: Kathleen Harrington, Bridie Lafferty; Tilly Finn; Elizabeth Crotty Bottom left: Aggie Whyte, Bridie Whyte

Growing up in Sligo

Kathleen Harrington née Gardiner was born into a very prominent musical family at Corhober, Ballymote, Co. Sligo, on 14 July 1897. Her father, Séamus Gardiner, played the fiddle and flute and taught music in the locality, including training the local fife and drum band in the United Irish League Hall in Ballymote. Michael Anderson the piper from Lisananny, Ballymote, Co. Sligo, mentioned in Francis O'Neill's Irish music and musicians (1913), was a first cousin.

It was only natural that the Gardiner children took to music. Mary Gardiner (Mrs. Sheridan who married and settled locally in Ballymote, Co. Sligo), Lucy Gardiner (Mrs. Rowland), and James Gardiner, all played fiddles. James emigrated to Scotland and played in a céilí band for many years. Her brother John Joe Gardiner played fiddle and flute was perhaps the best known of the family.

At that time, the Sligo style was predominant in music circles. Kathleen, and her brother John Joe, played with all the great musicians in the area. They were contemporaries of Michael Coleman, James Morrison and Paddy Killoran and had close connections with them over the years. This included receiving private acetate recordings containing music and greetings from James ‘Lad’ O’Beirne and Paddy Killoran.

Life in Liverpool

Kathleen and Lucy Gardiner went to work in Liverpool. While there, they stayed with the McNamara family, a music loving family originally from Co. Clare. Their son, Seán McNamara also played the fiddle and later played with the Liverpool Céilí Band. The Gardiner sisters became involved in the activities of the emigrant Irish community in Liverpool playing music at céilidhe and gatherings. It was at a céilí that Kathleen met her husband, Seán Harrington. Seán was at that time a volunteer in the Liverpool IRA. She herself became a member of Cumann na mBan during that period in England. When Kathleen and her husband returned to Dublin she resumed playing traditional music with her husband’s encouragement.

Katheen Harrington’s sister, Lucy married and settled in Galway where her sons, Oliver and Raymond, became renowned accordion players. They later spent years in London where they were an important part of the vibrant traditional music scene there in the 1950s and 1960’s.

Mrs. Harrington was a good fiddle player and unusually at the time for women, had recorded a solo fiddle 78 rpm disc recording for HMV in 1938, and a recording for the short lived Irish Recording Company (IRC).

The Gardiner Traditional Trio

Kathleen Harrington recorded with her brother John Joe Gardiner who was an extraordinary musician, equally proficient on fiddle and flute. They recorded as the Gardiner Traditional Trio in 1938 with John Joe on flute, Kathleen on fiddle and Moya Acheson from Dundalk on piano. John Joe was a contemporary of Michael Coleman and his brother, James. John Joe Gardiner taught fiddle players Paddy Killoran and James Morrison before they emigrated to the USA and they kept in touch over the years.

Music in the Glen, reel; Longford Collector, reel / The Gardiner Traditional Trio

Mrs. Harrington and the Kincora Céilí Band

Apart from her 78 rpm disc recordings, as a solo musician, and with the Gardiner Trio, Kathleen was also known throughout the country as the leader of the Kincora Céilí Band.

Kincora Ceili Band
Kincora Céilí Band

The Kincora Céilí Band was formed after the foundation of the Ballinakill Céilí Band, the first céilí band to broadcast and record. Recordings issued by record companies of these two fine groups are a testimony to their brilliance. Their combination of flutes and fiddle in the Kincora Céilí Band produced a sweet and melodious sound reminiscent of the Ballinakill Céilí Band and undoubtedly these two bands must rank amongst the greatest groupings of Irish traditional musicians.

Mrs. Harrington founded the Kincora Céilí Band in the late 1930s. The Kincora Céilí Band was in typical Sligo style with fiddle and flute to the fore: Kathleen Harrington (Sligo), Pat O’Brien (Sligo), Mick Loughman (Kildare) on fiddles, John Egan (Sligo), John Brennan (Sligo) on flutes and Kathleen O’Connor (Dundalk) on piano. Their first public appearance was at a céilí organised by the Scottish branch of the Old IRA in 1937 in the Round Room of the Rotunda, Dublin. The Kincora Céilí Band was subsequently very popular with dancers and music lovers alike.

At a later period in 1940s, after an illness, she handed over the leadership of the band to piper, Seán Seery, but continued playing the fiddle with them. With this changed band they went on to win the All-Ireland Senior Céilí Band Competition title at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann held at Longford in 1958.

Jackson's reel; Johnny's Wedding, reel; Hunter's Purse, reel / Kincora Céilí Band

The Pipers’ Club and the development of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCÉ)

Mrs. Harrington was also a major figure in traditional musical circles and as a member of the Pipers’ Club committee, was centrally involved in the in the development of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCÉ) in the early years, and in the trade union associated with CCÉ, The Irish Traditional Musicians Association for many years. For most of this period, apart from Mrs. Crotty in Co. Clare who was also involved in CCÉ, Mrs. Harrington was one of the very few female musicians actively involved at a national level.

Because of her national profile as a band leader and her family connections, she was a highly respected individual and much sort after as a musician and an adjudicator at the early fleadhanna.

She was a very active committee member of the Pipers' Club from when it was located in 14 Thomas Street, Dublin and continued to serve as a committee member when they relocated to Monkstown in 1976.

The Siamsa Céilí Band

Mrs. Harrington’s days of playing with céilí bands was not finished yet. Her brother, John Joe was living in Dundalk and was the figurehead and inspiration for a new generation of musicians. Rory Kennedy with Patsy and Pauline Gardiner formed the Siamsa Céilí Band and were subsequently three times champions of the All-Ireland Céılí band competition (1966–69).

Mrs. Harrington was a prominent and experienced member of the band. The Siamsa Céilí Band included John Joe’s daughters, Pauline and Patsy and his son-in-law, Brian O’Kane. Mrs. Harrington was certainly an asset to the band as she had the experience of competing and winning with the Kincora in the All-Ireland Céılí band competition in 1958.

Members of the band as shown below:

Standing, back row: Brian O’Kane (piano accordion), Kevin O’Callaghan (drummer), Brendan Gaughran (piano) and Rory Kennedy (accordion).

Front row: Patsy Gardiner (fiddle), John Joe Gardiner (fiddle), Kathleen Harrington (fiddle), and Joe McKevitt (flute).

Siamsa Ceili Band
The Siamsa Céilí Band, c. 1965

Mrs. Harrington was a very important female musician at a time when very few women were prominent and visible among the musical fraternity.
Mick O'Connor, 2022

Personality wise, she was a lovely dignified lady, always dressed smartly, invariably with a large stylish hat. Over the years she forged a unique role as a recording artiste, band leader, winning several Senior Céilí Band All-Ireland titles with the Kincora and Siamsa céilí bands, a committee member of the Pipers’ Club and an adjudicator at musical events all over the country.

On a personal level, I would like to acknowledge her generosity and encouragement to me and other young musicians in the 1960s. In her own quiet way, she was a role model for female musicians and in that regard, was universally respected by the musical community.

Kathleen Harrington and other surviving members of the Kincora Céilí Band participated in a get together organised by the author to commemorate the Kincora Céilí Band shortly before her death on 4th November, 1984.

Kathleen Harrington and Bridie Lafferty. Image courtesy Mick O'Connor

Unpublished recording of Kathleen Harrington

ITMA and Mick O'Connor would like to extend thanks to Harry Bradshaw who has shared an unpublished recording of Kathleen Harrington to mark #IWD2022.

Recorded circa 1949–50, Kathleen is accompanied by piano, double bass and banjo mandolin.

Bonnie Kate, reel; Boys of the Lough, reel / Kathleen Harrington, fiddle. Unpublished recording courtesy Harry Bradshaw


Mick O'Connor would like to thank the extended Harrington and Gardiner families, and in particular to Brian and Patsy O’Kane née Gardiner, for their continuous support and encouragement over the years.

Special thanks to Harry Bradshaw for his generosity in supplying an unpublished recording of Mrs. Harrington playing Bonnie Kate and the Boys of the Lough.

Images used are courtesy of Mick O'Connor, ITMA Photographic Collection, and Independent Newspapers.

Blog editor: Grace Toland

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