inFluence Feature Friday: Denis Murphy & Julia Clifford

Heyo, Ivy Leaf fans! It’s Friday, and that would generally mean it’s a Friend Feature Friday. Caroline pointed our ears toward Dylan Foley last time; his debut album is pretty mighty fiddle playing. Sadly for me, I haven’t got so many friends as I’ve got influences from recorded music. It’s a bit of an odd way to go about learning Irish music, which is so social, but I get a lot of my style and repertoire from archival recordings of players often dead half a century. So instead of Friend Feature Friday, today will be…err, inFluence Feature Friday? (We’ll figure it out.)

I’d like to show you guys the music of two fantasic fiddle players: Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford. Denis and Julia were actually siblings, the children of Bill Murphy of Lisheen. Bill Murphy was a member of the Lisheen Fife and Drum corps, back in the day, but Denis and Julia both learned fiddle-playing from Padraig o’Keeffe, the last of the traveling fiddle-masters in the Sliabh Luachra area. Padraig had a style very much unlike the standard style in Kerry and Cork. Although he did have a sly rhythmic pulse which we know to characterize Sliabh Luachra music, he was known for playing at a relatively slow place, somewhat reflectively, with rich double-stops and very pitch-sensitive ornamentation (he had at least three very distinct ways of playing an ‘f’ note, for instance). Padraig was also famous for playing slow airs on the fiddle, with great focus on the vocal quality of the music. So between these two influences, Denis and Julia received the swinging dance music of Kerry (polkas, slides, and hornpipes), some of the unusual and archaic fife-and-drum tunes (marches, single jigs, and barndances), and some of the beautiful song airs of home and abroad (local productions, like o’Rahilly’s Grave, or continental pieces like The Wounded Hussar).

Denis moved to New York for a while, and Julia to London, but both returned to Ireland in the 60’s, Denis for good (he sadly died in 1974, still quite young at 64). “The Star Above the Garter” was recorded in 1969, while Julia was visiting from England. It’s a paradoxical kind of album - not everyone would recognize it, or even the names of Denis and Julia, but it’s immensely influential, and many of the tunes (and even the sets) have been standards around the world ever since. If you’ve ever played “the Knocknabower polkas” or “the Ballydesmond polkas,” it’s because of this album, along with a host of other great tunes. If you start the Galtee Rangers in a session, chances are 10 to 1 that people will naturally follow with the Glentaun Reel and o’Keeffe’s Post Office, one of the classic “Denis and Julia” sets.

When I first started playing Irish music - literally, my first lesson! - my teacher made me a copy of Star Above the Garter. I’ve never been able to shake Kerry music since, and every time I hear it, I feel quite at home. Even the West Clare musicians whom I most admire - Nell Galvin, Patrick Kelly, John Kelly - had strong ties to Sliabh Luachra. Many fiddle players (Caoimhin o’Raghallaigh most vocally) have been influenced by the album, along with box players and musicians of all ilk, whether they may realize it or no! It’s a classic recording; any Irish musician alive in the 60s and 70s would know it. So take my advice, tootle over to iTunes and have a go.



The Ivy Leaf is a young Boston-based traditional Irish band featuring fiddles, flute & whistle, concertina, bouzouki & guitar and vocals. Their debut album was released in 2012.

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