Manus McGuire:
an Irishman in Cape Breton

Celtic Colours hosts many talented and well-known artists from around the world, and it's always a treat to meet them. One of the best places to talk to these artists is in the green room at Festival Club, which is where I had the opportunity to interview Manus McGuire, the wonderful Sligo fiddler from the Brock McGuire Band.

I had met Manus in the recent past at a show in Milwaukee and was in awe of his talent, so to have the opportunity to interview him was a real treat! While I had heard some of his music, I wanted to understand where all that talent came from, so I began by asking him about his background.

"I grew up in Sligo, in the northwest, and then moved to County Clare 22 years ago," he said, "and my background in fiddling included listening to the well-established, legendary Sligo fiddle players like Michael Coleman, James Morrison, Paddy Killoran, Paddy Sweeney, Lad O'Beirne and John Vesey, and listening to recordings [both commercial and homemade] of these players." He explained that he got to meet more recent players, such as Martin Wynne and Andy McGann, in New York, and was really influenced by them at that time.

While his roots stemmed from Sligo fiddlers, he enjoyed other styles, too. "When I was in my 20s, I began to get interested in the music of Shetland, Scotland, as well as Cape Breton," he said. "I was in Canada a lot in my early 20s, because my brother lived in Toronto. I would visit him and we would go to a lot of festivals, so I got to meet a lot of French-Canadian and Cape Breton fiddlers at that time, and I was really influenced by a whole plethora of musical genres."

When asked if he had music in his family, as well, he responded, "Yes. My dad and my mom both played. My dad really got me going, as well as my older brother, who played fiddle." He went on to say he was really interested in trying to do what his older brother was doing. "He was classically trained, but I wasn't. I can read music, but not nearly as quick as he can." Obviously, this didn't hinder Manus' playing. He explained, "As a follow-on from that, I'm able to learn tunes by ear a lot quicker than he is."

Manus said he really began performing and recording in the late 1970s. He reminisced, "I did my first recording in the States with my brother, and it was an album called The Humours of Lisadell. It was recorded in Connecticut for the company Folk Legacy." He smiled and said, "That was the first of a lot of CDs." He and his brother recorded another album with Daithe Sproule called Carousel. After that, he said that he and his brother joined Jackie Daly to form the band Buttons & Bows, which recorded three CDs. He continued, "Then, Paul Brock and I formed another band called Moving Cloud in 1989, and that band played for 10 or 11 years, and then in 2000, we formed the Brock McGuire Band." On top of the amazing duo, the band also includes Enda Scahill on banjo and Denis Carey on piano.

Manus has also been sought after as a fiddle instructor when he's not touring. "I teach at the University of Limerick, which is a half an hour from where I live." He happily said, "I get to teach students from all over the world there." I asked him if he prefers to teach students to play by ear or by reading music, and he said he teaches both ways. On top of teaching workshops, Paul Brock gives a brilliant and informative lecture of how music came from Ireland to North America. The band plays examples of the music in this lecture.

My next question was about how people in Ireland react to Manus' music, since he has been influenced by music in Canada. "They love it," he said. "Cape Breton music, especially ... is really popular in Ireland now." He mentioned Liz Doherty and Maire O'Keeffe as two fiddlers who really like to teach the Cape Breton style. "There are more and more people interested in pushing out the Cape Breton idiom, which is fantastic." He explained, "I like to teach a mixture of the styles, too."

I'm very grateful that Manus took the time for this interview with me, as he had already had a long day of lecturing and performing and he was getting ready to take the stage at Festival Club immediately after our chat. It was really neat that, while I as talking to him about how the various Celtic styles are spread from country to country, there were Cape Breton and Irish musicians playing tunes together right there in the room. It was a well-rounded experience.

interview by
Kaitlin Hahn

5 September 2009

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