Honored April 25, 2014
To quote an old Irish language saying, “The nature of the cat breaks out through the eyes” meaning that heredity and family have a role in a person’s accomplishments and abilities. This is clearly the case with Willie Kelly, Bronx-born Irish American fiddler par excellence.
Willie’s maternal grandfather, James Nolan, hailed from Ballygar, Co. Galway. James was a self-taught fiddler who left Galway at age 14 to work in the coal mines in England. He eventually emigrated to New York and became a train motorman. As a young child, Willie remembers James playing Irish airs on the fiddle. Not surprisingly, the love and appreciation of Irish music was passed down by James to his daughter Eileen, Willie’s late mother. Although Eileen did not play herself, Willie remembers her as being a great judge of Irish and all types of music, in addition to the fact that she always encouraged Willie and his four siblings to become musicians.
Willie’s paternal grandfather was also William Kelly who was the fiddling blacksmith of Fuerty, Co. Roscommon. He was an accomplished fiddler who was musically literate, a rare thing in those days. Fuerty was the site of much musical activity as it had a major crossroads not far from Roscommon town. William the blacksmith had a son Joe, Willie’s father, who was a self-taught fiddler. As a young man, Joe would sneak into a nearby field with William’s fiddle to practice on the sly. Willie recounts that he did not know his father played the fiddle until his older brother Fr. Francis brought home a rented school violin and his Dad started playing it, much to his astonishment.
Older brother Fr. Francis Kelly was a great help and encouragement to Willie, as well as being a superb fiddler in his own right. Fr. Francis had a knack for quickly learning tunes from records, tapes, radio shows, etc. and then teaching them to Willie. Fr. Francis also had an appreciation for older, more traditional styles of Irish fiddle playing and he shared this predilection with Willie. During the 1980s, Fr. Francis and Willie were a tight-knit fiddle duet who gained much acclaim at their performances at the Eagle Tavern, Earle Hitchner’s radio show The Celtic Hour, and many other venues. Fortunately, seven tracks of the two Kelly brothers from a December 1982 Celtic Hour are extant proof of their superior artistry together.
Besides family members, Willie was blessed to have early mentors such as Martin Mulvihill, Mike Rafferty, Jack Coen, Charlie Coen, and Joe Madden. These men musically guided Willie into the music of West Limerick and East Galway. Providentially, this musical training made for a perfect musical fit when Willie met his future wife Siobhan (nee Moloney), an outstanding fluteplayer from O’Callaghan’s Mills, Co. Clare. Willie would like to pay particular tribute to his wife Siobhan and his late father-in-law, Sean Moloney for generously welcoming him into their family and introducing him to two of his musical heroes, East Clare fiddlers Martin Rochford and Paddy Canny.
As a duet, Willie and Siobhan are unabashedly East Clare in their musical style. Likewise, Willie and Siobhan’s children, nephews, and students play with a strong and instantly recognizable East Clare/East Galway “accent.” Clare FM independent program producer Paula Carroll was amazed that the older musical style of Slieve Aughty sprang to life in the Boonton, NJ home of Willie and Siobhan on an evening in 2009 when Paula was taping for Clare FM.
It is a paradox that an Irish American fiddler born in the Bronx is one of the musicians keeping alive the fiddle style of such seminal players as Martin Rochford, Paddy Canny, and Martin Mulvihill while that style is rarely found even in Ireland today. As a musician and as a man of Faith, Willie Kelly is a refreshing example of all that is good in Irish culture, and Irish America in particular should be extremely proud of this son.