In September 2010, Mike Rafferty—or,
as we like to call him, “The Mighty
Raff”—received the National Heritage
Award, the highest honor bestowed by the
United States government on the nation’s
traditional artists. Quite simply, no one
deserves it more. Mike has become a truly
legendary figure in the long, distinguished
history of Irish traditional music in America.
Mike was born in 1926, the fourth of
seven children, in the village of Larraga in
Ballinakill Parish, East Galway. This was an
area known nationally for its great music,
and particularly for its fiddlers and flute
players. When he was seven, he began tin
whistle lessons with an uncle and, at age
twelve, picked up the flute. His main mentor
was his father, who was recognized locally
as one of the finest flute players in the region.
His nickname was “Barrel,” given to
him because he could get such a great tone
from the flute, and eventually “Barrels”
became the nickname of the whole family.
At that time young men and women
typically completed their formal schooling
at fourteen. This part of the rural west of
Ireland had been hard hit economically since the mid-nineteenth century. Employment
possibilities were severely limited, and there
were few opportunities for young men like
Traditional flute player Mike Rafferty received the NEA’s National Heritage Award this fall. Photo: Tom Pich, courtesy of the National
Endowment for the Arts.
He worked sporadically as a farmhand
and also did construction work for the
Land Commission, but in order to advance
himself in life, he had to do what thousands
from East Galway had done before him—
emigrate to America. He ended up in New
York and later in New Jersey, and with the
help of friends already established in their
new home, Mike worked at a variety of jobs,
including gardening and loading supermarket
trucks. He also on occasion took on a
second job as a bartender. He married and
began to raise a family of five children with
his wife, Teresa.
These duties left little time for music,
and Mike practically abandoned the flute
for close to ten years. Then various musical
friends from East Galway based in New
York, such as Jack and Charlie Coen and
Sean McGlynn, encouraged him to start
playing again. He switched for a while to
the silver flute and gradually recovered
his technique and built his repertoire.
I first met Mike in 1975 and was impressed
by his beautiful, unhurried, lyrical
playing and the subtle swing to the music
which has been indelibly associated with the
East Galway style since the early twentieth
century. Mike had learned the tunes and
stylistic nuances by ear, like almost all of
the traditional musicians of his generation.
By then he had most decisively regained
his musical skills and was part of the distinguished
group of musicians who appeared
in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1976
as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s
celebration of the American Bicentennial.
From that point on, he widened his musical
horizons and started to make a name for
himself, first with the touring group The
Green Fields of America, and then at scores
of concerts and festivals all over the country.
He recorded on two compilation albums
issued by Rounder Records in the late 1970s:
Irish Traditional Music from the Eastern United
States and The Light through the Leaves. He
was also featured on a Shanachie album
named Fathers and Daughters, where he performed
with his daughter, Mary Rafferty.
Mike was extremely gratified and delighted
when Mary—entirely of her own
volition—took up the music and became a
fine player on the tin whistle, flute, and accordion.
After Mike retired from his supermarket
job in 1989, he began to make more
and more appearances with Mary. They were
a grand combination. Mary had learned
most of her music from her father, and the
fit was perfect. They made three recordings
together—The Dangerous Reel, The Old Fireside
Music, and The Road to Ballinakill—with
Mike now back on the wooden flute, and
each one is a gem filled with beautiful tunes
played with gentle understated virtuosity,
very much rooted in the East Galway style.
Mike put out his first solo album at
the age of seventy-eight, which he aptly
titled Speed 78 (2004). It is great stuff.
In fact his playing on all these albums
demonstrates that his music has has gone from strength to strength since his retirement. He continues to astonish his fellow
musicians and afficionados by his level of
technical skill, which has not diminished
in the slightest with the passing years.
Last year Mike Rafferty recorded a beautiful
album, The New Broom, with his great
friend and fellow New Jersey resident, fiddler
Willie Kelly, and Mary’s husband Donal
Clancy, who accompanied on guitar and bouzouki.
It makes absolutely delightful listening.
In America and in Ireland, Mike’s fame
has grown within the ranks of traditional
musicians of all ages. He is unanimously
seen as the “real deal,” representing a kind
of timeless center in the venerable musical
tradition he so proudly espouses. And it’s not
just his musicality that makes him so beloved.
He is a gentleman to the core—gracious,
good-humored, and good-natured, and
willing to help anyone who comes his way.
He truly is the Mighty Raff.
Mick Moloney is Global Distinguished
Professor of Irish Studies and Music at
New York University. He has recorded
and produced more than sixty albums of
traditional music and advised on festivals
and concerts all over the United States.
Mick also served as the artistic director
for several major arts tours, including The
Green Fields of America, an ensemble of
Irish musicians, singers, and dancers that
has toured the country several times. In
1999, he, too, received the National Heritage
Award from the National Endowment
for the Arts—the highest official honor a
traditional artist can receive in the United
I first met Mike in 1975 and was impressed by his beautiful, unhurried, lyrical playing and the subtle swing to the music which has been indelibly associated with the East Galway style since the early twentieth century. Mike had learned the tunes and stylistic nuances by ear, like almost all of the traditional musicians of his generation.
This article appeared in Voices Vol. 36, Fall-Winter 2010. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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