Sunday, April 21, 2024

Noel Battle: Keeping the traditional music flag flying high

Mullingar is the birthplace of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, and where the first All Ireland Fleadh took place seventy two years ago, in 1951, and the town is also the birthplace of a man, who, looking back the years, has definitely kept the traditional music flag flying high.  Higher in fact, than most others – because since winning a first All Ireland Fleadh title in 1960 at Under 18 level, Noel Battle went on to win a total of eleven senior All Ireland titles.

We don’t know of another Irish traditional musician from anywhere in Ireland or the world who has a comparable record, but those who have for so long enjoyed Noel’s skills on the mouth organ playing traditional music appreciate why – because they recognise his exceptional talents. Noel hasn’t competed in Fleadhanna for many years, but is playing as well as ever.

All his life, the quiet and unassuming Mullingar man has enjoyed playing and listening to traditional music, and has allowed his skills as a musician to speak for him. He can look back over the decades that have seen the world of traditional music grow hugely in popularity.  And in reminiscing, he has great memories of past fleadhanna and of great musicians and enjoyable times, and of making many long-time friends through music.

As far as Noel is concerned, he has no doubts about the future popularity and growth of Irish traditional music, and points out that even since last year’s highly successful All Ireland Fleadh in Mullingar, the numbers of young people playing Irish music has grown noticeably locally and elsewhere. And a lot of work is being done with the youth, to teach and assist them.

“The talents of young musicians today is amazing,” Noel says. When he was young, even finding adult musicians with such skills was uncommon. “Now, even in their early teens, they are remarkable. And there’s more young people playing than ever.  As I understand it, Comhaltas was founded because the future of Irish music at the time was not looking good, but all that has totally changed.”

Noel, a native of St. Brigid’s Terrace, Mullingar  is one of a big family, and recalls how his interest in Irish music began in their home, where traditional music was the only kind they heard. His father Paddy was a native of Sligo, who first came to the town when he was 18, and loved traditional music, going out of his way to meet traditional players and often invited them home.

Noel, recalled when he was young how well known Westmeath musician John Joe Gannon used to visit them, and another man – the one who probably influenced Noel the most –  was Mick Conroy from Clifden, Galway, who regularly came to visit. Mick, in the army, was a wildfowler like Paddy Battle, and after they’d come back from a day’s shooting, Mick would always play a few tunes on his mouth organ.  That was where Noel’s interest in the instrument began. And it was from listening to Mick, and being encouraged, that his self-taught musical talents emerged.  The Galway man afterwards went to England, where some rare recordings were made, and it is remarkable to hear the similarities in his style and skills in playing, with that of Noel Battle.

Another youthful  traditional musical influence came from a family also in St Brigid’s Terrace, the Healy’s, who were from Sligo. Railwayman Martin Healy was a great flute player, and his wife played the fiddle, and their daughters also played. As a child, Noel would sometimes visit to hear their music. One daughter, Maura, married the late Paddy Duffy, who loved traditional music, and for years, Paddy was the only person with a car, and was going to fleadhanna, and Noel travelled with him a number of times.

Paddy was at the first 1951 Fleadh, held in St. Mary’s Hall, Bishopsgate St., in conjunction with the long-running Feis Lár na hEireann.  As he heard it, Comhaltas was intended to be an extension of the Pipers’ Club, because of the great piper Sean Seery, who had local links, but Mrs. Moynihan suggested they needed to bring in other musicians, with not enough pipers in the area. And it was from there Comhaltas began.

One of Noel’s early memories is of being brought down to the Cusack Park dressing rooms, where there was music on Wednesday nights, with Martin Healy on concert flute, accordionist Michael Fox, Dick Hetherton on banjo-mandolin, and two other musicians, Nicholas Gaye and his sister Nancy Mulligan. “I remember being there with the late Aodán Moynihan and we’d play for an hour or so,” he recalled.

By train

Noel, whose own home is at Clonmore, went to his first All Ireland in 1960 by train, from Mullingar to Boyle, with his mother. He was 17, and at time there were no county fleadhanna to qualify – you just sent in an entry and went to take part, and after winning the U. 17 All Ireland, Noel was encouraged by the adjudicator to enter the next day’s senior final.

He didn’t compete in another Fleadh until 1967, at the All Ireland in Enniscorthy  and with numbers growing at that stage, competitors did have to qualify  through county and provincial finals. Noel won the senior national title that year, and recalled how a brilliant piano player, Tadhg de Brún, the adjudicator,  enquired from him if he was playing a B mouth organ. “These were an uncommon key and it was one I had got from Mick Conroy,” Noel explained.  The next year in the final at Clones, he didn’t place and skipped out for a few years. The late Mrs. Catherine Mullally, Mullingar, who was involved in Comhaltas locally and beyond, and ran music classes in the town, encouraged him to take part in further fleadhanna, and Noel went on to win a record number of All Ireland titles over following decades.

Other musical memories from Fleadhanna included winning an All Ireland senior Grúpa Ceoil final in 1988, with other Mullingar musicians, many of whom had finished fourth in an All Ireland Junior Grúpa final two years earlier. To do so made it a great year for them, he said.  Another year, he was part of a trio which reached the All Ireland final and  another year, with Mick Foster, they won the duo event at Westmeath Fleadh.

Noel worked in the P & T with the late Frank Gavigan, Rathconrath, regarded as one of Ireland’s greatest button accordion players, and another happy musical memory was of playing in a Scóraiocht competition with him and the talented Rathconrath group which also included Paddy Crinnegan, Claire Christie and Mick Foster, in an hour-long mixture of music, song and story.

Other musical memories were of years of involvement in the Clann Lir Ballad Group, which was begun by Dick Hogan, Pauric Donoghue and himself, and then Colmán Moynihan,  and later  with Tommy Reynolds and Claire Christie/Crinnegan. The Clann Lir took part in big ballad group competitions in Kilkenny and in Wexford, competing there several times against the Emmet Spiceland group, including Donal Lunny, and finishing second to The Johnsons, when Paul Brady was with them.

Musician recording

A long-time member and officer in Mullingar Comhaltas, Noel’s reputation as a traditional musician is remarkable, and his performances during Comhaltas concert tours he made here, in Britain, and in the USA were singled out for his virtuoso talent.   Encouraged by Mullingar CCE, in 2009 he first released a CD of his own material, “Music from the Reeds”  and a  year later he teamed up with Mick Foster and Moyra Fraser, and did so for a further recording in  2014.  After a tour of Ireland, England and the US  in 2012, in which a young Galway musician and All Ireland winner, Róisín Broderick on concertina was also taking part, when playing together on long travel journeys, the idea of doing a CD with her emerged. Their CD was the first time two open reed instruments, concertina and mouth organ were recorded, and they blended very well. The CD was successful, and the duo were invited to play in Ballyferriter by Breandán Ó Beaglaoich, at their annual trad music festival, and they played at the Willie Clancy Summer School, at ‘Tunes in Summer’ Galway concerts, and at at a meeting of Na Píobairí Uileann in Dublin afterwards.

Noel has also represented Ireland in  the International Harmonica Festival in Bristol, with other world-class harmonica players.

This remarkable musician and personality still plays regularly, usually with Mick Foster and Friends at traditional events. Long may he continue to do so.

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