FROM Camden Town to Carnegie Hall and from the Fleadhanna ‘down in Ennis’ to the Body and Soul stage at Electric Picnic, the Tulla Céilí Band has captivated audiences of all kinds for the last three-quarters of a century.
Over the course of its illustrious history, the band has brought the tunes of East Clare to prominence in Ireland’s musical repertoire. It has also fostered some of the country’s finest traditional players, including West Clare legends like Willie Clancy and JC Talty. At one point, it even counted a TD as a member, in the person of the long-serving Fianna Fáil representative, Feakle’s Dr Bill Loughnane.
The story of the Tulla Céilí Band is closely woven into the history of modern Ireland. It was formed in March 1946, in the lean times after ‘The Emergency’, when the bicycle was the dominant mode of transport and social life didn’t stretch far beyond parish boundaries.
Chris Keane, in his book on the first 50 years of the band affectionately known as ‘The Tulla’, describes how it was put together to take part in Féile Luimni. Local teacher Teresa Tubridy was the instigator together with Mayo native, Garda Bert McNulty. P Joe Hayes and Paddy Canny, who were to be the bedrock of the band, came on board, as did Aggie Whyte, Jack Murphy, Jim and Paddy O’Donoghue and Joe Cooley. Minogues of Tulla was the nerve centre, as well as the Hayes family home in Maghera.
“Our mother Peggy helped with the bookings,” said Councillor Pat Hayes, son of the late P Joe and brother of Martin. “We got the phone into the house and my mother would take the calls and write the letters about bookings. It could be a fairly complicated process at that time.”
From its earliest days, the Tulla distinguished itself by its talent and musical integrity.
It won the prestigious céilí band competition at its first outing in Limerick, but could probably never have dreamed of what lay ahead in terms of international performances, honours and media appearances.
Scholar and musician, Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin remarked in Flowing Tides on how The Tulla “came of age with the motor car”. One tale, that is now the stuff of legend, is how P Joe Hayes and Paddy Canny cycled from Tulla to Ennis on a rainy evening to meet gifted musician Seán Reid to persuade him to lead the band. The Donegal native was working for the county council and was also the owner of a Morris Minor. Seán’s response to the invitation was positive and the show was well and truly on the road.
As céilís grew in popularity, the band could be performing several nights a week. Bookings came from all over the western seaboard and saw band members packed into Seán’s car, along with their instruments and equipment.
“Céilís would go on into the early hours and after travelling home, my father would milk the cows and only get to bed after that,” said Pat. “One night on the way back from Kilrush, the band had to sleep in the car after they got a puncture. In the morning, they walked to a farmhouse where the owner brought them back to town to get the tyre replaced. Those were the times.”
The Tulla’s relationship with Radió Éireann, and later RTÉ, was another factor that was instrumental in its success. Ciarán Mac Mathúna’s field recordings proved hugely significant.
“When Ciarán would come to the house, Michael Broderick would bring the piano over from Killanena,” Pat recalled. “They’d set up in different rooms. My grandmother featured in some of those recordings too.”
As the band’s profile rose, it began to record albums with the EMI record label and to receive invitations to prestigious events in the UK, Canada and the US. While the audiences and attention were huge, the band never lost sight of its roots.
“In Carnegie Hall, Pat Boone, who was a huge singing star at the time, was also on the bill,” Pat recounted. “A journalist came up to P Joe how it felt to be on the same stage. P Joe replied, ‘I don’t know who Pat Boone is’. The journalist asked in amazement, ‘You don’t know who Pat Boone is?’ P Joe’s reply was: ‘I don’t think he knows who I am either’. At another point, the band was presented with the keys to the city of Chicago and received a presentation from Mayor Giuliani at New York City Hall in 1997, but what was really special to them about those events was meeting Irish emigrants and seeing how much the music meant to them.”
There were many other richly-deserved honours over the years. P Joe was named Clare Person of the Year in 1996; the band appeared on The Late Late Show and was accorded a Civic Reception by the local authority in 2016 on the occasion of their 70th anniversary.
Over the decades, the band’s membership evolved and the repertoire responded to the changing times.
“The ‘60s and ‘70s were the era of the showband and Michael Vaughan joined up as a singer,” recalled Mark Donnellan, who is the current leader and the son of Francie Donnellan, a man who was closely associated with the band for decades. “Céilís have changed a lot since that time. The pace was more leisurely with one or two sets, and a couple of waltzes and quicksteps. In the late ‘80s. that changed. Then set dancing really took off in the ‘90s. Céilís were almost an Olympic event at one stage, with eight or nine sets and people togged out for up to three hours of music and dancing.”
The title of band leader is something that the Kilmurry man wears lightly. “It’s more of a co-op,” he said. A member of The Tulla for the last 30 years, Mark’s induction was a gradual one. “My father was in the band for around a decade at first,” he said. “My later brother, Brian, had also played. P Joe asked my father to join up again the late ‘80s and I started going along from the early ‘90s. After a while, I seemed to be turning up for all of the céilís and it went from there.”
The evolution of the band, under Mark’s leadership, has taken it into fresh new territory in terms of its audiences.
“We played two programmes at Electric Picnic, at the Body and Soul section,” Mark recalled. “The first was fairly civilised at 3pm. There was an empty field in front of us. After the first tune, we suddenly had three acres full of people dancing. There were All-Ireland champion dancers suddenly appearing out of everywhere and there was immense enjoyment in it.
“The second programme was at 3am and that was a little different. There was still plenty of enthusiasm and a lot of movement. Sure, where else would you get it?”
While the band has continued to play for heads of State, it remains faithful to its founding ethos.
“We’ve played for Mary Robinson and President Michael D Higgins,” Mark outlined. “We’ve played at the National Concert Hall. Martin [Hayes] had been playing there and invited us up. When all is said and done, it’s not necessarily the big venues that are the most enjoyable. I remember one of the best nights we had was three or four years ago in Kilbeacanty, around Christmas. When it works, it works. We have met lovely people through the years and we’re so grateful to all of our audiences and everyone who played with us and the families that have been so generous.”
While the band has overcome many challenges over its history, the pandemic certainly counts as one of the most difficult.
“Covid stopped everything for us, but we stayed in touch during the lockdowns,” said Mark. “The hardest thing is that we lost some of the people associated with the band and we couldn’t attend their funerals. In that context, not being able to play in person wasn’t a huge hardship.”
One event that will go ahead in online form, and see the band reunite, is the Feakle Festival.
“For the 34 years of the Festival, the Tulla Céilí Band has always performed on the Sunday night,” Pat pointed out. “So, it’s right that we should honour their 75th anniversary this year.” On Sunday next (August 8), a special performance will go online on the Feakle Festival’s social channels.
As to the future, The Tulla is looking forward to having the calendar of festivals and events restored in full, and its focus will remain on nourishing its musical roots.
“We are standing on the shoulders of giants,” Mark said. “We still have a unique sound and there’s a close link between the current members and those who founded the band. I hope that our interpretation of the music does justice to the original members. They did all of the hard work and won all the competitions. We want to keep the integrity of the music.”