- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 13, 2003

They sit on a small platform against the wall of the narrow pub, the fiddler and the publican, two glasses of Guinness on a stool before them. They share the space, the music and the story, and so become a metaphor for the ways of Irish life in Washington.

The fiddler is Brendan Mulvihill, son and grandson of fiddlers, a teacher and winner of awards for the way his fingers work the strings, a man so full of lore and knowledge he's been called "the professor." His head is cocked to the instrument, the bow moving the tight strings, the elevation and the speed varying. He seems to be listening for something.

The publican is Brian Gaffney, singer and guitarist, manager of this fine establishment, son-in-law of its owners. His fingers brush the guitar strings deftly, quickly, keeping up, moving in and out of the sound of the fiddle beside him.

Outside, a cold snow turns to ice. Here, in the smoke-soaked warmth, the music picks up speed and joy, veers off on a side road into a higher shade of happy, settles into an on-and-on reel, an air, a jig, and sets every toe to tapping.

This isn't a spectacle. This is a typical Wednesday night at Nanny O'Briens on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park, which with Ireland's Four Provinces across the street is a hub of uptown Irish pub life. They, and the Dubliner and Kelly's Irish Times on Capitol Hill, are considered the bedrock Irish establishments of Washington and the complex knotwork of family ties and old-country connections among them is one reason for the vibrancy of Irish life here.

•••

Consider for a moment the scene at Nanny O'Briens, where every inch of the management is family from Mr. Gaffney, 41, of Tralee, County Kerry, to his wife Kathleen, who helps manage the pub during the day, to her parents Willie and Gerry Lyons from Dungarvan, County Waterford who named the place for Gerry's mother, Nanny O'Brien, when they took it over from the old Gallagher's Irish Pub in 1993.

The customers here run the gamut at this table five college women chatting, at the bar a clutch of men and women, jaws dropped in awe at the music, and on a stool at the end of the bar, sipping a brandy, a nattily dressed man come for a quick visit: Christy Hughes, the owner of the pub across the street, Ireland's Four Provinces, whose logo emblazons the coats of arms of Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connaught.

The connections run on like an endless Irish reel. The 54-year-old Mr. Hughes, who came to the United States in March 1974 from Ballymahon in County Longford, will be the first to tell you he went to the same school as another of Washington's Longford men, Hugh Kelly of Kelly's Irish Times.

It doesn't stop there: In November 1974 Mr. Hughes started as manager at the Dubliner, owned by Danny Coleman. And when, in 1991, Mr. Hughes bought Ireland's Four Provinces from original owner Kevin Finney, who had opened the pub in 1978, it was with Mr. Coleman's blessing.

The Hughes family for the past nine years brother Frank Hughes has managed the Four Provinces, known universally as the Four P's has even branched out beyond the District: Six years ago Christy Hughes opened another branch of Ireland's Four Provinces in Falls Church and will open yet a third restaurant, the Irish Inn at Glen Echo, in July.

•••

Then there are the musical connections. Forget for the moment that Mr. Gaffney of Nanny's headlines much of the year at the Dubliner. Consider this: In the late 1970s, Mr. Mulvihill and two other lads singer-guitarist Andy O'Brien and button accordionist Billy McComiskey made up a group called the Irish Tradition in New York. They were discovered there by Mr. Kelly, who at the time was Mr. Coleman's partner in the Dubliner. Mr. Kelly persuaded the group to play at the Dubliner which explains Mr. Mulvihill's move to Washington.

Mr. Kelly would sell his share in the Dubliner in 1978 and move about 30 seconds up the street to open Kelly's Irish Times, where, every so often, the Irish Tradition would play, or Mr. Mulvihill by himself.

And at the Dubliner, a recent arrival from Tralee named Brian Gaffney would come down from Boston periodically to sing and play at benefits in Washington and do the occasional gig. Eventually, he stayed and continued performing with a group called Claddagh, and later with Brendan's Voyage.

Meanwhile, the Irish Tradition, after cutting one album, broke up. Mr. Mulvihill began playing solo gigs at festivals and venues throughout the area, touring Ireland and America, teaching and eventually playing regular gigs at Nanny O'Briens with Mr. Gaffney.

For Mr. Kelly at the Irish Times, indeed it's all about the music.

"Musically, the Irish have taken over the world," Mr. Kelly says. "Look at it. Bono. The Corrs, and the like. All those traditional riffs and ways of playing and feeling is in that music.

"I'm not much for being so strict about it. We've had Pete Papageorge, who's not Irish, here for a long time. It's about the music, not the person playing. The Irish have always been free, and it's the music that makes them so."

Mr. Kelly, 58, arrived in New York in 1963 and came to Washington in 1967. For a time he ran My Mother's Place at 18th and M streets NW. He worked with Mr. Coleman at the Dubliner beginning in 1975, became a partner and opened Kelly's Irish Times in 1978. These days, Mr. Kelly's son Brendan runs things at night.

If the Dubliner looks prosperous, the Irish Times when it's full can look like steerage on the Titanic. In the 1980s, when Irish groups played there, it was like Ellis Island, which suits Mr. Kelly perfectly: The motto he has chosen for the Irish Times is "Give me your thirsty, your famished, your befuddled masses."

Mr. Kelly, who also owns Kelly's Ellis Island Restaurant & Pub on 12th Street NE in Brookland, is something of a rebel himself, a contrarian and democrat in the sense that he isn't what he calls a "fanatic" about being Irish, and he tends to attract and wants to attract a diversity of opinions and customers.

In the early 1980s, for example, he also opened up a punk rock place downstairs at the Times called Reeks on the Hill. While punk rock music was and remains popular in Ireland, Reeks was probably the only punk place housed in an Irish establishment in Washington.

•••

At the heart of it all, though, is the Dubliner, where you can find such touches as posters of James Joyce and Brendan Behan. The pub is owned by Mr. Coleman, now 64, who came to Washington in 1965 from a neighborhood in Syracuse, N.Y., called Tipperary Hill, which claims it has the only traffic light in the United States to display the Irish green above the British red.

The Coleman family are pub proprietors by tradition. Tipperary Hill is renowned for Coleman's Authentic Irish Pub, which was started by Mr. Coleman's father, who came to Syracuse from Ireland. The place is still run by Mr. Coleman's brother, Peter J. Coleman Jr.

"Daniel J. Coleman, publican," as Washington's Mr. Coleman styles himself, was working at the Beowulf restaurant downtown in 1973 when he established the Dubliner in what was then the Commodore Hotel.

The restaurant was so successful that Mr. Coleman ended up buying the hotel. When he did, in 1982, he renamed it the Phoenix Park, for the 1,760-acre expanse in Dublin that is said to be the largest city park in Europe. Two years ago the hotel named a new director of catering: Beth Coleman Deehan, Mr. Coleman's niece and the former general manager of the Coleman pub in Tipperary Hill.

It was at the Dubliner and at Matt Kane's Bit of Ireland, now gone that Washington's Irish music scene blossomed in the late 1970s and 1980s. There, customers could hear the groups, musicians and singers who would become legends.

"I remember Paddy Reilly, he had that beautiful voice," says Dubliner manager Colm Dillon as he sits at the pub drinking coffee with Mr. Coleman and Mr. Hughes one snowy afternoon.

It's an exercise in recollection. Mr. Coleman wracks his brain for the name of one seminal group. "What was that group? Drums, they had the drums. Celtic Thunder. They were marvelous, they were."

Celtic Thunder, whose albums are available through Amazon and other sellers, have been around in one form or another since 1977. But it's the Irish Tradition that still holds these men in awe.

Mr. Hughes, for example, shakes his head. "The Tradition," he says. "Now they were something else."

When people in the business talk about the Irish Tradition, they lend it the charisma of a rock band. The Tradition played traditional music, to be sure, but Mr. O'Brien had a voice that could be both rousing and seductive. Mr. McComiskey was unique on his button accordion. And Mr. Mulvihill, his hair a brighter shade of red then, played like a Charlie Parker of the Irish fiddle, if such a thing were possible.

"See," Mr. Hughes says, "with most groups, you know what they're going to do, and they know what they're going to do and they stay with it. Not saying they weren't great because they were. But with the Tradition, you never knew where they were going with that, all of a sudden, you're listening and you're saying, 'Where the … did that come from?' "

Mr. Mulvihill remembers it himself.

"It was kind of crazy, that's for sure," he said. "We never expected that. When we came down here, the reaction when we played was incredible."

•••

There was always something impish about Mr. Mulvihill and now, at 49, he retains that bemused smile that suggests he believes in the fun of things. His life is different now, too: Married to a law librarian, Abbie, he is the father of a 2-year-old daughter, Ciara. And he writes all sorts of music.

"It settles you," he says.

Mr. Mulvihill tutors private students now, plays festivals and private parties, tours here and in Ireland and plays gigs at Nanny O'Briens. He was and remains that rare combination: a fiddle player who is an inspired violinist.

He's always been seen as having a touch of the genius. Born in Northampton, England, he is a grandson of the fiddler Bridget Flynn and son of the celebrated fiddler and teacher Martin Mulvihill of County Limerick. The family immigrated to New York in 1965, but in the early 1970s Mr. Mulvihill went to Ireland and England to play and to learn and at the age of 18 won the All Ireland National Fiddle Championship.

It was when he came back to New York in 1975 that he teamed up with Mr. McComiskey (with whom he later went back to Ireland to win the All-Ireland Fiddle/Accordion duet championship) and Mr. O'Brien to make the Irish Tradition.

Mr. Mulvihill remembers it well. "Of course," he says, "you can't duplicate that. It's right then and there."

Occasionally they will attempt to bring back the past. "It's not the same, but it's good, you know," Mr. Mulvihill says.

In early February, Mr. Hughes and the Four Provinces held a benefit to raise money to help a local musician pay his medical bills. A host of musicians showed up on a cold afternoon, including the Bogwanderers Ceili Band; singer-guitarist Ronan Kavanagh, who plays at the 4P's; Bill Whitman and the Irish Edge; accordionist and banjo player Terry Winch from Celtic Thunder; the folk duo Magpie.

Capping the evening was an appearance by the Irish Tradition.

•••

Brian Gaffney remembers those days as well.

"Places like the Dubliner, guys like Coleman, Hughes, Kelly, they knew the music, they appreciated us and they loved and understood it. We got to play the music the way we wanted to play it," he says.

"When I got here in the 1980s I was a young guy and I was bulletproof," he says. "Down here, you know, this was the big leagues to a guy like me. The groups and the singers and people like Brendan, or Paddy Reilly, or the Celtic Thunder. I felt like I was at home, you know.

"I like to keep the tradition going," he says. "And I'm always learning. People notice I play some new stuff or licks. And they ask, 'Hey, where'd you get that?' and I tell them, 'I learned it from Brendan.' "

Nanny O'Briens holds Irish jam sessions, or "seisuns," on Monday nights that often attract the pioneering legends: Piper Paddy Keenan, a founder of the groundbreaking Bothy Band, has been through. So has string artist Andy Irvine of Planxty, the celebrated folk group of the early 1970s. Folklore scholar, singer and Limerick man Mick Moloney, a banjo and mandolin virtuoso and founder of the Irish-American group Green Fields of America, drops by whenever he's in town.

"There's lots of really good young musicians coming up. Conor Malone, who plays here, is terrific," Mr. Gaffney says of the singer and guitarist who plays at both Nanny's and the Dubliner.

He doesn't mention himself, but he remains the superb Irish musician, the soulful singer with the love of the music on his checkered shirt sleeve. And this night at Nanny's he's up to it.

"I'd like to sing you a song," he says.

Nanny O'Briens goes quiet. In a clear, gripping voice, Mr. Gaffney sings "The Croppy Boy," about a Wexford lad caught up in the United Irishmen's ill-fated 1798 uprising against the British and Lord Cornwallis.

"It was early, early in the spring," he sings, setting the scene. "The birds did whistle, and sweetly sing, Changing their tune from tree to tree, And the song they sang was 'Old Ireland Free. …' "

Mr. Gaffney's voice soars. "I looked behind and I looked before but my aged mother I shall see no more."

This is what Irish music can do to you then: "Oh, shed a tear for the Croppy Boy" are the last words you hear.

You could hear a tear drop.

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