Kevin Rohan – Musician/Singer

The small townland of Taiquin or Tigh Da Conna set about six miles from the historic town of Athenry in County Galway was once a famous Barony stretching as far north as Roscommon. The ruins of Taiquin Castle still remain today.

The friendly outgoing people of this area have a great love of family, friends, music, song and dance. One such family is that of well known musician and singer Kevin Rohan.

I visited the Rohan household recent.ly to ask Kevin about his career as a musician. The night was a mixture of chat, laughter, music, sandwiches, whiskey, songs and more music. It included music from his daughters Emer and Mary Paula and of course Kevin himself. We talked and played into the early hours.

“My grandparents all played and danced. My father Brian played the fiddle and my mother Winnie played the accordion. My father played at the house dances with local musicians like Patrick Stack from Cloonkeen and Johnny Rabbitte from Tysaxon in the 20s and 30s. There was a very good fiddling tradition in our area”.

“There would be music sessions in our house a few nights a week. I leamed a lot of music from my father, local musicians at the house sessions and from the old 78 records”.

Kevin’s brother Jimmy (USA) and his sister Peggy (Dublin) both played the fiddle and his brothers Bernie and Tom were singers. Kevin has vivid memories of these house sessions.

“What delights when youthful and gay’

Each with eye like sunbeam and foot like feather,

Thus danced, like the hours to the music of May,

Mingling, music, song and sunshine together”.

In 1947, when Kevin was ten years old, he began to learn the fiddle. His father, a highly regarded musician in the area, taught him. Musicians such as Joe Burke (accordion), Paddy Curley (flute) and many others came to the Rohan house sessions. When he was fifteen years old, he joined the Curran Céili Band. It consisted of Jack Curran (fiddle), Seamus Murphy (drums), Jimmy Burke (accordion), Kevin (fiddle) and John Lohan (accordion). They played at local dances at Monivea and Athenry and at “Hops” every Wednesday night in Carabane. Kevin’s talent as a fiddle player at this early age was indeed exceptional.

In 1957 Kevin joined the Tysaxon Céili Band with Paddy Joe Rabbitte (accordion), Dominic Parr (accordion), Mattie Feeney (flute), Bernie Kilkelly (flute) and Neville McGann (flute).

“I played an awful lot of good music at this time with box player Dominic Parr whom I highly regard as a musician. We played at stations and dances as far north as Co. Down and throughout the West”. In 1961 at an “after hours” session at The Hanger in Salthill, with famous accordion player Kieran Kelly, Kevin was asked to join the Kieran Kelly Céili Band. The line up was impressive Kieran Kelly (accordion), Kevin (fiddle), Vincent McGrath (accordion), Larry Benson (saxophone), E. Furey (drums), and the brilliant pianist Aidan Kearney. Kevin joined and they played throughout Ireland, England and Scotland. The band recorded one album.

They broadcast live the Radio Éireann programme “Céili house” and Kevin did many solo broadcasts. “I was paid £6 for a solo broadcast then”. He also played at the official opening of R.T.E. in 1962.

In the late 1960s the showband era was in full swing. The famous Athenry band “The Swingtime Aces” was very popular then, a band which included musicians like Jimmy Ruane and others.

In 1968 Kevin joined one of Ireland’s most popular bands “The Brendan Shine Country Band”. Between ‘68 and ’72 this band toured extensively and Kevin recorded three albums with them.

Kevin formed his own band “Rodneys Glory” in 1972 and this is the band he plays with today. Kevin – fiddle/songs; Liam Merrigan – rhythm guitar/vocals; Martin Tierney – key board/vocals; Kenneth Doyle – drummer/vocals. An excellent four piece band they provide a wide range of music from traditional, country and rock to pop. They have recorded one album and tour extensively.

Along with being in Rodney’s Glory. Kevin has also toured extensively in the U.S.A, Russia, Europe and Ireland with the band Shaskeen.

Shaskeen Ceilí Band

He has indeed a very musical career to date and tells me that he has no intention of retiring. His enthusiasm for life and music is also possessed by his mother who is presently over 95 years of age and regularly attends these informal sessions.

Today Kevin enjoys mostly these informal sessions. He recalled the many enjoyable highs he had with the Tiaquin mummers, enjoying the warm company of such humorous characters as Christy Howley. Martin T. Kelly and others.

Kevin has his own unique style of fiddle playing. “There was a local style of fiddling in my area. I met many good local fiddlers who had special tunes. They put in extra notes, longer or shorter notes or special touches that made all the difference to the music. Much of these styles and notes have gone. It is sad see all local styles slowly disappearing.

To really appreciate the music of Kevin Rohan, he must be heard live. Your spirits will be lifted and your foot will just have to tab. His fiddling style has all the characteristics of a great player; feeling, excellent phrasing and above all great drive and lift. He puts such life into the simplest of tunes and his bowing style makes the most difficult of tunes look easily played.

Today Kevin is as enthusiastic as ever learning new tunes and developing his music. The acquisition recently of an excellent hand-made fiddle (by K. Sykes) will enable him to continue to produce that high quality of sound and tone upon which he insists.

Among his favourite musicians of today are Sean Ryan, fiddler from Tipperary; Paddy Fahy and Frankie Gavin, fiddlers from Galway and Joe Derrane who plays the accordion.

From my experience of playing with Kevin, music for him means all good music whether it be Traditional, Country, Cajun, Breton, Classical or Jazz. As he

says himself “Anything goes”. He is a musician who lives for the moment. He has an equal regard for the good listener as for his fellow musicians in a session.

The old saying that “the soul of a person can be seen in their eyes” is indeed true of Kevin. When the music and craic is good the delight in his soul can be seen in his eyes.

Kevin is a well-known singer and picked up his large repertoire of songs from many sources. When young he listened to local singer Tom Kelly. “Tom would sing until the cows came home – day or night it did not matter”. When listening to Kevin singing it is clear that he is one who loves to tell a story.

Alas, the many other happenings, events and stories, often humorous of such a musical career as Kevins must remain to be told another day.

Kevin says “The one thing I am most grateful for is that l never had to miss a tune in my life due to ill health. For that I am grateful.”

“Then sing, sing – music was given

To brighten the day, and kindle the loving,

Souls here like planets in heaven,

By harmonies laws, alone are kept moving”. (T. Moore)

“Music, oh how faint, how weak,
Language fades before thy spell,
Why should feeling ever speak,
When thou canst breathe her soul so well” 
(Thomas Moore)

On the edge of the parish of Athenry is the townland of Coldwood.  The busy main Galway/Dublin road cuts through the townland. Opposite Coldwood National School a small winding bóithrín brings you to the old thatched cottage of melodeon player and set dancer Bill O’Toole. Set in the midst of tall trees on a bend on the road, this old thatched house which is over 200 years old represents generations both past and present. The sound of birds and wind whistling through the trees are ever present.

On a recent visit to Bill’s house we got a warm welcome at the door from Bill and his wife Molly. Chairs were prepared beside the warm turf fire with its large stone arch and hobs on both sides. Refreshing drinks were soon produced and a long timber table in the centre of the kitchen held plates of sandwiches, cakes and biscuits for all present. Under the deep window ledge on the floor was an old four stop melodeon and a 2-row Hohner Accordion.

Bill’s 81st Birthday Party with Kevin Rohan and Mary Mulvihill

After much conversation and laughter Bill began to recall some of the memories of his life. He was born on the seventh of March 1915. He lived his entire life in this house: “I had great ould times in this house” says Bill .”In my youth it was a great house for cards, music, song and dance.  The Kellys Pat Willie and Tom used to visit almost every night for the card games. So did the Keanes, the Banes, P. J. Cahill ,God Rest Him, and the Commins”.

There was a very close community in Coldwood at that time and everyone helped one another out. There was a great regard for music and song.
“I had two brothers and two sisters. Times were tough in those days. There wasn’t much money about and whatever money you had you were damned glad you got it. We appreciated whatever we had and music was one of those things”.

Bill always did a bit of shooting, rabbits and foxes mainly. When shooting at night, the top of the barrel was painted white in order to take proper aim. Often when the turlough went low the trapped eels would be brought home and fried in the pan. He recalled his youthful days as ones of great happiness. Carefree days which were spent enjoying life to the full.

Occasionally our conversation would stop when Bill would take the melodeon and play a few tunes. He played “The Frost is all over” and “Humours of Glendart” two very old jigs. Playing music seems as natural to him as breathing. The tune went from jigs to eels, flings, hornpipes foxtrots and slow airs. His lively rhythmic music would often end with sudden humorous tops, followed by conversation, then back the music again!  He is modest about himself but does say that “its at music for dancing to” (him being a set dancer himself).

Bill’s Birthday with Olive Bane on guitar!

“Where did you learn your music from Bill”? “Sure I never learned music in my life, I just listened to it and played it.  My mother played the melodeon. She bought her first melodeon in Sweeney’s in Athenry for twelve old shillings.  She was a good player but my sister Maggie May was very good and played a lot for local dances, you know.”

“There were lots of house sessions when I was young Bina Cahill played melodeon, Ellie and Margaret Commins played melodeon and violin. They played at my wedding on the 3rd of May 1959.Tommie Healy was a very good melodeon player also. All of these players lived in Bill’s immediate locality.  “I suppose I was about 12 yrs old when I learned the Melodeon. I learned from my mother mostly; I learned all my music by air”.

There was a gramophone always in Bill’s house and some music was learned from the old 78 recordings of Michael Coleman (fiddler), James Morrison (fiddler) and others. The greatest source of new tunes was from the local musicians.

Bills wife Molly (Harte) is also from a very musical family. The Harte family home was renowned for good music sessions and it was at these sessions that Bill first met Molly.  Andy Harte, Molly’s brother, was a well known accordion player.

Gerry Mulvihill playing at the party

Bill also mentioned a man called Jack Commins from Cahertiarmaid whom he thought had a great style of playing and had an enormous repertoire of tunes. Bill played little music from his mid-twenties to his early sixties. Farming and raising a family left little time for music. His interest was revived by the encouragement of accordion player Dominic Parr (Athenry) who gave Bill a melodeon in the mid-seventies and Bill attended the many sessions in Dominic’s house and Tony Waldron’s house in Athenry. His family of eight sons were reared at this stage and Bill had more time for music.

With much encouragement from flute player / singer Sean Flanagan, Bill entered the All-Ireland Melodeon Competition in 1991. He won this and became All-Ireland Champion Melodeon Player. This was an extraordinary feat for a musician who had put aside the melodeon for nearly forty years. Bill is quite sure of the qualities of good traditional music. He says that he likes sweet music with good rhythm. “I’d know a good accordion player in two ticks”, says Bill with his usual charm, “before he’d have the bellows in and out twice”. Today his favourite accordion players include Jackie Daly, Charlie Harris ,Sharon Shannon, Mary Staunton and Charlie Piggott. He attends local sessions regularly in the King John bar in Athenry on Monday nights, Hollands Briar Wednesday nights and in Gort. He often takes the floor for a rousing Galway Set on these occasions.

We talked, laughed and played until the early hours. Time seemed to have stood still in Bill’s kitchen. Whether twenty years old or eighty years old the important things in life are still the same for Bill O’Toole.

His love for family and friends, good music, song and an “ould set” remain the same. This love shines through every note of his music, making Bill one of the most respected and loved musicians in Galway today.

“When thro’ life unblest we rove,
Losing all that made life dear,
Should notes we used to love,
In days of boyhood, meet our ear,
Oh, how welcome breathes the strain!
Wakening thoughts that long have slept,
Kindling former smiles again,
In faded eyes that long have wept”.
(Thomas Moore)

Photos – Hayden Moore