Belfast Flute-Playing: The Next Generation

A review of Harry Bradley's second CD, As I Carelessly did Stray.

As I Carelessly did Stray, Harry Bradley
Phaeton Records in association with Claddagh Records (SpinCD1005)

Flute-playing in Belfast, in terms of traditional music at any rate, is a relatively recent phenomenon. James McMahon, a native of Roslea in County Fermanagh who came to live in Belfast, is reputed to be the first flute player to play in traditional music sessions in the city in the 1960s. Another famous Fermanagh flute player, Cathal McConnell, also made a significant impact when he first visited Belfast around the same time. Since the mid-1970s a number of highly-respected flute players have emerged from the city, among them, Desi Wilkinson, Gary Hastings, Gerry O’Donnell, Michael Clarkson and the late Frankie Kennedy. Harry Bradley represents the very best of the current generation of Belfast flute players, although he has been based in Galway for a number of years.

Energy and creativity are very much the hallmarks of Bradley’s music. One of his chief influences has been the recordings of the famous County Leitrim flute player John McKenna (1880-1947). McKenna immigrated to New York in 1911 and recorded thirty 78rpm records between 1921 and 1936. Harry has recorded a number of tunes associated with McKenna here including ‘Colonel Rogers’ Favourite’ and ‘The Tailor’s Thimble’, the latter recorded by the duet of McKenna and the County Sligo fiddle player James Morrison (1893-1947). It is appropriate, then, that Harry plays ‘The Tailor’s Thimble’ in duet with the Dublin fiddle player Paul O’Shaughnessy. This is preceded by an exciting version of ‘The Woman of the House’ which has no trace of the domestic drudgery which can sometimes burden this often overworked stalwart. Perhaps that is why the tune is here titled ‘The Lady of the House’!

Harry certainly matches the attack inherent in McKenna’s flute-playing and even more impressive is his imaginative interpretation of well-known tunes such as ‘The Shaskeen’ and ‘Bonny Kate’. His playing of these classics demonstrates his ability to discover attractive new melodic variations in material which has been played and recorded by countless other musicians before him. His settings of tunes such as ‘Captain Kelly’s’ and ‘Within a Mile of Dublin’ bear fitting testimony to his own ability to develop novel phrases which, on the one hand, deviate sufficiently from the norm to arouse interest, and, nevertheless, soothe the listener by retaining an appropriate degree of allegiance to the original. Sometimes his motivation for adapting certain tunes is based on a desire to exploit tonal possibilities which present themselves in the modified version but are unavailable in the standard setting. An example of this is his recording of the jig ‘The Castlebar Races’, where much of the focus falls on the strong mid-octave notes which flute players take great delight in exploiting.

In one of the tracks he plays ‘Jim Coleman’s’, a hornpipe learnt from the legendary Sligo flute player Séamus Tansey. In this recording Harry’s playing is strikingly reminiscent of Tansey’s ornate and florid style, and is in marked contrast to the more robust approach he adopts when tackling tunes associated with John McKenna. In fact, from a stylistic point of view, it is difficult to pigeon-hole Bradley’s flute playing for it is as multi-faceted as it is appealing. Certain tracks display a certain earthy, almost primitive, sound coupled with a persistent and hypnotic pulse. This is very apparent in his treatment of the reels ‘The Lillies in the Field’ and ‘The Gatehouse Maid’. Other examples of his playing have a much more lyrical nature such as his rendition of a highland learnt from Hammy Hamilton, yet another Belfast flute-player with an international reputation as a maker of the instrument who is based in Cúil Aodha, County Cork.

Harry’s highly-acclaimed debut album – Bad Turns and Horseshoe Bends (Outlet PTICD 9000) – featured a couple of flamboyant showpiece items, most notably, the hornpipe ‘The Merrymaker’s Club’. This new album also contains similar light-hearted pieces such as ‘The Ballroom Favourite #2’, played as a duet here with the fiddle player Jesse Smith. Another piece of a similar nature is his spirited playing of ‘The Ash Grove’ which he first heard played in the context of Irish traditional music by the Dublin uilleann piper Tommy Reck (1921-1991). Another entertaining track is the polka ‘My Love is but a Lassie’ which is followed by the march ‘Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine’, both played on double-tracked marching flutes.

My only criticism, and it is a minor operational one, is that many of the tracks are quite short. Nine of the fifteen tracks are under three minutes in duration. I found myself wanting to hear more extrapolated from the tunes and there is no doubt that Harry is capable of it. Notwithstanding that, this is a tremendous album from a musician with a supreme talent, and with a wonderful future ahead of him.

Published on 1 July 2002

Robbie Hannan is an uilleann piper and is Curator of Musicology at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

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