Pat O'Brien, Seamus Connolly & Brendan Tonra
Irish fiddle and flute player Brendan Tonra (1935-2014) is remembered as a congenial, somewhat shy, old-style Irish gentleman whose music spoke for him throughout his life. This past February, he succumbed to cancer at the age of 78.
Tonra came to Boston in 1959, from Gowlan, County Mayo, near the Sligo border, and quickly became part of the Irish music scene in Dudley Square, Roxbury. A few weeks after landing, he was talking to some musicians at Intercolonial Hall, and they discovered he played.
“They asked me to play a tune on the fiddle, and when I was finished, they asked me if I had a fiddle and a white shirt and black bow tie, and if so, to show up next Saturday night and I could play with the band for $12 a night, not bad for those times, and that's how I started playing in this country,” Tonra recalled in 2000 when he was inducted into the Comhaltas Northeast Regional Hall of Fame.
Through the 1960s he played in the Tara Ceili Band with Larry Reynolds, Tom Garvey and others, followed by the Connaught Ceili Band with Jimmy and Sally Kelly, Mike McDonagh and others. In later years, he played regularly at Comhaltas sessions, in concert settings, and finally at informal house gatherings with close friends.
Brendan’s enduring musical companion over the past three decades was pianist Helen Kisiel, who first met him in the 1970s when she came to him for tin whistle lessons. She eventually become one of his dearest, most caring friends, and his soul mate.
“We made a nice musical partnership,” Kisiel says. “Eventually, I could accompany him on the piano on everything he played, including his new tunes.”
Indeed, many people will remember Brendan as a composer of lovely Irish tunes, some of them disarmingly simple, capturing the essence of Irish dance music; others, especially in his later years, more intricate and complex.
He self-published a booklet of 17 original tunes in 1988 called the Music of Brendan Tonra, and then a decade later published A Musical Voyage with Brendan Tonra, with 90 original tunes that were “inspired by his friends and loved ones, memories of his childhood, or special occasions,” says Kisiel, adding the tunes constituted “a musical story of his life.”
In 2002, Brendan was awarded Ireland’s TG4 Gradam Ceoil Composer of the Year award, and traveled to Ireland to receive the award.
In fact, many of Brendan’s tunes, like Tonra’s Jig, Boston-Sligo Reel, Gowlan Reel and Christmas in America, have been recorded by various musicians over the decades, like Sean Maguire, the Liverpool Ceili Band, Seamus and Martin Connolly, Brendan Bulger, Kevin McElroy, Seamus Tansey, Andy McGann and others.
“Brendan learned all of his music by ear,” said Kisiel, and though he could read a little music, he preferred to write out his compositions in letter form (A-G) rather than in musical notation. It was left up to his friends to transpose the music to make it more widely available.
A few years ago, with the help of their friends, flutist Susan Lindsay and dancer Kieran Jordan, Brendan and Helen made a children’s book of one of his tunes, Three Ducks and a Goose: an Irish Tale andTune.
His compositions aside, many local musicians remember Brendan as a fine fiddle player and flutist whose playing abilities were sometimes overshadowed by his compositions.
Fiddle champion Brendan Bulger was a lad when he first met Tonra at the Canadian-American Club in Watertown, and came to appreciate Tonra’s understated style. “His bowing was nice and easy, in a way that allowed you to see the rhythm and phrasing of the music he plays,” Bulger says. “He didn’t look like he had to work at it at all, just kind of easily lifting music out of the fiddle.
“I bet the people who play his tunes, but never met him, probably understand he couldn’t have composed tunes and phrasings that fit the fiddle so without knowing his way around it like the back of his hand,” Bugler says.
“People know of Brendan’s music, but not as much his playing,” said Frank Kennedy, of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann. “I was with Brendan when he gave a concert in Dublin, and many people hadn’t heard of him. But they all knew his tunes.”
“His fiddling was distinctive, but not forceful,” said BrianO’Donovan, musician and radio host of A Celtic Sojourn on WGBH. “His tunes are the stuff of tradition, and in my opinion we will hear a lot more of them pass seamlessly into the session repertoire over the next few years.”
“I first met Brendan when I came out to Boston,” said Irish fiddle player SeamusConnolly. “I was lonesome for Ireland, and I was intrigued to hear him playing, I didn’t think I would have heard Sligo style fiddle playing in Boston.”
Pianist Tom Garvey, who played with him frequently over the years, recalls that Brendan often played the wooden flute in bands where there were already fiddlers, helping to flesh out the full ceili sound.
Brendan was married to the late Bridget (Donohue) Tonra and has three daughters, Barbara, Sheila and Jacqueline. His funeral was held at the Mission Church in Mission Hill, not far from the old music halls in Dudley Square. He is buried at the New Calvary Cemetery in Mattapan.