Martin Hayes and the Tradition
Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill

Martin Hayes and the Tradition

In 2008, fiddle player Martin Hayes received the TG4 Gradam Ceoil award. Toner Quinn explores the work of an artist who has walked new ground in traditional music.

For a musician who has come to personify open-mindedness in twenty-first century Irish traditional music, it is probably a paradox to say that it is Martin Hayes’ single-mindedness that is most impressive. Many traditional Irish musicians have released an outstanding recording or two, the kind that overflows with high points and musical questions that compel you to return. However, to release five such recordings consecutively, as Hayes has done since 1993, culminating with Welcome Here Again with guitarist Dennis Cahill in February of this year, is a feat possibly unmatched in this genre. Certainly for this reason, and many others, he will be awarded TG4’s Gradam Ceoil, the premier award in traditional music, on March 21st.

To maintain a distinct standard over a fifteen-year recording career requires tenacity, the roots of which Hayes has provided hints to. His article in JMI in 2004 – an edited transcription of a talk he gave in Ennis, Co. Clare – documents the strong personalities that he was surrounded by as a developing musician, influences such as his father P.J. Hayes, Peter O’Loughlin, Martin Rochford and Paddy Canny. Musicians who, Hayes recalls, didn’t regard music as simply good or bad, but rather right or wrong. He would no doubt regard this as an incomplete summary of these musicians’ views, but nonetheless, there is a parallel resoluteness in Hayes’ work.

His self-titled first solo cassette, Martin Hayes, arrived with little fanfare in 1993. Issued on the Green Linnet label in Connecticut, with ingenious guitar accompaniment by Randal Bays, it was counter-cultural to the extreme. At precisely the moment when the pulse of Irish society was accelerating with economic growth – Riverdance was literally around the corner, and speed was the new creed in traditional music performance – Hayes appeared to be going in completely the opposite direction. He played dance tunes extremely slowly; he was tentative, searching; he repeated them over and over again, uncompromisingly burrowing deeper and deeper each time; he would repeatedly slide up to notes, stressing their inate poignancy; he took usually heaving polkas and reels, such as ‘The Britches Full of Stitches’ or ‘My Love is in America’, and played them as vulnerable, plaintive marches; such were the pregnant spaces in his music that, on one occasion, his accompanist was able to divert into atonality; he took reels such as ‘The Whistler of Rosslea’ by Ed Reavy [note: recordings of tracks mentioned can be found below], a decidedly G major tune, sank it down to C minor, soaked it in low A flats, and produced endless variations as he moved through it; he quietly transposed tunes from the standard G, D, E minor and A minor, to F, C, Bb, D minor and G minor – even for the uninitiated, this immediately made his music stand out as it demanded an unorthodox type of fiddle playing; he emphasised the soft aspects of music: spirituality, communion with the listenership, openness to difference.

Within traditional music, the most immediate response was a vague comparison with the tonal quality of Kevin Burke, as well as a new, heightened awareness of the East Clare tradition of fiddle playing, its senior musicians and the musical culture of the area generally. However, for a more complete understanding of what Hayes was doing, all that seemed hopelessly inadequate. His music required new ways of talking, and thinking, about Irish traditional music.

‘I Wish They Would Say it to Me’
Hayes’ deviation from the then norm inevitably drew criticism, and usually the cruel kind that’s impossible to counter such as accusations of ‘selling out’. Others denied the connection between what Hayes was doing and the East Clare tradition of fiddle playing which he explicitly referenced.

It was not public criticism you understand, but rather the kind that one would only hear from within traditional music. Stunning really, to think how frequent criticism of Hayes would have been in traditional music circles in the 1990s, and yet it would be difficult to find any publicly recorded criticism of Hayes in the last decade and a half. Such is the autonomy of the traditional Irish music world, or its disconnection from mainstream cultural discourse.

Hayes was quite conscious of the ground he was walking. In a radio interview with Peter Browne on RTÉ shortly after the release of his third recording, The Lonesome Touch in 1997, Browne ironically asked him what he had to say to those who would criticise his music. Slightly exasperated, Hayes exclaimed: ‘I wish they would say it to me!’ His reaction in the Irish Times on being awarded the 2008 TG4 Gradam Ceoil award was revealing of the road travelled: ‘To me, it’s recognition from inside the world of the music itself… which I haven’t had in a long time.’
Fifteen years on from his first solo recording, it would be difficult to consider seriously the suggestion that his music was ‘not traditional’ or somehow artistically compromised. The debut recording is replete with a mesmerising fiddle technique, a terrific, deceptively simple repertoire, and inspired invention the likes of which had not been seen since Tommy Potts’ The Liffey Banks in 1971, Sean Keane’s Gusty’s Frolics in 1975 or Frankie Gavin’s debut in 1977. The subsequent recordings, in their own different ways, reach equivalent standards. Slowly at first, and then very, very quickly, and despite the objections, Martin Hayes’ musical message began to be understood by very wide audiences.

With each new recording, Hayes has extended the artistic scope of traditional music. One could judge the innovation of his work by the fact that he is rarely copied. There are few, if any, Martin Hayes clones. If his debut was a brave, still, reimagining of traditional music performance, his 1995 Under the Moon was more relaxed, almost as if a point had already been made. It struck out in many directions and involved a range of duets, with concertina and accordion player John Williams, Randal Bays (on fiddle as well as guitar this time), his father (also on fiddle), and Steve Cooney on guitar. The most striking aspect, however, was the extraordinary virtuosity, something that would have been unthinkable listening to his first recording. In one set he allows his bow machine-gun along the first part of ‘The Crooked Road’ reel, at the same time peppering it with a rush of triplets, following with ‘The Foxhunter’, playing the first and second part with continuous single ‘cuts’, or grace notes, the third part with fourteen successive ‘rolls’ (a five-note ornament), and the fourth with bewildering syncopations. It’s likely that this virtuosity was a reflection of what was happening at live performances, occasions which were at that time, on both sides of the Atlantic, beginning to take on an exalted status of their own.

View from the Periphery
The Lonesome Touch (1997) could be regarded as a breakthrough recording, bringing Hayes to the attention of a much wider public and selling tens of thousands of copies. It also confirms the transitional nature of Under the Moon, for The Lonesome Touch unveiled a unique new partnership between Hayes and Chicago guitarist Dennis Cahill. There does not appear to be any real precedent to Cahill’s remarkable approach to accompanying traditional Irish music. At times he plays single notes to accompany a tune, such as in ‘The Kerfunken Jig’ written by Hammy Hamilton, or he can stay on a repeat of just a few notes together for an entire tune, only altering the volume, from almost silence to driving beat, as in ‘The Broken Pledge’ and ‘The Mother and Child Reel’. This rare pairing of styles has been partly responsible for the fact that Hayes has continued to innovate.

The apex of The Lonesome Touch is the almost twelve-minute track beginning with the hornpipe ‘Paul Ha’penny’ and involving a subsequent jig and three reels. The concept of playing continuously for over ten minutes was immediately new. Going way beyond the standard three- or four-minute set introduced new possibilities of Zen-like highs, almost trance-evoking performances, and a particular feat of traditional music musicianship which simply hadn’t been seen before.

This twelve-minute extravaganza was evidently only the start. In 1999, Hayes and Cahill released Live in Seattle containing a 27-minute, thrilling performance binding together a slow air, barndance, jig, reel, reel, reel, reel, hornpipe, reel, reel, reel. When they played this set live, it could extend beyond the 27 minutes with euphoric reactions from audiences. It is the endless, climactic rises and clever, subtle falls that Hayes and Cahill orchestrate that manage to spellbind audiences. Just as one thinks it might wind down, they bring the atmosphere into totally different territories and begin to build again. Now that Welcome Here Again, their new album, appears to signal yet another departure, anyone who attended a concert that could be likened to the Live in Seattle recording could be forgiven for thinking they may never experience such a traditional music event again.

Hayes’ residence in the United State of America since his early twenties is significant. Ireland is the centre for Irish traditional music, of course, but the view from the periphery can be liberating. There have been several traditional Irish musicians abroad who have produced innovative and influential recordings – fiddle player Michael Coleman and flute player John McKenna in the 1920s being two of the most obvious, but we could add Liz Carroll, Eileen Ivers and Seamus Egan. As Hayes wrote in 2004, ‘Being from East Clare really didn’t matter so much in Chicago. In fact, being from Ireland wasn’t even that significant.’

Welcome Here Again, Hayes and Cahill’s third recording together, unpredictably reverses the trend of ever-longer performances and increased virtuosity, reducing it now to several tracks of a single tune played just a few times in a simple style. They are miniatures, and most of the tracks are just one or two minutes. What does this mean? Probably little more than the refusal of Hayes and Cahill to sit still, to do again what they have perfected in the past, but rather they challenge themselves by compressing all their experience and expression into the musical mite that is a single reel of sixteen bars played slowly.

The twenty-first century has so far been momentous for Irish traditional music, as its status within the state’s apparatus rose. That traditional music is now honouring one of its once most controversial musicians also points to something new. Perhaps confidence. Perhaps merely confirming that Hayes is welcome here again.

For more, visit


Published on 1 March 2008

Toner Quinn is Editor of The Journal of Music. His website is

Do you have an event or opportunity coming up? Add a listing or visit our advertising page.

comments powered by Disqus