TRADITIONAL Irish musicians Tommy McCarthy and Louise Costello have just released their debut album Grace Bay.
The husband and wife duo are also proud owners of The Burren, the famous traditional music bar in Boston, which regularly plays host to musicians such as Andy Irvine, Sharon Shannon and Seamus Begley.
Growing up in a well-known Irish musical family in Harringey, North London, Tommy got his first musical instrument — a mandolin — at the age of 12, from his dad Tommy Snr, a much respected prominent traditional musician from Co. Clare who played several instruments.
About a year later the young Tommy left the mandolin aside for a while and started to concentrate on the fiddle. It was an instrument which would lead him to a life in music in the US. There, he met banjo/accordion player Louise Costello.
Louise was born and raised in Galway and learned her style of play from her father Denny. The fusion of West Clare and Galway styles gives Tommy and Louise a distinct sound. To mark the release of Grace Bay, I caught up with Tommy in Galway…
Tommy, you began your music career playing in pubs across London. Can you tell us a bit about those early gigs?
My first gig was with Mick O’Connor and Tony Bradley in the Dalston Junction when I was about 15 or 16. I haven’t been to London now for about five or six years but we are going over in October for the Return to Camden Town Festival. We will be launching the album and doing a concert.
When did you go to the States?
I went to the States when I was 18. I was gigging around London and started playing a bit with Tommy O’Sullivan and Sean Casey. I was working with The Green Isle School of Motoring when Tommy called me up one morning and asked me if I wanted to go to America.
I said yes because I had listened to my dad telling us stories about the very first Comhaltas tour, so I always had it in my mind to go. The deal was with Virgin Airways. It was non-peak time — early March ’86 — and we had to play music on the plane as flight entertainers. It was a free return flight but I ended up staying over in New York. That’s how I ended up in America.
No regrets then?
No, but I remember walking around Central Park thinking this is mad, yellow taxis flying by, but then I met Joanie Madden (flute/whistle player with Cherish the Ladies) and she started to introduce me to people singing around the pubs.
They were saying you can’t go home now we have some great music coming up this month, so I started doing gigs around New York getting a $100 here and a $100 there. About six months later I moved to Boston where I met Louise and we have been playing music together ever since.
You obviously enjoy Boston then?
Well I like coming and going. We spend a bit of time here in Galway so we are back and forth. I’m glad I made the move home and having this as a base for our daughter Rose. She is 15 now and she came back when she was six, so we commute back and forth.
It’s worked out great because either my mother, or Louise’s mother, moves into the house when we are away, then we spend a bit of time over there in the summer and at Christmas. It’s nice to come home and have our daughter around the music because all the sister’s kids play music. Its family and that’s important.
Do you regard Ireland as home?
We do yes. We have been here nine years now and travelling back and forward. In fact Louise just got back this morning, she was over there (Boston) for the last 10 days.
What prompted you to open your own pub?
A couple of things I suppose. I had been thinking about it because I’d been doing gigs and painting houses — the usual immigrant thing there in the 1980s — and I wasn’t legal. Then we did get legal and we got married — on Innisboffin Island — and went back to America again. I started thinking I’m married now so what am I going to do.
We were playing around a few of the pubs and they would have maybe 17 televisions on showing different sports games. I had it in my head that I would love to open up a traditional pub with no televisions. There was a theatre across the street from The Burren called the Somerville Theatre where a lot of acts coming from Ireland, and all over the world, would play.
They would have a Celtic month in March. The actual square was a great location. I just saw a licence for sale in a newspaper one day and I took it from there. I transferred it to this space and got the building. My dad came over and helped us build the front bar and we got that going for the first year. We opened up the venue room a year or so later and it has been great to us.
Why has it taken you and Louise so long to make the album?
We keep getting asked that. We started it three or four years ago. We put down three or four tracks intending to go back to it but we got tied up with the pub and other things. Last summer we were playing a good bit of music and I said to Louise when we go back to Ireland in September we are going to finish this album and we set a launch date, so the pressure was on.
Also, we have all these musicians playing The Backroom Series at The Burren so we said we should have our own show and CD launch. I suppose I needed a kick up the arse to just do it.
Grace Bay is out now. Check out The Burren at www.burren.com