John Lynch is the current leader of the famous Kilfenora Céilí Band. In fact, his family have a long and strong tradition when it comes to “the Kilfenora”, as he says himself.
His grandfather was one of the founding members of the band back in 1909. His father, aunt and uncle were all part of the next chapter of the band in the 50s and beyond.
John is a native of Kilfenora, Co Clare, although he now lives in Clarecastle, where we chat in his music room. Given his family’s musical prevalence, naturally John was immersed in music growing up.
His earliest memories are of sessions in the house. In his late teens he can remember going to pubs in Corofin with his father and other members of the band who played on a Sunday.
Although John played music growing up, football was firmly his first love then. Music didn’t become the passion it is today until playing football was almost out of the picture.
John is now the banjo player with the Kilfenora Céilí Band. Interestingly though, he actually started out on the fiddle and only took up the banjo at the age of 23. Fittingly he was inspired by a member of the Kilfenora Céilí Band at the time.
“Jim Ward was the banjo player with the band in the 50s, 60s and 70s. He was a flute player first though for the 20s, 30s and 40s, but then because of ill health, he had to give up the flute and he went onto the banjo,” John explains.
“My interest in the banjo came from that. I took up the banjo around 23 or so and continued to play it. I was teaching in Kildare at that stage.”
John continued working as a teacher in Kildare and playing music. In 1991 a new chapter of the Kilfenora Céilí Band was to begin. Unbeknownst to him, the catalyst for this was John attending the All-Ireland Fleadh that year.
“I remember being at the Fleadh in Sligo in 1991. I went to see the band competition and there were no Clare bands in the final that time,” he says. “This was August now, I said to myself, when I go home at midterm break I’ll try put a band together for competition.
“So we put a band together, Christmas of 1991. We entered the Fleadh in 1992 for the first time, so the present manifestation of the band entered competition again for the first time. We got second to the Bridge Céilí Band that year. Then in ’93, ’94 and ’95 we won the All-Ireland, three years in a row. That would have emulated what my father and those did in the 1950s.”
It was just a high time in our lives
The last of their three in a row marked a particularly special year for John. In 1995 he and his wife moved back to Clare from Kildare, the Kilfenora completed their three-in-a-row, the band played on Up for the Match and Clare won the hurling All-Ireland to top it all off!
“It was just a high time in our lives,” John recalls. “I was a younger man then. To emulate what the generation before you did was something special. My father, uncle and aunt were part of that band who won the three in a row in the 50s. When you recreate that as a son there’s something special about it.”
Onwards and upwards
With their competition wins in the bag, the popularity of this new chapter of the Kilfenora grew and grew. And their star is still on the rise 30 years later.
“I didn’t expect to be sitting down here in 30 years talking about the Kilfenora, to be honest with you,” John smiles. “We were just going to go in, go for the competition and see how we got on.”
After 1995 the band were in demand. The decision was, whether the band would play on a commercial basis or not. John decided that if they were going to play commercially it would be as a 10-piece band, as the Kilfenora always was. They weren’t going to split into smaller groups to play.
“The Kilfenora always had a big sound and that’s the way we were going to continue. It just took off and we were playing for céilís mainly at that stage. We played for céilís all over the place. We went to England and America.”
In 2002 the band released their album Live in Lisdoonvarna. It went on to win traditional album of the year. As part of the prize they got to play a couple of numbers in the National Concert Hall (NCH). At the time John asked Catherine Kirby, the lady who arranged the concerts at the NCH, would she keep them in mind as a support act for somebody sometime.
“A year or two later she rang me and said, ‘John, I’ve kept you in mind and we’re going to do a concert with the Kilfenora, but we’re going to do a full concert.’ Now, that frightened the life out of me.
“I was mentally prepared to go in and do support for somebody for a quarter of an hour or 20 minutes, start to get the feel of the concert situation, but here we were, landed with a full concert in the concert hall.
I rang Garry Shannon and I said, ‘Garry, we’ve a bit of a problem here. We’re after getting a full concert in the concert hall. What are we going to do?’” John laughs at the memory.
John need not have worried, the concert went down very, very well. A new element of the band was born. They had added a new string to their bow.
For the band’s centenary in 2009 they played the NCH again and have been selling it out regularly ever since.
Concerts presented a new challenge for the band. Having primarily played for dancers at céilís, they now needed to suit a sit-down concert audience. They added singers to the band, expanded out their instruments to include a bass, cello and viola.
Dancers also came onboard, including Michael Donnellan who was a lead in Lord of the Dance. He was succeeded by his own students, the Gardiner Brothers, who went on to dance in Riverdance.
You have to be successful in your own time
The Kilfenora went from being purely a céilí band to adding concerts and then shows to their repertoire. They went on to play the Lincoln Centre in New York and Glastonbury twice.
“The band’s sound had changed to suit the concert situation and we were evolving,” John says. “I feel the longevity of the Kilfenora is because of its ability to adapt to social times around it. When we go on stage now, we’re not the same as my father’s band, but at the same time we like to stay true to our tradition.
“We always know our roots. My father’s band, they branched out and had singers, like that because they would have been against the showbands. They had to adapt and we had to adapt in the same way. You have to be successful in your own time.”
Having grown greatly from where they began, the band still remember their roots to this day. The current chapter started at the Fleadh in 1992 and this Saturday 6 August the band will return to this year’s Fleadh in Mullingar and play a concert in the Cathedral of Christ the King.
On that night John is being presented with the Mike Flanagan banjo award.
Unassuming and down-to-earth as ever, John says: “I feel very humbled by it, to be honest. I feel like there are people out there who are much more deserving of it than I. I feel like the reason I’m probably getting it is because of the band and the association with the band.”
they have been there for each other through thick and thin
All of the current members have a Clare connection. Eight members are from the Banner, with the other two now residing there.
Of the band that won the All-Ireland at the Fleadh in 1995, seven of the original 10 members are still in the band. As many of the band members are also music teachers, they have a good grasp of young musicians and who would be suitable for the band.
As a rule of thumb, if a band member needs to be replaced, they must be younger than the youngest current member. The goal being that the band will keep rejuvenating and reinventing itself.
John describes the band as being like a family, saying that they have been there for each other through thick and thin.
“The band has experienced it all - births, marriages, deaths - the whole lot and we’ve all been around for each other and it bonds us even closer. We’ve always been supportive of each other. It’s special. It’s like a family really.
“We’re just ordinary Irish people who love our traditional music. When we go out then as the Kilfenora, we remember where we come from – Kilfenora, Clare and Ireland, and we’re proud of it. That’s the way we are and that’s the way we play. It has stood the test of time in a certain way. We love it, that’s why we’ve spent so much time on it.
“I’m a privileged man, because we’ve had lovely times. I get an award every night the minute I go up and I play with the lads. They’ve been around me all my life and when I hear them playing around me, I just love being with them.”
John Lynch has certainly taken on and driven on tradition, that’s for sure.