June 29, 2021
Written by 
Luke F. McCusker III

Baltimore's Early Irish Fiddlers do Battle

The Irish Railroad Workers Museum sends its greetings to each who reads these issues of our series of historical articles that we call "The Big Pivot". They were begun to keep our Museum and extended community engaged as we muddled through the difficult days of Covid-19. Many thousands have read these writings once, and then twice. Some forward these emails to relatives and friends, while other have begun a collection of articles they have printed out...or saved to a particular electronic file folder. We rejoice in all of that...and are inspired by your appreciation.

Baltimore was an important destination for Irish even before the days of the Great Hunger. Ambitious Irish Protestants made a good living as ship merchants, and helped establish the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the nation’s first common carrier of passengers and freight. Their biggest need besides capital was the laborers who did the physical work of building a railroad, and the men of the West of Ireland were their largest source. These early Irish dug and built a railroad all the way to Cumberland, Maryland before the famine years began.

They were among more than 250,000 of their countrymen who immigrated to America between 1820-1840. Immigrant Irish took work wherever it could be found. Canal work was done overwhelmingly by Irish labor, as was considerable labor in America’s mines and mills. These workers arrived before the drastic famine years, and built a young nation.

Baltimore’s Hibernian Society was established in 1803 to provide aid to these workers and their families who often arrived in a desperate state. The Society offered help with the practical needs of these arrivals.

Many Irish immigrants who arrived in Baltimore lived in the shipping center of Fell’s Point, where work was readily found. Others headed westward to the Mount Clare Shops of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, dedicated in 1828. Each man and his family had needs of their own, but also brought traditions and passions with them.

Love of traditional Irish music and dance were among their fondest memories of home. Songs were carried in their heart, and the sound of the fiddle was the most common instrumental accompaniment to song and dance, as a piano was a good bit beyond the means of most Irish. Some Catholic churches in Ireland were built towards the end of any meaningful enforcement of the Penal Laws, and worship through music was a part of some lives. That being said, the fiddle could be easily brought into homes and to the crossroads that were a typical setting for musical gatherings.

We have spent a fair amount of time looking at newspaper articles that describe earlier Irish music performance in the Baltimore area, and these include hundreds of gatherings of Irish for celebrations of their culture and customs. The most common setting seems to be during festivals and celebrations by organizations that had many singers performing, without an accompanying instrument being mentioned…likely piano. It’s been wonderful exploring these, as the songs performed 140 years ago are a click away online.

We have thankfully found information about important fiddlers, and just beyond. Enjoy as we retell the stories of another era, including one that dovetails into a visit we had at the Museum just a few years ago from a descendant of an important Irish musician who ran a railroad by day, and entertained the Irish by night.

Baltimore newspaper articles of early years show us that while Baltimore might not have had their own uilleann (union) pipers, some visited one of America’s largest cities to perform. These must have been Irish natives who brought the plaintive wail of the Irish pipes to cultural events held here. Included in this collection was a fella named Martin Ward, who performed a benefit Concert of Irish and Scottish Airs in 1842 for audiences in both D.C. and Baltimore. The program included The Valley Lay Smiling Before Me and several other selections.

Piper James Touhey came to Baltimore in 1891 to perform in an Irish melodrama at the Holliday Theatre, titled ”An Irishman’s Love”. Mr. McGough of Philadelphia also brought his set of pipes to Baltimore, performing with fiddler Larry Ward at the United Irish League picnic in August, 1908.

Irish fiddling in the area was dominated by Larry Ward for decades, who arrived in Baltimore before the outbreak of the Civil War. He is listed in the 1858 and 1860 Baltimore directories as a musician, living in East Baltimore. Ward was listed as a Professor of Music in the 1860 U.S. Census, at age 25. This might not have been a profession that could pay the bills, and he took a job as a policeman by 1870. His home included his wife Esther and three children.

Larry was a native of Carrickmacross, County Monaghan, born in 1832. He took to music at an early age and was known as a musician with particularly fine instruments, including a Kilkenny violin that was more than 225 years old when it was played at Baltimore's St. Patrick Catholic Church on April 22, 1897. Among the pieces played that night were the Rocky Road to Dublin and Connaughtman’s Rambles.

Larry Ward seems to have played at hundreds of gatherings, and it was a common sight to see men and women breaking out in Irish dance, regardless of age or infirmity. His performances were likely a key element in the perpetuation of Irish dance in the area.

Larry’s preeminence in the Irish music scene of Baltimore was unrivalled until the arrival of Mathew J. “Mattie” White of County Roscommon in 1891. He was known as the “southern” answer to Larry Ward, who was raised close to the Ulster region to the north.

White was born in 1873, some 38 years after rival Larry Ward entered the world. Mathew was a pupil of John Saul, a famous musician, and developed his talents to the point that Saul had his capable student give his first performance at Donamon Castle (pictured), just across the river in County Galway.

The impressive structure had been built with the help of Mathew’s father in earlier years, and was a fitting place for his debut at an annual harvest festival held there. Mathew and other musicians led the celebration of music, dance and feasting that celebrated the gathering of a successful harvest, circa 1885.

Mathew eventually immigrated to Baltimore and held down a full-time job, working as an engineer for the Baltimore Sun printing presses, among other settings. He and his wife Delia Garvey White raised eleven children in St. John’s 10th Ward, where their children were educated and received the sacraments.

Two generations of Irish fiddlers were now in place to take up the challenge given by Baltimore’s Irish leaders. Hibernian Day, held on August 10, 1911 featured the two musicians doing battle for the title of Baltimore’s top Irish fiddler. A prize was established, and the Irish dancers of the community agreed to serve as judges.

It would be known as a battle between the North and South, and between two generations. Larry was 79, and limber of arm. Mathew was 38 years old, and a high energy player. They gathered at the Ancient Order of Hibernian’s annual picnic at Prospect Park, where different sporting activities, speeches by politicians and the shouting of children made for an active fun day. But it was the fiddler’s battle that was the highlight of the gathering, and Larry Ward and Mattie White took their place to perform airs, reels and jigs for an appreciative audience.

Numbers of the day included The Frost is All Over and The Star of Munster. Dancers from the audience joined the performance, and a predominance of grey heads beat out the steps of their youth. None was more striking than dancer Mrs. Ella Moran, who attended that day with her five daughters and ten grandchildren.

The team of judges had the wisdom of Solomon, and declared the contest a draw.

Larry lived to the ripe old age of 83, and died on June 29, 1915. He was placed with his wife Esther at New Cathedral Cemetery.

Mathew J. White became the unchallenged top Irish fiddler of the city and provided the music for Irish events such as the Hibernian Day gathering held on August 20, 1915. He was also the featured musician at the same gathering in 1919, attended by 15,000.

Mr. White also took up a partnership with John P. McGowan, a native of County Mayo and General Foreman of the Mount Clare Shops, Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. In addition to a highly successful career, John was an accomplished musician, playing both violin and the uilleann pipes.

They often performed at public venues, including at an Irish Halloween dance in 1924, and on a WCAO radio program in 1926. John was considered one of just a few musicians in America who were accomplished Irish pipers.

The beautiful photo provided by John's descendants (see image, top of page) shows dancers with them. Newspaper articles indicate that Mathew and John sometimes performed with four set dancers at various functions: two men and two women.

These musicians and dancers also performed an Irish Set Dance at Baltimore’s Albaugh Theater in April, 1914. The theme of the evening was an Irish Night minstrel show, where they performed along with members of St. Patrick’s Church.

Their partnership began as early as February 1912, when they played at a surprise birthday party for Patrick J. L. Healy at his home, 131 S. Schroeder St. Baltimoreans are likely familiar with this family who ran an Irish pub for well over one hundred years at the corner of S. Schroeder and W. Pratt Sts. (see image).

The party's guest list included members of the Rowley family. Mr. Rowley was present that evening, and played Irish tunes on his accordion while Delia Rowley and Delia Nolan served refreshments.

The family continued the business into the twentieth century (see modern image of Patrick Rowley, below).

Mathew J. White continued playing in Baltimore's 10th Ward into the 1930's, notably at gatherings in private homes. He and a daughter played for Irish dance gatherings held at the Byrnes home on Valley Street and the Keane home on Forrest St.

Andy Donnelan also played flute, and John Hanberry the mouth organ. Accordion and banjo players also participated in these events.

Mathew J. White passed away on February 23, 1940. His family remembered him at a Requiem Mass held on St. Patrick's Day, 1941 at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church.

These early performers of traditional Irish music, along with the dancers that gathered while they performed, were an integral part of the development of Irish culture in one of America’s most vibrant immigration centers.

More research needs to be done to understand the flow of the tradition into the present day, but the role of early musicians such as Larry Ward, Mathew J. White and John P. McGowan served to enrich the cultural life of many of our ancestors, who brought their best Irish traditions to our beloved Baltimore.

Our Museum is so thankful for the musicians who continue performing in the Irish tradition. My, how things have changed; a city with just a few Irish fiddlers among them now has hundreds of musicians just a phone call or text message away.

We estimate that at least 50 musicians have performed at a Museum event during the last 10 years, including those who have performed at our Gala events and at three fantastic Heritage Investment Grant Events in 2019 (see photos). What a joy it has been; let’s do it again real soon, once this pandemic is done running the show.

Are you one that enjoys traditional Irish Music? Song titles that were performed by these earlier musicians are scattered through this writing, and can be enjoyed via YouTube or other music streaming services. Here are some more songs that were played in Baltimore’s early days, and just might be worth a listen today:

Fisher’s Hornpipe

The Star of Munster

The Pigeon on the Gate

The Salamanca Reel

The Soldier’s Joy

The Top of Cork Road

We also thank those who contributed to this article:

Baltimore Sun

Baltimore News-American

Emerald Isle Club

Larry Smith (in loving memory)

McGowan, Menefee and Kurth families

Timothy McCusker and Family

The Many Traditional Irish Musicians of Maryland

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