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Aggie Whyte was born in Ballinakill, Co. Galway, in 1920. Her father Tommy was a well known musician and a founder member of the Ballinakill Dance Players, later the Ballinakill Ceilidhe Band. Ballinakill was an area renowned for its musical tradition and at that time, every house boasted a fiddle or flute in the chimney corner.
Aggie's first teacher was, undoubtedly, her father Tommy, and then arrived on the scene one of those rare, dedicated teachers of traditional music, Jack Mulkere. Aggie was one of his first pupils in Ballinakill old school. From an early age, she showed great promise and it wasn't long before she was in demand at concerts, feiseanna and particularly in her own house in Ballinakill which, at that time, was a mecca for musicians from far and near. Her earliest successes included trophies won at feiseanna in Creggs, Roscommon, Ardrahan, Gort and Ballinakill itself. All along the way, she was encouraged by her parish priest Fr. Tom Larkin, himself a fiddler and a founder member of the Ballinakill Dance Players. In 1938, Aggie travelled to England with the band. On returning from London, they made recordings in Dublin under His Master's Voice label. From then on she was a regular member of the band and they travelled extensively. Incidentally, one of their engagements was playing at the 21st Birthday party of Lord Killanin, later to be President of the Olympic Council.
By now, Aggie had become a household name. This was due to her success in 'Newcomer's Hour' on Raidió Éireann and her participation on many radio programmes in Ireland, England and Scotland. During post war years, Aggie featured in reciprocal folk music programmes with Irish, Dutch and Italian radio stations. She paid many visits to Dublin and the 'Calling House' was of course 'The Pipers Club'. Here she partnered the Rowsomes, Searys, Recks and many others.
In January 1951 Alan Lomax and Robin Roberts undertook the work of systematically mapping by recordings, the folk or oral music tradition of Ireland. Recordings had already been made by Brian George of B.B.C. in 1947. Accompanied by Séamus Ennis, they travelled to places in Ireland where Irish was spoken and music played. With the co-operation of Séamus Ó Duilearga and Séan O'Sullivan of the Irish Folklore Commission, Raidió Éireann and the B.B.C., a collection of recordings was issued. Solo recordings of Aggie are featured in this collection, as well as with the band and a duet with her sister, Bridie, entitled, 'The Mason’s Apron', adjudged by Séamus Ennis as being a perfect fiddle duet.
In 1952 Aggie married Séamus Ryan, a Cork man with a great love of the Irish language and culture. In 1953, their twin daughters Kathleen and Maureen were born. The following year in 1954, Aggie won the All-Ireland Senior Fiddle Competition in Cavan, a win she prized all her life. She also won All-Ireland honours in duets with Joe Burke, and with bands, notably the Leitrim Céilí Band. She also played and toured with the Tulla Céilí Band. In 1958, Aggie won the Oireachtas Gold Medal for Fiddle, and the Oireachtas Duet competition with Peadar O'Loughlin – another great feat.
Along with competing, Aggie and Séamus became popular and most competent adjudicators at county, provincial and All-Ireland level. Of Aggie, her co-adjudicator Fr. P.J. Kelly once said:
Along with her artistic accomplishments, was also her ability at fleadhanna to adjudicate with real skill. I could face my audience with complete self assurance once I had talked it over with Aggie.
In the Whyte family the music was not confined to Aggie alone. Her sister Bridie, an accomplished fiddler, joined her in recordings and radio and television appearances and also in a later grouping of the Céilí Band. Eva, a versatile ballad singer featured also on radio and was nationally known for her renderings of 'The Little Thatched Cabin'.
There was a constant stream of musicians to Aggie's home in Ballinakill. Joe Burke was a regular visitor; so was Peadar O'Loughlin, Séamus Connolly, Eddie Moloney, Mickey Hanrahan, Willie Clancy, Paddy O'Brien, Paddy Carty and many more. Fr. J. Solon, C.C. Portumna, recorded a wealth of this music. There was always one who got into the act at the most inopportune time - Pudsy, the black and white terrier, who barked in the middle of the recording!
Aggie's help to aspiring fiddlers was always forthcoming. Although she never taught the fiddle, yet she shared her expertise with young musicians. She was ready to show them correct positioning and intricate triplets or correct phrasing. Aggie's musical life continued throughout the 1970s. In 1971 the family journeyed to East Durham, a holiday centre in the Catskills, in Upstate New York. There, Andy McGann, Mike Rafferty, Tom Comiskey, Jack Coen, Pat Mulvihill, and the Kehoe family came and joined in the sessions.
Also during the '70s, Séamus and Aggie really enjoyed performing in the local Seisiún productions. In February 1978, Aggie was invited to University College Cork, where a seminar on fiddling styles was held. Aggie represented the East Galway style.
Nature hushed on the 16th August 1979 when Aggie Whyte Ryan said her final goodbye to Ballinakill and the country she loved so well. This wonderful musician who had so often recorded at His Master's Voice, now responded to her heavenly Master's Call and the appointment she had to fill at the Seisiún in Birr, was kept in Heaven.
By Michael Harrison
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