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Martin Junior Crehan by Ita Crehan

Junior Crehan and Micho Russell
Junior Crehan & Micho Russell, Miltown Malbay, 1975

Junior Crehan, a farmer, was born in 1908 at Bonavilla, in the town land of Ballymakea, Mullagh, parish of Kilmurry Ibrickane, Co. Clare. He was the third of ten children born to Martin Crehan – ‘The Master’ and Margaret ‘Baby’ Scanlon. Although Junior did not follow the path ‘The Master’ had wished for him, which was a position in the bank, he was happy to see him working the land, and took great pride in Junior’s music and accomplishments and in later years enjoyed nothing better than a visit from Junior and Cissie with their children to entertain him and Baby with a session of music. He particularly requested set-dance tunes and hornpipes, while Baby had a preference for reels and jigs. Junior’s own preference would have been for Slow Airs. ‘The Master’ in turn would contribute to the entertainment with a song.

Junior began learning music on the tin whistle and concertina at the age of 6 from his mother. Later he learned to play the fiddle from well-known and respected fiddle players John Scully (Bobby Casey’s father) and Thady Casey who lived close by. All music was transmitted aurally. The Limerick dancing master Pat Barron taught him step-dancing and dance tunes. Junior was a keen step dancer and set dancer, storyteller and singer with a vast repertoire. He absorbed the many facets of tradition, becoming an accomplished fiddle and concertina player, composer of tunes and songs, which relate to local happenings and personalities such as Scully Casey and Willie Clancy. Junior was a great advocate of folklore. He had a great love of the Irish language with a special interest in traditional songs. He remembered the time when the few Irish books they had in the school had to be hidden before the inspector’s visit. From early childhood he absorbed a broad range of folk tradition and always said the country house was his workshop and school.

Johnny Doran, the great traveling piper was a frequent visitor to West Clare and Junior remembered being collected by Johnny in the horse and cart and playing all day with him at Feiseanna and Sports Meetings. Junior was very fortunate to meet Cissie Walsh. They married on St. Patrick’s Day in 1941. She was a strong and constant support to him and shared the same interest and enthusiasm in Irish traditional music, song and dance. Cissie also came from a musical background and played the fiddle and concertina, but had put them aside while rearing their family of five children. However, she continued to promote set dancing and pass on the tradition. Their children, Tony, Angela, Ita, Pat and Margaret began playing music and absorbing a love of the culture from an early age.

The Dance Hall Act in 1936 brought to an end the country house dances which had a devastating effect on Junior. Later, in the local pubs in which he played, he saw the opportunity to recreate the format and ambience of the old county house dances and in particular in Gleeson’s family pub in Coore where he played for a period spanning 70 years. His undaunting spirit and love of his culture and music found in Gleesons a replacement for what had been denied to the country people. He traveled the length and breadth of County Clare playing at American wakes, soirées (wrenboy dances), country house dances, sports, feiseanna, crossroad dances, weddings, strawboys and concerts. As the revival of Irish music was developing, sessions became more popular in the pubs. Junior was much in demand for these occasions. Junior, Scully Casey (fiddles) and John Fennell (flute) played as a trio in one of the first broadcasts on Radio Éireann in 1934. This programme was recorded in Miltown Malbay and transmitted from the Athlone studio. As they arrived to record Scully remarked, ‘we’ll burst the megaphone lads’ and they did. Comhaltas Ceoltóiri Éireann (C.C.É) was very valued by him, for its parts in the revival of Irish music and subsequently he became involved in the founding of the Miltown Malbay Branch in 1953, followed, in 1954, by the formation of the Laichtín Naofa Céilí Band, under the skilful direction of the late Seán Reid. This band was Oireachtas Gold Medal winner in 1956 and celebrated their success by playing for a Céilí at the Mansion House, Dublin. The band continued to flourish until 1962. Under the watchful eye of Junior and his sister-in-law Tessie Walsh, an under-16 band, ‘Briseadh na Lice’, was formed and competed at fleadhanna ceoil with many successes. This band consisted of Junior’s own children, M. Hehir, M. Sexton, T. Crehan and A. Vaughan. Junior himself competed successfully at many Comhaltas competitions and also won an All-Ireland Medal for composition in Mullingar 1953. He subsequently adjudicated at Fleadhanna Ceoil, at county, regional and all-Ireland level. He also performed at Arts Festivals throughout Ireland and at other venues including Liberty Hall, Dublin. He was a constant supporter of An Fleadh Nua and The Merriman School.

Junior at the Merriman Summer School in Lahinch in 1977
Junior (centre) at the Merriman Summer School in Lahinch in 1977 with Ciaran MacMathuna (left) and Barney Higgins (right). Photo: Michael John Glynne

The untimely death of Willie Clancy in 1973 brought about the foundation of Scoil Éigse Willie Clancy (Willy Clancy Summer School) to commemorate Willie’s contribution to tradition. Junior was one of the founding members and held the positions of President and Treasurer of the Scoil Éigse Committee until his death in 1998. He taught and performed at this event, always promoting the West Clare style of fiddle playing.

In 1976 Junior was a member of the Irish group of musicians, singers and dancers selected by The Smithsonian Institution of Washington D.C. to represent Ireland, a part of the Bi-Centennial celebrations in the U.S.A. In 1984 he participated in The Battersea Arts Festival in London and was invited with Eamon McGivney to adjudicate the ‘Fiddler of London’ competition. Junior enjoyed traveling, which was an experience for people of his generation, always in the knowledge that he would return home.

Many honours were bestowed on Junior in his later years. On his 80th birthday in 1988 The Arts Council of Ireland commissioned a portrait by the distinguished artist Brian Bourke. Junior’s brothers Vincie and Ger also paid special tributes to him on this occasion with presentations of a book containing manuscripts of his musical compositions from Vincie and his family, and a special poem in his honour from Ger, with a CD of personal recordings of him.

Being awarded ‘The Clare Person of the Year’ in 1989 by the Clareman’s Association, Dublin, was clearly a truly fine tribute to a most distinguished son of County Clare. Tributes were paid to him on this occasion by Cill Mhuire Ibrickane and Miltown Malbay branches of Comhaltas, Mullagh Development Association, Mullagh I.C.A. Guild and Peppers of Feakle, Co. Clare. For his 90th birthday in 1998 The Arts Council of Ireland repeated their tribute with another portrait, this time by the distinguished photographer Fergus Bourke. These complimentary portraits constitute recognition by The Arts Council of the importance of Junior’s lifelong contribution to the traditional arts in Ireland. Scoil Éigse Willie Clancy awarded him a painting by distinguished artist Robert McKnight. His own family, extended family and friends paid further tributes to him.

A number of articles have been written about Junior. In the 1997 edition of the ‘Dal gCais’ magazine an article ‘Junior Crehan Remembers’ was published. The 1998 and 1999 editions of Béaloideas contain the completed article ‘Junior Crehan of Bonavilla’. Many young students have worked on projects about Junior and his music.

A number of his musical compositions have been widely recorded by other musicians. His composition ‘The Mist Covered Mountain’ (Jig) was the signature tune on Clare FM traditional music programme for a number of years. His vast range of folk stories, music, songs and compositions are preserved in The Department of Irish Folklore in University College, Dublin.

He was no stranger to the media having performed on RTÉ, Radio na Gaeltachta, TG4 and Clare FM. Junior and Cissie, invited by Ciarán MacMathúna, participated in the documentary ‘The Fires of St. John’ which was an entry to the Golden Harp Film Festival.

Musicians traveled from all over Ireland and many parts of the world, to hear him, learn from him, play with him and record him. Junior and Cissie had an open house and a Céad Míle Fáilte for all who visited – be they family, friends or strangers, young or old.

While Junior gave of his talents, Cissie provided sustenance. Junior was an outstanding and caring family man. He was humble, gentle, and quietly spoken and a keen listener. His roguish sense of humour showered light and joy on many a gathering. His mind was razor sharp and his keen wit and turn of phrase diffused many a serious situation. His philosophy in life was, ‘Never do to anyone what you would not like to have done to yourself’.

Junior lived through many great world events – The War of Independence, The Civil War, World Wars I & II, and many other tragic happenings. Emigration was rife during his early years. He saw his three brothers and one sister leave their homeland. His eldest brother Mike emigrated in 1926. Junior was next to go, having received his passage from Mike. However, he gave his ticket to his younger brother Tom, as he could not bear to leave the land. Working on this land and being so close to nature was the source of inspiration for many of his compositions. He regularly sent cassette tape recordings of his fiddle playing to his family in America. America’s loss was Ireland’s gain.

Junior respected, listened and learned from the generation who went before him. He, in turn, gave generously of his talents and knowledge, always emphasizing the importance of handing down our traditions, and advised, ‘that anybody who has a song, a tune, a story or a dance should pass them on and not bring them to the grave’. He was of the generation of musicians who enjoyed playing for the sheer love of it and to give pleasure to others – that generation who neither sought praise nor monetary rewards.

Is mór an oidhreacht a d’fhág Junior ina dhiaidh. Leaba is measc na naomh dó fhéin agus dá cháirde go léir. I líontaibh Dé go gcastar sinn.

Ita Crehan.
Copyright of Ita Crehan, taken from ‘The Last House in Ballymakea’ CD sleeve.

Music of Clare Project:
Music featuring Martin Junior Crehan

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