Billy McComiskey, who recently received a National Heritage Fellowship – the nation’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts, talks to Kristin Cotter McGowan.
I’m up in the Catskills. It’s Irish Arts Week in East Durham, New York, and master box player, All-Ireland Accordion Champion Billy McComiskey is taking a break between his scheduled workshops to talk about his history, the Irish music scene in D.C., and his latest achievement – a National Heritage Fellowship awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts. Billy, born in Brooklyn on December 21, 1951 into a family immersed in Irish traditional music, is one of nine artists to receive our nation’s highest honor this year in the folk and traditional arts.
Billy’s history with the traditional Irish music scene of the Catskills and the accordion began with his parents’ first date. “My father had driven a couple of neighbors up to a boarding house in the Catskills and the proprietor Matt Caplis invited him to stay on to hear a great Irish box player who was visiting. My dad, Pat McComiskey, and Matt’s sister, Mae Caplis, met and fell in love that night and married about six months later. The box player turned out to be the great Joe Derrane, who died this past July (and was also a NEA Fellowship recipient).
“The first time I ever did a gig, I was about five years old. It was at my uncle Matt’s boarding house. He was an accordion player too and didn’t like playing on his own so he gave me a couple of spoons to rattle behind him. So whatever that thing is that motivates a player, I had that then. I enjoyed the craic. I guess it was not long after that my cousin John Sweeny, who was a nephew of my grandfather and in the Navy, came back from Germany with a Honer accordion – a black dot, B/C tuning, semi-tone accordion. He showed me a couple of songs on it like ‘Believe Me if All Those Endearing Young Charms,’ and I was hooked.”
Formal lessons were rare at the time, so young Billy continued his education by listening, and found inspiration in the many Irish musicians who played in the Catskills, in particular accordion players Bobby Gardiner and Joe Cooley. At 15 years old, he met his mentor, Sean McGlynn, “One of the quintessential Irish accordion players in the East Galway style.” He was from Tynagh, Co. Galway, and so fascinated by the Tipperary player Paddy O’Brien that “he would not play in his presence.” Billy was just as shy upon first meeting Sean, but the pair grew to be great friends. Sean was the first accordion player in the North American touring group the Green Fields of America, sponsored by the National Council of the Traditional Arts. After Sean’s untimely death in 1983, his rare gray Paolo Soprani accordion passed on to Billy, who still plays it and occasionally tours with Green Fields of America.
“They were so incredibly encouraging and supportive,” Billy says of Sean and Joe Cooley. “They knew that I loved to play, knew that I wanted to play and be great like them and they both encouraged me. Joe died right around my birthday in 1975. If he had lived a little while longer I believe he also would have received the NEA Fellowship. He was a cultural center, a person that empowered other people. It didn’t strike him as funny that someone not born in Ireland could play Irish music. It never occurred to him as odd that people of Eastern European descent or African American heritage would end up playing Irish traditional music. Anyone who wanted to learn Irish music did. He had no prejudice. None. That’s also how Sean McGlynn was.”
By the early 1970s, Billy was playing regular gigs at the Bunratty Pub in the Bronx. It was here that he met fellow accordion player Father Lou Thompson and Bronx fiddler Peggy Riordan. They had come to invite Billy to play a few céilís in the Washington, D.C. area, at a pub/restaurant called The Dubliner. He immediately fell in love with the area, particularly the state of Maryland, and moved down for good.
“I remember a few players thought I was crazy when I originally moved to Washington, having known and learned so much from the great players in New York City, but at the same time I found New York kind of stifling. The music was very dogmatic the way it was played, and the Irish music scene at the time was dominated by men in their 60s and up. When I left New York City I was one of maybe a dozen young Irish-American people playing, so to move to Washington and start all over, especially with all this knowledge, having been brought up in it, was amazing to me.”
This eye-opening experience of wide-open opportunity mirrors his father Patrick’s immigration to the United States, of arriving in Oklahoma for flight school and immediately falling in love with the vastness of America. “He flew for the Queen’s Royal Air Force during World War II and made a pact with himself that if he survived the war he was coming back to America.” Pat McComiskey did return and quickly bought his own home in Brooklyn because “this was something an Irish Catholic in Northern Ireland could not do. He saw the value of it.”
Billy arrived in our nation’s capital right at the time when the Irish saloon / restaurant phenomenon was just starting to take shape. The Dubliner was a stone’s throw from Capitol Hill. After securing regular work there, Billy invited his friend, fiddler Brendan Mulvihill, to join him. Brendan’s father was the legendary New York City Irish music teacher Martin Mulvihill, another NEA Heritage Fellowship recipient. Rounding out the group was Andy O’Brien of County Kerry, who sang and played guitar. They called themselves “The Irish Tradition,” and became The Dubliner’s regular house band playing six, later five nights a week.
Billy remembers The Dubliner becoming a very cool and hip spot to be, where the beautiful political people, especially the Irish, would hang out – people like Tip O’Neill and Ted Kennedy. “I wouldn’t say they were regulars… but they weren’t foreigners either. It was all great fun when they came in. Andy, Brendan and I weren’t paying too much attention to politics at the time. We had no idea how important Tip O’Neill was, we just thought he had a cool name. We knew Ted Kennedy was somehow related to John Kennedy. Ted loved Irish music and he had us at his house sometimes at a couple of different parties. It was just an amazing time to be an Irishman living in the Washington area and working on Capitol Hill.”
It wasn’t just the political elite that were taking notice of the Irish. In 1976 the Irish Tradition played the Smithsonian Folklife Festival during the U.S. Bicentennial on the National Mall and the inaugural event of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. They hosted sessions at another D.C. pub called The Benbow, out of which grew other Irish-American bands like Celtic Thunder, the Hags, and the Boiling Spuds.
After marrying his wife Annie, moving to Baltimore, and starting a family, Billy continued to build the Irish music scene in Baltimore and grow as a player. He released solo albums “Making the Rounds” in 1981 and “Outside the Box” in 2008. In between he joined forces with fiddler Liz Carroll, also a NEA National Heritage Fellow, and guitarist/singer Dáithí Sproule to form the internationally-acclaimed group Trian. He’s played at the White House, the Kennedy Center, throughout the U.S., Ireland, and around the world. And now, forty years after arriving in Washington, D.C., Billy joins the greats in his life – Joe Derrane, Martin Mulvihill, Liz Carroll, and fiddler Seamus Connolly – as one of the NEA’s National Heritage Fellows.
“To receive this national fellowship is mind numbing. I had the distinct honor and privilege of performing with Joe Heaney, the sean-nós singer from Connemara who worked in Brooklyn. Joe Heaney was not only the first Irishman to receive an NEA Heritage Fellowship, he was one of the first dozen or so recipients, period. It’s stunning to realize that hardly anyone had even heard of sean-nós singing (unaccompanied traditional style singing). They had no idea what any of this was until people started paying attention to Joe Heaney. He got this award for all the right reasons. He shared his knowledge of the culture. It’s not like winning a competition or something…it’s so much more than that. It’s really a tremendous honor.”
Like Joe Heaney, who passed away in 1984, and others before him, Billy continues the tradition of sharing the culture with the next generation. As a master teacher through the Maryland Traditions apprenticeship program, students – including his son Sean – have been awarded grants to apprentice under Billy. Sean McComiskey now plays accordion in O’Malley’s March, the seven-piece Irish pub-rock band fronted by former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley.
After the Catskill Irish Arts week, Billy’s headed back to his beloved D.C. to teach another workshop at Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s “MAD Week,” an immersion program in Irish music and dance (MAD). “They say they’re ‘Mad for Trad.’ It’s a lovely music scene down there and I’m honored to be part of it.”
The enthusiasm and commitment of Billy and traditional musicians like him continues to fuel the appeal of Irish music to younger generations. And looking towards the future, Billy believes that the Trad tradition is healthy and headed for a giant leap forward. “The thing about Irish music right now is that it’s so celebrated not only all over the world but in Ireland too. There are thousands of Irish traditional musicians that are highly accomplished. Because of all the information on technique that’s readily available – recordings, videos – a young player today is playing at a standard that the greatest players took a lifetime to achieve. Irish traditional music is now going through the process of becoming not just a 20th century interpretation of 17/18th century music, but its own 21st century art form. It’s a really interesting time to be alive, playing and celebrating Irish music culture.” ♦