Irish Music Elders

Malachy Towey and Kevin Henry are two of the elder statesman of Irish music in Chicago. Towey, age 93, plays the bodhrán, an Irish frame drum. Henry is 85, and plays the flute.

For more than 50 years, they have been part of a vibrant Irish music scene in Chicago. Recently, Jay Shefsky stopped by at their weekly music session at Lanigan’s Pub on 111th Street, and has a profile of these two longtime musicians and friends.

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Kevin Henry: My name is Kevin Henry and I’m 85 years of age. Eighty-five years young actually!

Malachy Towey: I’m Malachy Towey and I come from the west of Ireland come to Mayo.  I was born November 1920. 

Jay Shefsky: Kevin Henry and Malachy Towey are two of the elder statesmen of Irish music in Chicago

Malachy is friendly and talkative, yet he plays his drum almost as if in a trance.

Kevin, you may have noticed, has a flair for the dramatic.

Henry: I come from a place in Ireland called County Sligo on the borders of Mayo.

Shefsky: Kevin started with a fife and drum band when he was 11. Like most musicians of his time, he learned by ear.

Malachy’s instrument is called a bodhrán. Today, the bodhrán is a staple of traditional Irish music. But when Malachy made his first one at age 9 with his father, he says you rarely saw them.

Towey: The bodhrán was usually only played one day of the year in Ireland. And that was what they called St. Stephen’s Day.

Shefsky: Kevin came to Chicago in 1955. When Malachy arrived in 1957, he changed Irish music in this town. 

Towey:  When I came in here, as far as I know I had the only bodhrán in Chicago.  

Shefsky: For the last 15 years, Malachy Towey and Kevin Henry have played every Sunday night here at Lanigan’s Pub on the South Side.

In the Irish music world, these gatherings of mostly amateur musicians are called “sessions.” There are weekly sessions all over the Chicago area. Kevin Henry runs this one.

They’re not performances exactly. It just feels like friends sitting around playing music.

In fact, to begin Kevin just starts to play and the others join in.

Henry: You let everybody do their own thing, if you know what I mean, and you join in if you know, and if you don’t know it, you don’t do it.

Shefsky:  Kevin Henry has played all manner of flutes and whistles and pipes. But as important as music is to him, he’s glad it’s always been a sideline.

Henry:  When you get paid for it, it changes because you’re repeating yourself so often.  But when you play for the love of it, you play it differently.

Shefsky:  Kevin Henry can play more than a thousand tunes, I’m told, but you will never catch him playing from a book.

Henry: You read it out of a book, it’s the book that’s telling you what to do. When you’re doing it by heart as we call it, you’re doing what you’re feeling.

Shefsky: Both Kevin and Malachy admit that these days when the younger players get going really fast, they can have a tough time keeping up.

Did you think you’d still be playing at 85?  

Henry: No I did not. I thought I’d be planted!  

Towey: It’s like a part of your life, music is. And I think people that have music, they’ve got something that they don’t know how valuable it is to the people who haven’t got it.

Shefsky: Both Kevin Henry and Malachy Towey say they will keep playing for as long as they can. They can’t imagine life without traditional music sessions at an Irish pub.

For “Chicago Tonight,” this is Jay Shefsky.

Towey: Have a drink on the house tonight and I don’t know if we’ll pay for it or not. 

Watch WTTW’s Irish Chicago documentary below:

– Kristen Thometz and Yasmin Rammohan contributed to this report.

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