All Ireland Fleadh winning songstress Anne Brolly jokes when her five children were growing up, her eldest Joe, a champion accordion button player, likened their home to that of the von Trapps in ‘The Sound of Music’ and, as she recalls those days, it seems that’s just how it was.
The Tyrone native, who made Dungiven her home when she married teacher and former MLA Francie 45 years ago, says the couple were exposed to Irish music and language from a young age, and that inheritance has been passed on to their children.
“There was always music in the family,” says Anne, who smiles at the memory of her mother who always said she could sing before she could speak. Her cousin was Bill ‘Shawn’ Corey, a dance double in Hollywood, who performed with Gene Kelly, Rita Hayworth and Ginger Rogers. Another cousin, Eileen Donaghy was a well known singer, making a name for herself alongside great talent like Bridie Galllagher.
Anne’s talent was evident from a young age and at school, as a baby infant, she recalls singing for the teachers, pocketing the odd sixpence or thruppence along the way. Aged eight she joined Frank O’Neill’s troupe and would entertain audiences with gems like ‘There’s a hole in my bucket dear Liza’.
“We had Irish dancing, we went to ceilis and, I suppose, music was very much part of life in those days,” she says.
After tying the knot with Francie in 1968, Anne continued singing and went on to win the All Ireland traditional singing (English) in 1972. In later years she travelled to America with Comhaltas in 1973 and in 1975. Francie was also playing with The Roe Gems band and was a founder member of Comhaltas in Derry and helped organise the first Comhaltas fleadh in Derry, which was held in Dungiven.
“It was great, really terrific,” says Anne. “There were musicians playing on the street and in the pubs and they were hosted in people’s houses. The town was packed, and there were a lot of house sessions.”
The couple would produce at least five albums together including ‘Farewell to Derry’ and ‘Beautiful Ireland’.
“An agent did approach us to see if we would think about going professional, but we weren’t prepared to give up our jobs and, of course, there would have been great disruption for the children,” says Anne.
Like their parents, the Brolly children were always around music, whether it was sessions in the house or at fleadhs.
From young Nodlaig on the flute, piano and harp, to Joe on the button accordion and piano; Conal and Proinnsías on the fiddle and Aine singing and playing harp and piano, there was always music in the home, says Anne.
“Joe had heard All Ireland champion Joe Burke play the button accordion, and I remember him saying ‘mammy I want to play like that’, and that’s where he heard it. He was the Derry Fleadh button accordion champion in the U8 category! He is very musicial, all the children are,” says Anne. “Our Joe used to say our house was like the von Trapps in ‘The Sound of Music’. We always had people calling to play music and, I suppose, for the children it was like osmosis. They just absorbed it.”
Anne says having the All Ireland Fleadh in Derry has “allowed people of the city and beyond to hear and be exposed to the very best in music, and to understand the power of music and how it has enriched all our lives, and see the spirit of togetherness and that comaraderie of music that we see in sessions”.
“That’s why I always saw the value of bringing the Fleadh to Derry because the people of Derry have worked so hard at community relations and I knew it would be an example to the world in how the people of Derry can sort out their differences and how music can unite us,” says Anne, who says it’s equally important that the music and Irish language is preserved, promoted and encouraged and “that’s why we have to have a big hurrah for Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann who have made sure the music and language is kept, promoted and encouraged.”
And no-one can accuse Anne and Francie of not doing their bit to preserve and promote Irish language and music, which was evident during the All Ireland Fleadh when Anne was honoured at the Ceannrodai Awards for her contribution to traditional music. On that special evening, Anne and Francie performed together, daughter Nodlaig played the harp, and grandaughter Aine sang.
“The Fleadh showed the best of what and who we are, and what we have,” adds Anne, “and as Francie always says, Derry is not a city - it’s a big friendly town!”