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No Better Boy, Listening to Paddy Canny

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Helen O'Shea

Lilliput Press


No Better Boy tells the story of a master of traditional Irish music: the legendary East Clare fiddler Paddy Canny, whose haunting music was remarkable for its virtuosity and sophistication.

In the 1950s, when he was in his thirties and at the pinnacle of his career, Paddy Canny became a national radio star, played solo in Carnegie Hall, toured England with the renowned Tulla Céilí Band, and made a much-loved recording. All were extraordinary achievements for a man raised on a marginal farm, where the gramophone records that inspired him were accessible only through the good grace of neighbours. In richly evocative prose, Helen O’Shea distils stories of success and adversity that Paddy Canny told to family and friends, to radio interviewers and historians. These stories illuminate rural life in mid-twentieth-century Ireland, major social and economic changes, and the decline and revival of traditional music and dancing.

A compelling story told with passion and insight, this is a book for readers with an interest in Ireland’s social history and for music lovers everywhere.

No Better Boy includes annotated transcriptions of music played by Paddy Canny and his contemporaries, sourced from archives and personal collections as well as commercial recordings.

About the author
Helen O’Shea is the Australian author of non-fiction works about Irish traditional music, including her acclaimed book The Making of Irish Traditional Music (2008). She has also published creative non-fiction based on oral history projects in rural Australia. For most of her life, Helen has performed Irish traditional music on the fiddle, mentored by musicians from East Galway and East Clare, including Paddy Canny’s brother Jack, who migrated to Australia in the 1960s. From first hearing a recording of Paddy Canny playing with P. J. Hayes, she fell in love with his music, as so many listeners have. Her musical understanding developed during her years as a graduate student in Ireland c1980, while researching Seamus Heaney’s poetry, in extended visits to Ireland and during a year of doctoral fieldwork in East Clare in 2000. Her experience teaching and researching at universities in Ireland and Australia encompasses literature, history and music. She is currently an honorary research fellow in ethnomusicology at the University of Melbourne.

Praise for No Better Boy: Listening to Paddy Canny
‘A “must-read” for anyone who loves traditional music. Paddy Canny was a master fiddle player who was reluctant to seek attention for his craft. Helen O’Shea’s portrait offers insights into his rural background, his musical influences, the peers he engaged with, and how his musical values shaped his style. The book is beautifully illustrated and the musical transcriptions will be welcomed by practitioners who appreciate the nuances in the art form. No Better Boy is a remarkable achievement.’ Liam O’Connor, Director, Irish Traditional Music Archive

‘This book is a delight. Helen O’Shea captures intimately the musical, physical and personal landscapes of East Clare as if they were her own. I found myself, my locale, and the people and the music I know and love, illuminated in new and wonderful ways.’ Paula Carroll, Broadcaster and Oral Historian

‘The playing on the recording I am hearing is nearly as ebullient and restless as [Michael] Coleman’s, but Canny could squeeze a note to make it cry at nearly the same speed, with an exquisitely tasteful glissando, and he let the subtlest decrescendo fall with a nearly imperceptible slackening of the pace to end a phrase. O’Shea has said just about all that can be said about these matters, and said it well.’ The Journal of Music

‘[This] beautifully illustrated tome goes to the heart of the man and his music.’ Fiona McGarry, Clare Champion

‘No Better Boy provides a profound and compelling picture of Canny’s life and music, accessible to non-musicians and musicians alike. O’Shea’s prose style bears a certain kinship to Canny’s music, at once lyrical and economical … this is a meticulously researched piece of writing … her diligence as an oral historian must be applauded [and her] command of narrative and imagery leaves such a profound emotional impact. One of the most interesting aspects of the book is its depiction of the series of technological and cultural revolutions that reshaped Irish traditional music in the 20th century.’ Matthew Horsley, Tinteán

‘Helen O’Shea has written a splendid and multi-layered book, blending text, image and music. The Lilliput Press have produced a very handsome book; it is most attractive to the eye and to the holding hand. Paddy Canny is most fortunate in having Helen O’Shea as his recording angel.’ Peter Beirne