Tin whistle player Mary Bergin was born in Shankill, Co Dublin, in 1949. Her mother played classical and traditional fiddle, and her father played the melodeon. Musicians like Paddy Hill, Mrs Crotty and Mrs Harrington were regular visitors to the house. Despite attempts to teach her the piano and violin, she took to the Clarke C whistle, picking up tunes by ear. She also took up the flute in her later teens.
She remembers early on hearing Willie Clancy play the tin whistle at the Oireachtas in Dublin. The family used to go on holidays to Miltown Malbay, Co Clare, and the Ring Gaeltacht in Co Waterford. It was in Ring that she heard Nioclas Toibin singing. In Miltown Malbay she would play with Willie Clancy and the other musicians.
“When I think back, I used to listen to the old fiddle players. I always felt that they had something very special, the rhythm in their playing. While whistle players would have listened to whistle players, I listened to all instruments.”
With harpist sister Antoinette McKenna she started playing at sessions in Blackrock where she met the blind whistler Terry Horan. Venturing further into Dublin led her to the Claremen’s Club in Bridge Street, and the Pipers Club in Thomas Street. The growing folk boom and the expansion of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann led to Comhaltas tours of Britain with, among others, Liam Og O Flynn and Matt Molloy and the US with Seamus Begley, Joe Burke and James Kelly. She also worked for a brief but unfulfilling spell with Comhaltas.
In Dublin’s Brazen Head pub she met Alex Finn who introduced her to Spiddal in Co Galway where De Danann were coming together as a group. Spiddal was also home to one of the pioneers of Gael-linn tin whistle recordings, Festi Conlon, who died in summer 2001.
She played for five years with the Green Linnet Ceili Band in Dublin: Mick Hand, flute, Tommy Peoples, fiddle, Johnny McMahon, box, Liam Rowsome, fiddle. Then she joined Ceoltoiri Laigheann with Eamon de Buitlear, a group she found interesting for their arrangements and because they played a lot of slow tunes. Then came a stint with De Danann, interrupted by motherhood – she was married to Australian instrument maker Bruce du Ve. She still does the occasional tour with Antoinette and Joe McKenna.
Mary Bergin has seen the tin whislte develop over the years with lots of different styles of whistle playing. She said in one interview: “Some people would use their tongues quite a lot and have a sort of staccato style. Then others wouldn’t use very much tongue – and instead rely on the fingers for the ornamentation. The style that I would use is a combination of the two; the tongue to punch out the rhythm and the fingers for ornamentation – the rolls and such.
“The action when I play is more at the tips of my fingers. Some people play down at their knuckles. A lot of the pipers play that way. So it comes easier for them to play the whistle using the middle joints in their fingers. The sound is the same but it makes it much easier to cover the holes because the fingers are fatter.”
She joined up with Dearbhaill Standun, Kathleen Loughnane and Martina Goggin in the early Nineties to form the baroque and traditional group Dordan and started writing tunes, including The Mistletoe Waltz. Four of her tunes are included on the Dordan CD Oiche Nollag/Christmas Capers. Beside some touring most of her time now is devoted to teaching, privately and in schools. She also teaches by correspondence to America, England and Australia.
She puts a lot of thought into her teaching, as she told Mic Moroney of The Irish Times:
” . . . One fear I would always have, even in my class situation, is that the emphasis is on technicality, whereas for me, the whole thing is the feeling and heart and soul, that’s what the older musicians had – something special, an internal rhythm, that nya! or sway, you find yourself moving your shoulders.
“I don’t think you can teach that, it comes with feeling, and mixing with people that have it, and it’s important to impart that right from the cradle – even from an enjoyment and social point of view, the sharing of the playing.”
Feadoga Stain 2, Gael-linn, 1992
Feadoga Stain, Traditional Irish Music on the Tin Whistle, Gael-linn, 1979
Celtic Aire, Narada, 1999
Oiche Nollag/Christmas Capers, 1996, own label. Re-released as The Night Before … A Celtic Christmas, Narada, 1997.
Ceol Traidisiunta agus Baroc, Gael-linn, 1991.
Related interest: Kris Lamb, flute Collector