I am the steward of the fingers
Soldiers, march to every beat
While I watch you, we’ll make music
Dance the strings like little feet.

Though the years are heavy on us
Lo, the tunes more ancient be
There are spirits here among us
Give them voice, and set them free.

© Cathy Larson Sky 10/13/2005


Traditional Irish music suits me to a “T” because I love everything old. My house is full of mementos: my grandfather’s radio, my great-grandmother’s armchair, rose-painted teacups and vintage dolls. I don’t see these things as old. I see them as rich -- rich with memories, with history, and beauty.

Traditional Irish tunes hold the same pleasure for me; they are like stones that get their beautiful shape from mingling with other stones at the ocean’s edge. Each is unique; each tells its own story.

I learned how to play the fiddle first from my husband Patrick, who is an Uilleann piper. For this reason, my playing uses a lot of piping accents and ornaments. Though I have studied with many fiddle players, the one whose music is my deepest inspiration is Tony Linnane from Corofin, County Clare, who was my teacher during 1982 while I was living in Ireland. Other teachers living in America whom I admire are James Kelly, Willie Kelly, and Martin Hayes. All of these players have a connection to what is called the Clare style of Irish fiddling.

I have a Master's Degree in Folklore from UNC Chapel Hill. My thesis was on generational change in the music of County Clare. I like to talk music almost as much as playing it and hope to use this slot on the website to vent some of my opinions and knowledge. Below is information about the different styles of Irish traditional fiddling. I hope to post a discography and some musical links at a later date (stay tuned), but for now, scroll down to find out about lessons and some background on regional styles.



As a fiddle teacher, I try to stick to the old fashioned
way of teaching by ear. I play a phrase until the student
grasps it, and then we go on to the next phrase, building
until we have the whole tune. Sometimes students ask for
a written guide, and we use tabulature, a sort of graph for
where to put fingers on the string, rather than written music.


My goal for my students is sheer enjoyment of playing Irish traditional tunes. Irish music is social music. Much of the joy of music is sharing it with others, so once a month students have a chance to meet, listen, eat potluck, and play tunes here at my home or the home of other students.


I teach in my home in Spruce Pine, NC on weekday afternoons and evenings, and prefer one-hour lessons.


I expect students to show up with a playable instrument with good strings on it. (It is helpful to have your ‘rig’ updated by someone at a music store, if it has been lying around for a while unplayed).

I expect students to show up at their lesson having learned the tune from the previous lesson.

I expect students to give me at least 24 hours notice if they can’t make their lesson.


• A blank audiocassette to be used in my cassette recorder, or your own recording device (digital, etc.) You’ll also need a way of playing back lessons at home. When we finish learning a tune, I record it for students slowly so he or she can practice along with it.
• Rosin
• Tuning fork or electronic tuner
• A sense of humor


I charge different rates depending upon frequency of lessons. I am willing to negotiate fees on a sliding scale or to barter with dedicated students who are on a tight budget.

• Once a week, regularly: $25.00 an hour
• Biweekly: $30.00 an hour
• Drop-in, unscheduled: $30.00 hour
• Reserved spot (for people whose professions demand travel): $35.00 an hour.


I prefer to teach adults and mature children with some background experience (would love if you can play a scale or two, know how to hold the violin). However, I am willing to offer lessons on a trial basis to motivated beginners who have a good ear if they demonstrate that they are connecting with the process. I recommend to moms and dads that they start out their very young ones with a good Suzuki teacher to learn basic violin skills before they attempt to learn a folk fiddling style like Irish traditional.


I can be reached at (828) 765-6628 or at   cathylarsonsky@hotmail,com


Players of Old Time music are familiar with regional styles. For instance, they may favor Kentucky tunes, or the music of Round Peak, NC. The style is often defined by influential players of the region, one whom local musicians like to emulate, or from whom they take certain licks -- ways of bowing, phrasing, ornamenting their tunes. Style often includes a certain body of tunes that are popular in a given region, a distinctive repertoire. During my fieldwork in County Clare, Ireland, for my master's in Folklore, I discovered that favorite tunes can become that way because of their link with dancing. A tune may have a pattern that encourages rhythmic improvisation for dancers. In Clare style sean-nos (old fashioned) set dancing, there is a tradition of battering, in which men strike the floor with flat-footed outbursts of percussive exuberance. This pattern may often fall in the end part of the tune phrase, or be distributed throughout the melody. "Over the Moor to Maggie," a reel, is an example of such a tune, as is "The Woman of the House."

In Ireland, during the 1950s, a composer named Sean O'Riada traveled to rural counties with John Kelly, Sr, a fiddler from Clare who moved to Dublin and befriended musicians from all over the country who flocked to his music and hardware shop there. O'Riada wrote a booklet from these journeys for an Irish Radio RTE series called "Our Musical Heritage." Kelly knew many players in the Western counties, and from hearing those musicians, O'Riada put together a definition of regional stlyles that survives to this day. At that time, people thought that these styles were the result of the times when people from a certain area were unable to travel very much, before the time of the motorcar and before recordings brought outside influences into their music circles. I have learned that there was more traveling by foot, horse cart, bicycle, and boat than one might think during the old days, and people went great distances to fairs and markets. As well, traveling dancing masters went around Ireland, distributing their knowledge and music across regional lines. So the idea of pure regional styles must be taken with a grain of salt. Also, within a region there may be pockets of players with very different approaches than what is commonly thought of as their home style.

The main fiddle styles identified by O'Riada include:

Donegal, or Northern Fiddling: Because of the link with Scots populations and the influence of the Scots War Pipes in the music of Donegal, the style includes many tunes that stay in the one-octave range of the Scots pipes. (The Irish, Uilleann pipes have two full octaves, in contrast.)The bowing can be quite sharp and the pace is usually fast and bright, with a love of verve and energy. It is the style most closely linked to the Old Time music of the American South. Ornamentation is fairly easy going, with sharp, staccato bowed triplets being the main feature.

Kerry: A music of whirlwind rhythms and unpretentious phrasing, favoring Polkas and Slides, from the influence of many years of social dancing. Padraig O'Keefe, a retired schoolteacher, was the traveling dance master and fiddling teacher of the region and is remembered today as the grandaddy of Kerry music.

Clare: A style of fiddling with emphasis on embellishment and enjoyment of melody, often in an emotive, expressive way. Rolls and grace notes abound. However, there is an interesting divide between West and East Clare styles of fiddling. Western players tend to be quicker and more dance oriented, influenced by the traveling Limerick dance master Pat Barron. In East Clare, a player named Johnny Allen from the late 1900s made popular among his students a "sweet" style of playing in which the melody is taken slowly, savored, and highly ornamented. The popular fiddler Martin Hayes is the third generation link in this chain of evocative East Clare players.

Sligo: Similar to Clare playing in its embellishment, Sligo playing is a great deal more flamboyant and polished: a true performance music. The Sligo fiddler Michael Coleman emigrated to the United States and made an indelible mark on the music in New York and back in Ireland during the 1920s when his playing was recorded and sent "back home" on 78 records. Coleman played for concert halls, and could dance while playing. To this day, New York Sligo players are practiced, meticulous performance players, though through the fiddling of older generation players like Martin Wynne, it is obvious that the older, pre-Coleman layers of Sligo music were much more laid back, similar to Clare and Galway music.

Galway: To be honest, I can't recall if O'Riada mentioned Galway music, but in recent years I have learned about it from players like Mike Casey, Mike Rafferty, Father Charlie and Jack Coen. The music of especially East Galway has a similar expressive approach to Clare's, with a fondness for rolling, graceful rhythms. Some of the great composers of our times have come from this area, producing tunes that venture into unexpected modes and moods: Paddy Fahey, Sean Ryan, Eddie Moloney, Father Kelly, Tommy Coen.

I may be imagining it, but I can hear the influence of the ocean in Clare and Galway music, a sort of nature spirit that permeates them, giving them a flowing and surging quality. Playing this way is pleasing because I feel I am sharing something other than notes with people, speaking in a universal language of tone and feeling.

I plan to post a discography of music pointing to players who exemplify the influence of these regional styles. But another day! Just a quick summary: Donegal--Altan. Clare--Martin Hayes, James Kelly. Kerry--Julia Clifford. Sligo: Brian Conway. Galway: Mike and Mary Rafferty.

A great resource for traditional Irish music in this country is Ossian USA. They have a webpage and a huge roster of recordings, books, and video. Charlie and Mary Lou Philbin are also fun to talk to on the phone. Great folks!




This list is meant to supplement a slide and lecture workshop Patrick and I gave in Durham, NC early in October, 2008. The readings range from scholarly to popular. I have put the most readable and contemporary books on the top of the list. Many have great photos. This is a partial list, branching out from topics we touched in our workshop.


Carson, Ciaran. 1996. Last Night’s Fun. London: Jonathan Cape. (creative nonfiction)

Curtis, P.J. 1994. Notes From the Heart: A Celebration of Irish Traditional Music. Dublin: Torc, Poolbeg Enterprises, Ltd. (Clare players in particular)

Feldman, Allen and Eamonn O'Doherty. 1979. The Northern Fiddler. Belfast: Blackstaff
Press Limited. (Donegal fiddlers)

MacNamara, Christy and Peter Woods. 1997. The Heartbeat of Irish Music.
Dublin: The O’Brien Press Ltd. (creative nonfiction).

Mac Aoidh, Caoimhín, 1994. Between the Jigs and the Reels. County Leitrim,Ireland:Drumlin Publications. (Musicians of Northern Ireland, foreword by Tommy Peoples)

Vallely, Fintan and Charlie Piggot. 1998. The Blooming Meadows: The World of Irish Traditional Musicians. Dublin: Town House and Country House. (Musician profiles).


Gmelch, Sharon, ed. 1982. Irish Life and Traditions. New York: Syracuse University
Kissane, Noel, ed. 1995. The Irish Famine: A Documentary History. Dublin: National Library of Ireland.
Moody, T. W. and F. X. Martin. 1984. The Course of Irish History. Cork: Mercier Press.
(This is a comprehensive view of 2000 years of Irish history – written in segments for a television series in Ireland.)


*Breathnach, Brendán. 1963. Ceol Rince na hÉireann: Cuid 1. Dublin: Oifig an

_____. 1976. Ceol Rince na hÉireann: Cuid 2. Dublin: Oifig an tSoláthair.

_____. 1985. Ceol Rince na hÉireann: Cuid 3. Dublin: An Gúm. (*At least two other tunebooks are published)

Bunting, Edward. 1796, 1809, 1840 (Reprinted 1969). The Ancient Music of Ireland.
3 vols in 1. Dublin: Walton's, Ltd.

Carolan, Nicholas. 1997. A Harvest Saved: Francis O’Neill and Irish Music in Chicago.
Cork: Ossian Publications.

Lynch, Larry. 1991. Set Dances of Ireland: Tradition & Evolution. Second Edition.
San Francisco: Séadna Books.

O' Neill, Captain Francis. 1907 (Reprinted 1965). The Dance Music of Ireland: 1001
. Dublin: Walton's Musical Instrument Galleries.

_____. 1910 (Reprinted 1978). Irish Folk Music: A Fascinating Hobby. Darby,
P. A. : Norwood Editions.

_____. 1913 (Reprinted 1973). Irish Minstrels and Musicians. Darby, P. A. :
Norwood Editions.

Petrie, George. 1855, 1882 (Reprinted 1967). Ancient Music of Ireland. 2 vols in 1.
Lexington, M. A. : Gregg International.


Breathnach, Brendan. 1971 (Revised edition 1977). Folk Music and Dances of Ireland.
Dublin and Cork: Mercier Press. (Widely considered the definitive work)

Grattan-Flood, W. H. 1905. (Reprinted 1970). A History of Irish Music. Shannon:
Irish University Press.

Cowdery, James R. 1990. The Melodic Tradition of Ireland. Ohio: Kent University

Ó Canainn, Tomás. 1978. Traditional Music in Ireland. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Ó Riada, Séan. 1982. Our Musical Heritage. Portlaoise, Ireland: Cahill Printers Limited
for The Dolmen Press.



SEMINAL RECORDINGS: late 1970s, early 1980s
These musicians rode the crest of the wave during the early traditional dance music revival. Their sounds are embued with freshness and excitement. I’ve chosen solo, duet, or small ensemble recordings. These recordings are all great foundations for building your listening vocabulary of Irish music. Some of them have titles, others simply bear the name of the artists. Some of my code numbers are probably obsolete because they came from the days of audiocassette and LP. I’m sure you’ll find these classics, anyway, from Ossian USA or by going directly to the distributors, like Shanachie and Green Linnet. An amazing number of these can be ordered on Amazon.

*Noel Hill and Tony Linnane. (fiddle and concertina from Clare) TARA 2006

*Mary Bergin: Feodoga Stain. (tin whistle) SHANACHIE 79006

*Frankie Gavin and Alec Finn. (fiddle and bouzouki) SHANACHIE 29008

*Matt Molloy, Paul Brady, and Tommy Peoples: (fiddle, wooden flute, bouzouki) GREEN LINNET GLCD 3018

Kathleen Collins:(fiddle) SHANACHIE 29002

*Paddy Glackin and Paddy Keenan: Doublin’. TARA 2007

Dennis Murphy and Julia Clifford: The Star Above the Garter: Fiddle Music from Kerry.

Seamus Ennis: Seamus Ennis: Forty Years of Irish Piping. GREEN LINNET 1448

Tommy Reck: The Stone in the Field (Irish piping) GREEN LINNET SIF 1008

*Joe Ryan/Eddie Clark: Crossroads. (fiddle and harmonica) GREEN LINNET GL 1030

Brian Conway and Tony DeMarco: The Apple in Winter: Irish Musicians in New York.
(fiddles) GREEN LINNET SIF 1035

*Tommy Peoples: High Part of the Road (with Paul Brady). (Ireland’s master fiddler) SHANANCHIE 29003

*Kevin Burke: If the Cap Fits. (fiddle) GREEN LINNET GL3009

Andy McGann and Paddy Reynolds. (classic NY fiddle duet) SHANACHIE 29004

You can’t miss with any of the above beauties. If you are not a piping fan as of now, try at least one. I’ve starred my personal must-haves – the ones that most set me on fire!

BEST OF THE 90s and 2000s (IMHO):
Because I love Clare music so much, many of these have the Clare connection. I’ve starred the ones that do.

Maeve Donnelly and Peadar O’Loughlin: *The Thing Itself. (fiddle and wooden flute)

P.J. Crotty and James Cullinan: *Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part. (fiddle and wooden flute)
Mail order website:

Mike and Mary Rafferty: The Road from Ballinakill. (button accordion and flute, some vocals, guest fiddler Willie Kelly) Larraga records, e-mail

James Kelly: *Melodic Journeys. (fiddle) e-mail

James Kelly: *Capel Street. (fiddle) BOWHAND RECORDS BOW 001

Tommy Keane and Jacqueline McCarthy: (Irish pipes and concertina) *The Wind Among the Reeds KELLS MUSIC KM 9505

Verena Cummins and Julie Langan: Fonnchaoi. (button accordion and fiddle, viola)

Kevin Griffin, Roger Burridge, Michael Shorrock, Quentin Cooper: Across the Pond.
(fiddle, banjo, bouzouki, bass) Island Graphics Music 9486

Gearóid Ó mAllmhuráin, Patrick Ourseau: *Tracin’. (concertina and fiddle) CELTIC CROSSINGS CC0299-02 website

Liz and Yvonne Kane: The Well Tempered Bow. (fiddling sisters from Galway)

Martin Hayes: (fiddle) *The Lonesome Touch. GREEN LINNET (???)

Mick O’Brien and Caoimh?n Ó Raghallaigh: Kitty Lie Over. (pipes and fiddle) ACM RECORDS ACM CD 102 THIS IS A SOLID GROOVE

Tommy Peoples: The Quiet Glen. (fiddle) Tommy Peoples Publishing (ask the Philbins at Ossian USA)

M?cheál Ó Raghallaigh: The Nervous Man. (concertina, various accompanists) MOR Music 001

Below is another “fourpack” cluster. I’m putting them together because each recording is related to the other, because this same bunch of musician/friends had a long history sharing music in Doolin, County Clare. Each one is full of sweetness and fun. I’ve played these cassettes so much I am afraid they’re going to break one of these days. If Ossian USA doesn’t have them, a website in Clare (google Custy’s Music Store) can perhaps supply you with information about these recordings. A couple are homegrown and aren’t on a specific label.

*Mary Custy/Eoin O’Neill -- With A lot of help from their friends. (fiddle, bouzouki, accordion, concertina, whistle, more) No publisher.

*Sharon Shannon. (button accordion with multiple other instruments) ROCC 8 SOLID RECORDS

*Kevin Griffin: Down in Doolin. (banjo, fiddle, guitar, bouzouki, accordion, more) No publisher

*Terry Bingham: (concertina, fiddle, banjo, bouzouki, more) Recorded at Harmony Row Studios, County Clare

There are so many great recordings. I will post more at another time, with different categories. But this is a start. All of these popped out at me and grabbed my attention. Some are sweet and some are rockin’, some lilting and light, but they all have the element of soulfulness and authenticity.