Tracking the Music in London

by Martin Doyle

Back in the 1950s, Topic Records, an English label, took it upon itself to record the musicians on the London Irish scene, Margaret Barry, Michael Gorman, Felix Doran and the like. Forty years later, many of these recordings are being re-released on CD by Topic, and the man in charge of compiling the series and writing the sleeve-notes is 62-year-old Reg Hall, a veteran of the scene himself and the author of a doctoral thesis entitled Irish Music and Dance in London, 1890-1970: A Socio-Cultural History.

"In 1955 I first went into an Irish pub, the Bedford in Arlington Street, Camden Town. I had two Irish pals who were interested but we always went in pairs. We didn't want to impose. We became friendly with Michael Gorman and Margaret Barry and the other musicians and eventually played on stage with them."

"My life in music has been knocking around with Irish musicians but there came a point where all my mates were dying. They were all 20 years older than me and they were replaced by a new generation that I didn't feel empathy with. Twenty-year old fiddlers who've learned their stuff off records of the supergroups don't want to play with a middle-aged piano player with a memory that goes back too far."

Reg had become part of tradition which had transferred from the turn of the century West of Ireland hearth to the post-war London-Irish pub. "Once the Irish got the job to play, someone they knew would come in, they'd look up and say hello and invite them to join in. Nobody ever played unless they were introduced. They would then be incorporated into the drinks round, they would be expected to play everything, they would be asked what they favourite tune was and everyone would play it. It was the old house culture of the West of Ireland. You'd never think of coming into a house without being introduced.

"That was how it was until the mid-Seventies, when someone would come in and start tuning up a bouzouki, who's never said 'may I?', who's never said 'hello' or 'would you like a drink?' It was the end of an era."

Reg talks about the ceili bands of the Twenties as if they were yesterday, the dance halls of the Thirties, Frank Lee's Tara in Hammersmith, then the coming of the big boys, the wrestling fraternity, the Caseys and Johnny Muldoon, St. Patrick's in Queensway, the Pride of Erin in Hammersmith.

Reg is keen to debunk what he sees as the myths of the Gaelic League, who reinvented Irish tradition, unaware that it was still alive and kicking in the west of Ireland. He believes the mistakes were repeated by Comhaltas, which grew out of the concern of traditional musicians in Dublin and Mullingar that the music was dying, apparently unaware that it was thriving in Sligo and Clare.

Likewise over the water. "The London scene was unbelievable, you could go to Dagenham, Croydon, Brixton, Camberwell and find an Irishman playing an accordion on Saturday night, hundreds of them. Comhaltas in Dublin said 'form a branch in London'. They got hold of someone who genuinely believed that the only Irish music in London was being played by Gasra na Gael. That was Michael Daly who was a great traditional player from rural Roscommon, who became a Mayor of Worthing.

"But that Topic record, Street Songs and Fiddle Tunes (1995) was recorded before that, it was a thriving scene. Comhaltas then started to tune into government money so they have to create an official history that Irish music would be dead if it wasn't for us. I've got sympathy with that but it simply isn't true. I'm not anti-Comhaltas at all but they have created their own mythology."