I remember the days when you first hit the scene,
You were larger than life and you played like a dream,
The people they came from near and far,
To witness your magic and to buy you a jar ...
Johnny Finn, 'The Hair of the Dog (in memory of Mickey Finn)'
While traveling through Ireland I stayed a few nights at a hostel in County Galway. On my arrival I asked the hostel warden where I could hear some good Irish music.
She said, "Well, you'll want to go the The Crane, and IF you can get a seat and IF Mickey Finn shows up and IF he doesn't get too drunk you'll hear some of the best fiddle music in the world. Get there early though it's hardly a secret".
Spurred by her recommendation I took the bus into town with a couple of folks I'd met at the hostel, hoping she was right.
The Crane was a noted bar in Galway that was located on the second floor of a block of shops. We arrived just after dinner, but the place was already nearing capacity. Finding seats against the wall, we got pints and waited. As the sun was going down outside the windows, and around the time we were giving up on anything beyond another night at the pub, there was an increase in the energy of the room and someone near us pointed out that Mickey Finn had arrived. I looked toward the entrance to see a very thin, very unhealthy looking old man shuffling into the room. He was dressed in filthy clothes that hung on his wiry frame, his hair was dirty, though neatly combed, and his face was obscured by a wildly long, dark beard that hung halfway down his chest. On closer inspection I realized that he was probably no more than 50, but was worn from years of hard living. He was accompanied by another man who looked like a younger version of himself, carrying a worn guitar case and a pitifully worn fiddle case.
Terry Smith & Mickey Finn
sometime in the 1970's
Mickey was obviously a popular figure at the bar, but I could also tell that the crowd had great respect for him, bordering on awe. He stood and talked with his admirers while sipping glasses of straight whiskey. As he started his sixth drink I figured this would be one of those nights he got too drunk to play, and I went back to talking with the group I arrived with. About half an hour later I was deep in conversation when the room fell silent in an instant. Surprised by the abrupt absence of sound, I turned to see that Mickey was now seated in a chair between the door and the bar, bracing himself against the wall. He had placed his fiddle under his chin, nearly losing the lower half of it in his immense unkempt beard. With no announcement the room had gone silent as a concert hall.
... and then he began to play.
I don't know how long he played, but it seemed like just a moment (though it must have been over an hour). He did not play the quick reels that I had been hearing up until that point, but rather, he played with a slow, melancholy tone such that each note seemed to shimmer and dance off of his fiddle. Where he had been bent and stiff in his movements before, he now seemed flexible and lithe. His hands moving effortlessly on the strings and the bow seeming to grow out of his arm. The crowd sat and stood around him, frozen where they were and seeming to not dare to move.
I don't think I was ever so transported in listening to music as I was that night. It was not the Guinness, it was the man and his fiddle. Someone in the crowd later commented that this must be the music they listened to in heaven.
A few years later I was sitting at a table in my favorite bar in San Francisco (Spec's just off of Columbus and Broadway in North Beach). I looked up and there was a poster of Ireland's 6 or 8 greatest fiddlers. Mickey Finn was among them, looking as hairy and scraggly as when I'd seen him in the flesh.