Michael McDonagh talks to acclaimed uilleann piper Mike McGoldrick – currently touring with Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler – about Manchester as a huge crucible of Irish musical talent.
I first met Manchester-born uilleann piper Mike McGoldrick way in 1988 when he was in the much-loved Manchester folk rock band Toss the Feathers.
In 2014 he very kindly came and played The Parting Glass at my sister’s funeral in Altrincham.
Talking to him backstage at the recent Cambridge Folk Festival he made a compelling case that Manchester is a thriving spiritual home of not just English folk – but also, and especially, Irish traditional music.
IW: Tell us about Toss the Feathers, it must have been quite an adventure for a young lad?
“I was 16 when I joined that band and the story is that the band would collect me from my school, St Mark’s, Didsbury, on a Friday, and I would have a pair of jeans and a tee-shirt in my school bag and we would head off to London. I was just 16 years old.
“Then we would play the Friday night in The Swan in Stockwell, The Venue on the Saturday night, and we would do Sunday afternoon in The Mean Fiddler.
“Then on Sunday night we were back in The Swan and after the set would drive back home to Manchester in the middle of the night and I’d be back to school on Monday morning.
“I got to travel around with that band, I went to America with them and went to France and Germany, a lot of touring in Germany and I stayed in Toss The Feathers until I was about 24 after my son was born, when I was 23, so I had a good run with them.”
IW: You are so respected now and in demand from other musicians that it seems to me that you have now taken over the mantle as first choice go-to Uilleann piper as Davey Spillane and Liam O’Flynn once were.
“They were my heroes and I grew up listening to them. I remember it was about 1979 or 1980 and I was lying in bed and my dad would be playing his records and I could hear the music of Planxty and The Bothy Band flying up through the stairs and through the ceiling.
“I started with the whistle and flute but did not take up the pipes until I was 20 but it was bands like Planxty and like The Bothy Band or Mat Molloy’s flute playing with The Chieftains or Seamus Tansey or Roger Sherlock – it was their music that really inspired me.”
IW: So how come a young Manchester lad got into folk music and not into punk, pop or rock?
“Dad’s music, from his records, and a great record shop in Manchester called Decoy Records. I would go in there regularly, and ask ‘what are the latest albums you’ve got in?’ and I’d listen to all the new stuff from Ireland.”
IW: Did your dad play?
“Yes, he did. He played the flute and whistles (but) it was my mam who took us to music classes at the Holy Name Church in Chorlton On Medlock, just before Manchester city centre.
“Then it moved from the parish hall there to St Edward’s parish hall in Rusholme and my mother would take me there every Wednesday for music lessons with a teacher called Delia Buckley from Roscommon.
“Delia did not play the flute, she was an amazing fiddle player and accordion player, able to teach all instruments, so I learned a lot of tunes from Delia. I learned the whistle and the from my dad who was originally from Galway.
“He never played in public but just played for his own enjoyment.
IW: You believe Manchester’s traditional music scene is very strong – the women especially – and the girls coming through are eclipsing the boys.
“I can speak on behalf of my nieces, Katherine and Ciara McGoldrick, who both play the music that was handed down, on uilleann pipes, concertina and flutes. They win All Britain Championships and compete at All Ireland Fleadhs.
“There’s a girl called Angela Usher, who was in Toss the Feathers with me, and she is teaching over a hundred and fifty kids in Manchester primary schools every week.
“The scene is more vibrant than ever. When I am not touring and doing gigs professionally my favourite thing is going down to play a session without any microphones and just play tunes. Sometimes that is the best music you will ever play.”
IW: Is it harder to start out now than when you started out?
“I don’t know. It is always hard whatever job you are in. It is about work ethic as it takes true dedication and hard work and you just have to get down to it and put the work in. Just answer the phone and say yes to everything until you are established.
“There are two reasons that it is probably easier these days.
“One is that there are a lot of courses and places that teach Irish music, like Edinburgh, Newcastle, Limerick, Dublin and Galway and, two, you have the whole social media thing.
“That helps musicians. I am not a big fan of somebody sticking a camera in front of your face when you are playing, but you can’t stop it and that means that young people learning to play can actually see it.
“With YouTube and websites now, as long as you dig deep enough, there are plenty of ways of learning.
“Even the likes of us, playing traditional music, with Toss the Feathers when we started, before that entire new media thing we knew where it came from. We would listen to the early recordings from the 1920s or 30s, Michael Coleman and Patsy Twomey. I love all the stuff that (English, Irish and Scottish folk music collector) Reg Hall has been bringing out recently about the London scene.
“I love listening to all that and those recordings. We have had Tony Howley in Manchester, God rest him, and we have Peter Carberry and his son Kevin Carberry, who was a great player, they were all big influences on us.
“There was Dessie Donnelly and Dessie’s uncle.
“We had Felix Doran living in Manchester and his grandson living in Manchester, so you are surrounded by the best possible music.”
“Going back to the kids learning stuff quicker or finding out about recordings you can say ‘that’s on an old record by Johnny Doran or whoever’ and they can go online on YouTube and find it. Then they can sit and play it over to see how it was done.
“I still do not read music and learn all my stuff by ear but I think of the hours when I would sit there and put the needle on the record and learn a bit and then put the needle back on, over and over to learn the next bit.
“Or listening to the tune from start to finish over and over until I had it off or to find the bit that I could not play then I’d find my dad’s accordion and I would spend hours and hours just doing that.
“Now with YouTube you can have ‘slow downers’ (in which you can slow down the music, choose your pitch and learn to play by ear) or can freeze them to see what’s going on.”
IW: You are still learning though as I hear none other than Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, who is no slouch as a musician, is teaching you the guitar.
“Yes, me and John McCusker have just come off a big four-month European tour with (Dire Straits’) Mark Knopfler then in another week we are off for a big tour of America with him for six weeks to continue his tour and I love it so that gives us another string to the bow.”
IW: How did that come about, as that is more rock than folk?
“Well, it started when I first did a recording session for Mark because he contacted me as he had heard John and I playing on the same record and he said ‘I want to play with these guys’ as that is the sound and the instruments that were exactly what he wanted.
“He contacted us, he wanted pipes and whistles and mandolins and fiddles, all the things we do.
“Geordies love all that stuff and Mark is into Paul Brady and people like that and so it was very easy, and it did not feel like we were the token musicians just being there on the session.
“It felt like we were really involved and part of it and it has grown. It is 12 years since I have been playing with him now and yes, he has been teaching me the guitar.
“I only knew a couple of chords on the guitar but he has challenged me as he has said can you learn this song on a guitar then that song or that one on bouzouki, so even though my main instruments are the uilleann pipes and the whistles and flute, on this tour I am playing a bit of electric guitar, tenor guitar and acoustic guitar as well.
“He keeps saying ‘you are such a quick learner’ and that I have a sharp ear for picking up stuff, but it has been a brilliant challenge.
“His music has always been about a feel and atmosphere and I think that we have something in common as the uilleann pipes are about emotion and feel. It is the ancient sounds and the Irish heritage and culture and even though I have read recently that it is not that old, it just has that ancient sound that is so evocative with soul and it draws you in.”