Honored February 4, 2006
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Tonight Brian Conway has proved philosopher George Santayana wrong. By remembering and cherishing the past, Brian has learned to repeat it. Such fiddling friends and mentors as Andy McGann (1928-2004) and Martin Wynne (1913-1998) preceded him into Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s Mid-Atlantic Region Hall of Fame. It is now fitting that Brian, who has always revered and championed these past masters, joins them as a musician, teacher, and tradition preserver equally deserving of this singular honor.
The New York style of Sligo fiddling draws inspiration and sustenance from the legacy of Michael Coleman, James Morrison, Paddy Sweeney, Andy McGann, Martin Wynne, and James “Lad” O’Beirne, to name but seven. Brian has not only added his own distinctive imprint to that tradition but passed it on to such talented pupils as Maeve Flanagan, his sister Rose’s daughter, and Patrick Mangan. Long before the phrase “roots music” was hollowed out by overuse, Brian Conway embodied the true spirit of the phrase in his fiddling. It summons the past without slavishly imitating it. It is rigorous in its discipline but not rigid in its application. It integrates invention and instinct but never to the point where melody becomes an excuse for a wild flight of ego. Technique serves the tune, not the other way around.
The Bronx home of County Tyrone immigrants Jim and Rose Conway, both of whom played the violin, was an ideal environment in which their five children—Seán, Brian, Rose, Paul, and James—were exposed to Irish traditional music. Fiddlers Andy McGann, Martin Wynne, Paddy Reynolds, Louis Quinn, Tom Connolly, and Vincent Harrison, button accordionist Dave Collins, and flutist Gus Collins were some of the instrumentalists who would drop by the Conway home to play informally on Friday nights, and Brian was there to soak it all up. These musicians’ stories and anecdotes deepened his understanding of the continuity of community that is the lifeblood of this music, and Brian’s own immersion quickly garnered attention.
In 1973, a year and a half after he took up the fiddle, 12-year-old Brian Conway won his first All-Ireland championship, and he returned to Ireland the next year to win his second junior title. Twelve years later, he won the coveted All-Ireland senior fiddle championship, becoming the fourth and last American to do so.
Appearing on the Garryowen Céilí Band’s From the Shores of America in 1976 and Irish Traditional Instrumental Music From the East Coast of America, Vol. I in 1977 paved the way for The Apple in Winter in 1981, an album Brian made with fellow fiddler Tony DeMarco and guitarist and bones player Caesar Pacifici. Its CD reissue in 2000 was a refreshing reminder of Brian’s vital, ongoing contribution to “Irish Music in New York,” the recording’s apt subtitle.
Other albums featuring Brian’s fiddling include Joe Burke’s The Tailor’s Choice in 1983 and The Boston College Irish Fiddle Festival: My Love Is in America in 1991. But it is in his solo recording from 2002, First Through the Gate, where Brian’s prowess as a player reaches its studio apogee. I picked it as the top Irish traditional album of that year in the Irish Echo, and, with the 20-20 vision of historical hindsight, I am even more impressed by it now.
Brian Conway keeps the traditional fire well-stoked in the session he leads Wednesday nights at Dunne’s Pub, White Plains, N.Y., in the students he instructs, and in the joy he derives and gives every time he puts bow to strings. His hall of fame induction tonight testifies both to a life enriched by Irish traditional music and to Irish traditional music enriched by his life. He has made, and continues to make, an indelible difference in the culture we all love.
– Earle Hitchner, Irish Echo, The Wall Street Journal