From Clare to Canberra: The Jack Canny Story Part 1-Threads

I used to think that a 100 years was a long time – ancient history. Now that I have just passed my own half century, I see it differently – close, not that far away, with threads that weave my own history into that time.

There is a reverberation, an echo from down the years, a depth of influence that County Clare has had, and is still having on, Canberra Irish musicians and dancers, like myself.

I was first alerted to this connection in 2004, when my husband Martin and I stepped into a King O’Malleys pub music session in Canberra on a Sunday night, for the first time. We looked at each other in surprise “Sounds just like the Tulla” we said, almost in unison. It was like an instant trip back to Clare – eerie and beautiful.

Music session at King O'Malleys, Canberra

Pete Hobson, Sue Hobson and Mark Tandy at King O’Malleys session. Photo: N.Stewart

The first time I heard that sound was at the Willie Clancy Festival, Co.Clare in 1999. I was dancing sets with Martin, my then (very) new boyfriend, to the Tulla Céilí Band in The Mill, as it was known then. The band has a very distinct sound – sweet, soft and lyrical with just the right amount of lift for dancing- very addictive but also an experience that envelopes you, cocoons –I have written more about this.

Years later, having just arrived down from Dublin for the 2003 Willie Clancy Festival, we pushed our way into the very small, extremely noisy Queallys bar and managed to get a seat on a bench. I happened to glance down at our neighbour and noticed he was wearing a pair of Blundstone boots. Mmmm, definitely not Irish. I commented on the boots and we got chatting. Yes, he’s Australian and where from? Canberra? How amazing. We told our new friend, David Game, of our plans to emigrate/return next year and that we wanted to start a set dancing class – were there any musicians? “Sure” said David “we have great Irish music in Canberra.” Little did I know!

I first became aware of Jack Canny at a 2006 presentation at the National Library of Australia,  made by local musicians Adrian (Ado) Barker and Ben Stephenson (photo below) about their research and influences, including Jack. The first track on their joint album Undertones is titled Jack Canny’s Reels Rolling in the Ryegrass /Julie Delaney’s /The Beauties of Limerick.

Enda Cathain, Adrian Barker and Ben Stephenson : NLA presentation 2006. Photo: N.Stewart

Adrian Barker, Ben Stephenson and Enda Cathain : NLA presentation 2006. Photo: N.Stewart

And, as chance would have it, our friend David Game of the boots that we met in Queallys, and his wife Jenny Gall both not only knew Jack pretty well, but Jenny had interviewed him and we have the recordings of these oral histories to gain some insight into the man and his early life*. Jack Canny provided a missing piece to the puzzle of how that sound came to be part of the Canberra music-playing style.

What makes this story so poignant for me is the idea that Jack was like a time capsule – all that music he had absorbed as a youngster, waiting for the right time,the right situation to be unleashed. And I think of migrants and others in the world, who have a latent talent or knowledge, just waiting to be unlocked, like a seed waiting for rain.

Jack Canny Mark Tandy and Sue Hobson

Jack Canny playing with Sue Hobson and Mark Tandy circa 1975. Photo: M.Tandy

And lucky for us, that time came when the folk music revival was in full swing in the 1970’s, and there was lots of interest in Irish folk music. Canberra was in the grip of folk fever, and when it became known that the brother of the very famous Irish fiddler Paddy Canny, was actually living on the doorstep, Jack was quickly located and gradually met and played with all the local musicians we now know – Mark Tandy, Sue Hobson, Pete Hobson, Libby Conrick,  Richard Conrick, David Game, Jenny Gall, Pete Woodley, Kevin Bradley and others. Jack said* on meeting them:

”They played some of the tunes I played in my younger days and I thought, well, I’d better make a start, and that’s what started me off, otherwise I’d never have picked it up again, but it took me a long time to get back, it took me years to get back. Every tune that I’d ever learned, I’d forgot it.”

But what he hadn’t forgotten was that distinctive East Clare style of playing music which he had unwittingly soaked up as a boy, and that was his great gift to Canberra.

Canberra Irish musicians playing at the Not Just Ned exhibition, NMA 2011

Playing for dancers at the Not Just Ned (Ned Kelly) exhibition in 2011. Our talent L-R: David Game, Jacqui Bradley, Kevin Bradley, Pete Hobson, Sue Hobson, Mark Tandy and Dave O’Neill. Photo: NMA 2011.

NEXT: Part 2: About Jack Canny & Part 3: The Jack Canny Half Set

Nora Stewart
Irish Bliss
irish bliss globe of world flags

*Jack Canny interview source by Dr.Jennifer Gall, NLA, 25 July 1991. Thanks to Dr.Helen O’Shea for her assistance with this information.

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