01 May 2024

When you go to drastic lengths to compose a tune

The SFO will be in Northern Ireland for a 3-date tour (16 – 18 May 2024).

In many ways, the “chat” surrounding a concert of Scottish music (or any traditional music) is as crucial as the music itself.

This post celebrates the craic as demonstrated by two of Northern Ireland’s most celebrated (for their playing skill) traditional musicians – Co. Tyrone’s Arty McGlynn and Cathal Hayden. 

It’s also appropriate in that the introduction to the tune set which follows was delivered at the 20th Baltimore Fiddle Fair (Co. Cork) in 2012. This year’s Fiddle Fair takes place from 9th to 12th May 2024.

This piece first appeared in the SFO’s Newsletter (No. 85) in September 2020.

Drawing in your audience with a compelling description of the tunes you’re about to play is an art in itself.

The late Arty McGlynn (guitar) was a master. Available to enjoy “live” on YouTube if you wish, here’s Arty’s lead-in to a set of tunes he and Cathal Hayden (banjo and fiddle) are about to play at the Baltimore Ireland’s Fiddle Fair’s 20th anniversary concert in 2012.


Arty McGlynn (Guitar) and Cathal Hayden (Banjo – and Fiddle), 20th Baltimore Fiddle Fair – 2012

“We are going to play a set of 3 jigs.”

“They have a story to them.

The first one is called Mrs O’Sullivan’s jig. The second one is called The Priest in his Boots. And the third is called… – I don’t have a name for the third one.

The first one was named after a fiddle player from Cork, Miss O’Sullivan.

She met a man from Cavan called John O’Sullivan. In the second year of her marriage, she was cycling her bike. She lived at the very top of Mountain Alley. She was going down Mountain Alley and the brakes failed on her bicycle.

She hurtled down the hill at very high speed, the wind blowing through her hair, and the first part of this jig came into her head. But she fell off the bike half way down and she only had the first part of the tune.

So she went back up to her husband. (She wasn’t too badly hurt that time). She told her husband what had happened. She whistled the first part of the tune for him.

He said: “That’s a very good jig – you should finish that jig.”

So, the next morning, Mr O’Sullivan and a friend got Mrs O’Sullivan up on the bicycle, with her feet up on the handlebars and fiddle and all, and pushed off down Mountain Alley.

An innocent bystander on MacCurtain Street swore that she was doing in excess of 80 miles an hour when he saw her cross the street. She crashed through the front doors of the Metropole Hotel. She was very badly broken up.

When she got out of hospital after 2 or 3 months, she had this whole tune.”

“She only composed 5 tunes in her entire life…”

“Of course, by that stage, every bone in her body was broken up.

The local doctor in Cork advised John O’Sullivan to take her somewhere flat, where she couldn’t hurt herself. He suggested Longford. But, John O’Sullivan, being a very cautious man with his money – a wise man from Cavan – took a very hefty insurance policy out on her and he bought a place in the French Alps – where she hurtled to her death 2 weeks later.

At his trial in France, O’Sullivan was asked by the French judge why he hadn’t taken the advice of the local doctor back in Cork. John O’Sullivan said that, in all truthfulness – in all fairness – he thought that, given the right circumstances, she had a symphony in her.”

Space constraints mean we are unable to include here the story behind The Priest in His Boots.

Our thanks are due to fiddler, Dr. Laura Ryan, for filling in some of the geographical background details, as well as highlighting that Arty’s explanation of the genesis of Mrs O’ Sullivan’s Jig may not be entirely factual.

“I think the street [Mountain Alley?] he is talking about is one of two streets. It’s either York Street, a very narrow road that leads down to MacCurtain Street. I’ve sent you a picture on map. The fictional element is that the Metropole Hotel he cites is not directly in front of it as you’ll see… The second option is Patrick’s Hill. That is a wider road, though not by much! Given he uses the word “alley” I would go for York Street.”

Judge for yourself…


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This is an edited version of an article which first appeared in the SFO Newsletter for September 2020. If you would like to check out a few back-copies and/or sign up to receive our quarterly newsletter via email, please click here.

The SFO’s Tour of Northern Ireland in May 2024 takes in…

Enniskillen – 16th May 2024. Craigavon – 17th May 2024. Ballymena – 18th May 2024. We hope some of you will be able to join us for one or more of these concerts!


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Header image: Photo by Marc Kleen on Unsplash