Nick Flavin

Nick grew up in Ireland, before moving to Africa as a young missionary priest. He moved to Stow to raise a family in 1988. He was director of charity, The Edinburgh University Settlement for 25 years; and finds his relaxation in playing the melodeon and whistles.


I’ve lived at Dunedin, 39 Townfoot in Stow for nearly thirty years.

My earliest memory of music would be sitting on my father’s instep and he singing for me,

“Skip skip along the road,
Skip skip again sir,
How many miles to Dublin town? 4 score and 10 sir.
Will I be there by candlelight?
Yes, and back again sir.”

I grew up in Fr. Matthews Street, Tipperary Town in Southern Ireland. My mother was always singing around the house and I listened to the radio of course. Her favourite song or party piece was The Rose of Mooncoin. Mooncoin was in County Kilkenny on the banks of the Suir and that’s where she met my father, so that was her favourite song.

My father, apart from the nursery rhyme I mentioned, he could only sing one song badly, The Bard of Armagh, and he’d have to be persuaded to sing it. Otherwise he would simply recite, ‘This is the House that Jack Built.’ Playground rhymes would have been associated with playing tig and hide and go seek - little rhymes like,

One two sky blue
All out but you

There was very little musical tuition at school, but at second class primary school there was a lovely man from just outside Dungarvan in County Waterford, a teacher called Mr Corcoran. He was the best musical experience we had. He got us singing in the class. Classes were very big that time with maybe 50 in a class. He would teach us a lot of Irish songs, such as ‘Baidin Fheidlimi’. Mr. Corcoran had a lovely voice and accent in the Irish language, almost from the Gaeltacht in County Waterford. From the very beginning in nursery school we became literate in both Irish and English. We used a slate and chalk and we had the Irish alphabet and the English alphabet. Both occurred at the same time.

Musical tuition at secondary school was totally limited as it was not an examination subject. There was usually singing at the last class on a Saturday. We did five and a half days a week. The half day was the Saturday and the last class took place between quarter past 12 and 1 o’clock. At that time, we country girls and boys had already left to get the school bus back to our various destinations on the Waterford - Cork route. I had moved to County Waterford at the age of nine.

Musical influence came from the radio, radio Luxemburg and radio Eireann. That influenced a lot of people of that generation. Also, at a very early stage I would go to my grandmothers in Cashel and my aunt Alice, who was just four years older than me, would sing lots of songs like, ‘When you’re in love it’s the loveliest night of the year.’ It was a very eclectic musical mix. People would go to shows and things so there was a lot of popular music.

In fifth class primary school we had a teaching brother called Tobin. He started what was termed a flageolet band. All of us in the class were encouraged to join. We were given a ruler with little dots on it to simulate the holes on the penny whistle; and we’d get a bit of dexterity digit-wise for a start and then we went to buy the whistle and formed this band which in fact performed at the 1956 Fleadh Cheoil in Dungarvan. We learned a lot of tunes then. Most were marching tunes like, ‘The Dawning of the Day,’ (which is now sometimes sung as ‘Raglin Rd’), ‘Roddy McCorley,’ and ‘The Boys of Wexford.’ Back in the parish, a friend of mine had an accordion. Then another young lady called Maura Veale had something similar. We found an old parish drum and Martin Casey played that. He put a pedal on it and we formed a ceilidh band. But we didn’t know anything about keys or music. I had a penny whistle tuned in C and they were playing sometimes in G and things weren’t working out so well; so, I made suitable noise and my aunt bought me my first accordion and that was the beginning of it. We never played a public performance in a hall, but we played every Sunday. We practised in a disused dwelling house on the farm and a lot of local girls and boys would come and dance to the music on a Sunday afternoon, usually waltzes, half sets and sets.

I went to a seminary when I was 17, for 7 years of training and during that time we would be singing Gregorian chant. That was a separate development. We all had to do that for liturgical purposes. But I kept the accordion and brought it to the seminary with me. We had a ceilidh band there. There was another accordion and a penny whistle, piano and guitar and we would perform a few times a year for people who came in from the local community to be entertained in concerts. In the holidays I’d play. I always brought my accordion back home with me and would play for neighbours all the time. Any place I went I took it with me. People just loved dancing to music. I saw myself not so much as a musician but as someone who helped accommodate house dances, basically - and house dances were quite popular. Even small kitchens would have people on a Sunday afternoon or evening dancing.

I played mainly traditional music. In some ways, if you don’t perform with your peers then you can reach a plateau, but I had a fairly wide repertoire of traditional Irish music and I never lost that. In Nigeria, when I moved to Africa, I was very impressed by Yoruba music and the drumming, performed on the talking drum. Bob Hailes, from Cork, encouraged me to try and get some kind of synthesis between the melodeon and the local drums; but I never made that. Then I went to a different tribe with a different style of music, but again, quite interesting and melodious. They were also very excited by drumming. They had ceremonial songs and wedding songs. The Camberri tribe of North West Nigeria were very joyous and inspiring. The Yoruba had a single stringed fiddle. That was also in the North, but the Camberri people had a little 2 stringed banjo-like instrument made from goat string stretched over a calabash. That was particularly used by young men courting. They’d come to market and drink native beer and serenade the young ladies with tunes on these instruments (goge). A young brother would accompany the singer with two sticks on an upturned calabash. The first time I had one of these instruments in my hand I asked this mature gentleman how to play it. He said, “It’s very easy. You just take it in your hand and you strum it with one hand and then you put your finger on the shaft of the instrument and then whatever is in your heart comes out in your fingers.”

When I was studying Community Development in Manchester some people from Strathclyde came to try to recruit community workers. At that time community workers were thought to be a very useful devise for dealing with areas of urban deprivation. Glasgow was described by my lecturers as being the coal face of community work in Britain. I’d already had a very strong experience of rural development in Africa, so I thought it would be complimentary to have the other one for some time.

Scotland was always in my music, mainly because of the radio and people like Jimmy Shand, from Fife. He was broadcast regularly by the BBC and the Irish radio, so there was a very strong Scottish style of music that actually went hand in hand with a more traditional style of music in Ireland. So coming to Scotland was just like going home musically. The first tune I ever learnt was ‘My Ain Folk’ when I was very small, because there was a very strong connection between Scotland and Ireland. There was nothing new in Scotland from that point of view. When I was a community worker in Maryhill, with the Maryhill corridor project, I started a folk club in the Firhill tavern. People like Kevin Mitchell joined up and performed there regularly. Kevin Mitchell is a Northern Irish singer, very much in charge of his craft and a great singer. I don’t think the folk club survived after I left so therefore it wasn’t very well founded. Then I worked with travelling people afterwards and I came across people like Sheila Stewart, first cousin of Andy M. Stewart. Her married name was McGregor. I met with Hamish Henderson around that time and that opened up a lot of recordings of travelling folk like Jeannie Robertson and the Stewarts of Blairgowrie. That more or less confirmed the kind of interest I had in Ireland anyway with singers like Margaret Barry, who were around in the 1950s in Ireland and sometimes were almost derided by the establishment because they hadn’t typical neo-broadcasting voices. But they began to be appreciated more and more for their authenticity and their gifts by purists later on.

As director of the Edinburgh University Settlement, and as part of our funding campaign to help the Ethiopians after the great famine of the 1980s, I was privileged to meet with Hamish Henderson and others to produce a record – Scottish Folk bands for Ethiopia. This included a range of artists; the Macalmans, Merk, Margaret Bennet, Dougie MacLean, Davy Steele, Sprangeen and Ian MacIntosh. All contributed free of charge to this record. It was an immense success and we were able to promote a well digging operation in Ethiopia after the famine, because of this. The record was called Freedom Come All Ye. Hamish Henderson gave the actual title, Freedom Come All Ye. You couldn’t have a better man to give you that title because of his interests in developing countries and his fierce support for the downtrodden in any country of any class and creed. The song, Freedom Come All Ye, composed by Hamish Henderson, is recognized as one that may well have been a Scottish National anthem. Personally, I think it couldn’t because anthems tend to be triumphant, whereas this particular one is intrinsically about justice and is even critical of any nation that would suppress another one. It is a great tribute to the honesty of the man, Hamish Henderson; and the actual popularity of the song is an indication of how honest Scotland is in these matters as well. We launched that record in the Students Centre in Bristo Square. Strangely enough we toasted it with South African wine which the students gave away because they refused to sell it at that time as a protest against apartheid in South Africa.

I lived in a small town until the age of nine, Tipperary town. In our street there was next door a neighbour called Pecky Lauder. He was a great ‘shanos’, old style singer in English, but in the Irish tradition. Then there was, across the street, a trumpet player and a trombone player, Pat Peckham; and next door the other side of our house we had a piper, because Tipperary Town had a pipe band. Nearly every town within a radius of maybe 12 miles around Tipperary, Care and Bansha had pipe bands. The pipe bands would play typical marching tunes and I’d be influenced by that. Also, most of the players around the street, when Duffy’s Circus came, they’d go and play music for the performers. So, most of the people I knew could play traditional music of some description and could also play more popular music. One particular family, The Tuohys’, had a ceilidh band as a family and that would involve accordions, whistles, piccolos, instruments of that kind; but would also in later days have a show band. As I was about nine or ten the show bands were coming in and a lot of these show bands would typify the various genre that would be around in nearly every town in Ireland, I guess. The one I experienced was in Tipperary Town where people could play a bit of jazz, play traditional music for a ceilidh and could sing both traditional and popular radio songs.

The biggest musical influence in my children’s lives was probably their mother who could play on, or attempt to play, several instruments. We both were very dedicated to music and the collection of musical instruments, so there were always musical instruments around the house; not just accordions and flutes, but the piano was there and guitars. Ruth started early on a useful thing in our community, then in Eskbank, called Soundstart - where small children got a taste of various instruments and then they could begin to choose later on when they became more serious about music. So there was all that and of course the classical or formal training came into learning instruments which I never had myself. In some ways they were less exposed to the kind of environment I was exposed to. But then they would catch up later on and have a very broad eclectic musical experience.

All our children do or have played instruments at some time. Some are very proficient, and others might have been but wouldn’t have persevered with practising. Our eldest son, James, plays the cello and piano and actually can knock a tune out, without any tuition whatever, on the penny whistle. He’d one masterclass once from one of the Chieftains when we were on holiday in County Wexford. He can just pick up the whistle and play a traditional jig without any trouble whatsoever. He plays jazz mainly on the piano. Our second son, Christopher, can play the guitar a bit and make all the right faces when he was singing. He also played the trumpet and joined Bonnyrigg band, but when we moved to the Borders, he didn’t progress very much. Now he seems to be singing quite a bit to his children and passing on a bit of tradition to them. Mairi Louise is a classically trained professional player of the violin and a more than competent pianist. She performed very successfully in competitions, winning the Edinburgh music festival competition for her age group on two occasions. She was in the National Children’s Orchestra and the Scottish youth orchestra. She has formally trained as a music teacher and runs her own strings school for younger children starting out as well as for adults. The school is called Dunedin School of Music, after the house name here. She’s recently taken on a harp teacher to join her staff of 4 teachers. She’s got a broad musical spectrum. Mairi Louise can do anything from classical to jazz to traditional. She formed a ceilidh band with Kathy Stewart and Lesley MacLaren called Galavanters when she was about 15 or 16. It went very well.

Francis is very musical. Very early on he could knock a tune out of the melodeon. He’s got a great musical appreciation and it’s a joy to be with him when he comes. He would have made a very good disc jockey in days of yore, because he listens to a great selection of music and he has great taste in music, again very broad, very eclectic and well chosen. Katy Ellen was classically trained and gets a great sound from the violin. She can pick it up for any occasion and does and has performed at some formal functions. When they were children during the summer holidays there would be lots of songs sung in the family bus. Many occasions we were asked to go and entertain various groups in the community. The older children performed at the Stow folk club on many occasions. That was a very valuable experience and very worthwhile. It gave them a chance to perform but also good performers would come, and they got an example of different types of singing ranging from traditional folk to a bit of contemporary progressive folk on various instruments. It was a very useful thing to have in the village.

There were many occasions in the village with Andy and Kathy Stewart and others like Alan Bertram, and our children and others would make their own contribution there. It enriched the whole place by having that and having world class singers in the village resident and coming to perform so that would be a strong influence and I think that’s evident nowadays too, all the young musicians that are around the village and doing very well. it’s an environment that’s been created over a number of years and possibly was always in Stow but that’s clearly evident in our time in Stow. The townhall isn’t used as much as it was in the past as a venue but it’s clear that a lot of young people and not so young people are going out and performing professionally in other venues and in some ways are the inheritors of the tradition that’s in Stow for music. The nice thing about Chris Wemyss and the people around him is that he is open to the whole spectrum of music and there’s pop and there’s folk and everybody is welcome to perform and it’s a very open thing and I think a credit to him and he reflects what is a broad tradition of multi instruments and multi musical expressions in the parish. The Stowed Out festival is a wonderful idea and it has all the elements that will help music to grow and survive among the people here. It gives them a platform as budding professionals or just people who love music. It also attracts various artists from all over the country and beyond and that again creates that environment where music will grow and where bounderies will be crossed and tastes in music will be universal rather than too specific.

One of the great influences in folk music was the revival in the 1950s. The Clancy Brothers were very important, and I found them a great source of inspiration. They lived in a great town called Carrick in Suir which is where my mother and father were married and only about 14 miles from where I spent my teenage years. There was a wonderful venue in Dungarven, the Friary Hall, run by the Augustinian priests for the community. I heard my first opera singer there, singing La Donna Marbele. At the same concert was Bridy Galachy, a girl from Donegal, singing the Boys from the County Armagh…. all in the one concert. Then at one stage I saw the McPeakes there, from Belfast, who were real traditionalists playing uillean pipes and harp and with a lovely ancient style of music and presentation. I remember listening to The Singing Bords and thinking it was the loveliest thing I ever heard, the way they moved as they were playing and the way they treated the song. Then I heard the recording of the Clancy Brothers and I thought it wasn’t nearly as good as this interesting tradition that grew up in Northern Ireland in Belfast.

I mentioned the influence of radio because it exposed people to all kinds of music… but the gramophone was very important also, tremendously important. At my grandmother’s house in Cashel, during summer holidays when I was very young, we would have the gramophone and people like Delia Murphy was very important singing Irish ballads. They were recorded and lots of old ceilidh bands were recorded, mostly ones from America who had gone across and recorded there and the records came back to Ireland. There was a time when tradition might almost have been lost, so it was very important that it was kept alive by immigrants in other countries and then brought back to the country itself and reinforced.