In September 2010, Mike Rafferty—or, as we like to call him, “The Mighty Raff”—received the National Heritage Award, the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on the nation’s traditional artists. Quite simply, no one deserves it more. Mike has become a truly legendary figure in the long, distinguished history of Irish traditional music in America.
Mike was born in 1926, the fourth of seven children, in the village of Larraga in Ballinakill Parish, East Galway. This was an area known nationally for its great music, and particularly for its fiddlers and flute players. When he was seven, he began tin whistle lessons with an uncle and, at age twelve, picked up the flute. His main mentor was his father, who was recognized locally as one of the finest flute players in the region. His nickname was “Barrel,” given to him because he could get such a great tone from the flute, and eventually “Barrels” became the nickname of the whole family.
At that time young men and women typically completed their formal schooling at fourteen. This part of the rural west of Ireland had been hard hit economically since the mid-nineteenth century. Employment possibilities were severely limited, and there were few opportunities for young men like Mike.
Traditional flute player Mike Rafferty received the NEA’s National Heritage Award this fall. Photo: Tom Pich, courtesy of the National Endowment for the Arts.
He worked sporadically as a farmhand and also did construction work for the Land Commission, but in order to advance himself in life, he had to do what thousands from East Galway had done before him— emigrate to America. He ended up in New York and later in New Jersey, and with the help of friends already established in their new home, Mike worked at a variety of jobs, including gardening and loading supermarket trucks. He also on occasion took on a second job as a bartender. He married and began to raise a family of five children with his wife, Teresa.
These duties left little time for music, and Mike practically abandoned the flute for close to ten years. Then various musical friends from East Galway based in New York, such as Jack and Charlie Coen and Sean McGlynn, encouraged him to start playing again. He switched for a while to the silver flute and gradually recovered his technique and built his repertoire.
I first met Mike in 1975 and was impressed by his beautiful, unhurried, lyrical playing and the subtle swing to the music which has been indelibly associated with the East Galway style since the early twentieth century. Mike had learned the tunes and stylistic nuances by ear, like almost all of the traditional musicians of his generation.
By then he had most decisively regained his musical skills and was part of the distinguished group of musicians who appeared in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 1976 as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s celebration of the American Bicentennial. From that point on, he widened his musical horizons and started to make a name for himself, first with the touring group The Green Fields of America, and then at scores of concerts and festivals all over the country.
He recorded on two compilation albums issued by Rounder Records in the late 1970s: Irish Traditional Music from the Eastern United States and The Light through the Leaves. He was also featured on a Shanachie album named Fathers and Daughters, where he performed with his daughter, Mary Rafferty.
Mike was extremely gratified and delighted when Mary—entirely of her own volition—took up the music and became a fine player on the tin whistle, flute, and accordion. After Mike retired from his supermarket job in 1989, he began to make more and more appearances with Mary. They were a grand combination. Mary had learned most of her music from her father, and the fit was perfect. They made three recordings together—The Dangerous Reel, The Old Fireside Music, and The Road to Ballinakill—with Mike now back on the wooden flute, and each one is a gem filled with beautiful tunes played with gentle understated virtuosity, very much rooted in the East Galway style.
Mike put out his first solo album at the age of seventy-eight, which he aptly titled Speed 78 (2004). It is great stuff. In fact his playing on all these albums demonstrates that his music has has gone from strength to strength since his retirement. He continues to astonish his fellow musicians and afficionados by his level of technical skill, which has not diminished in the slightest with the passing years.
Last year Mike Rafferty recorded a beautiful album, The New Broom, with his great friend and fellow New Jersey resident, fiddler Willie Kelly, and Mary’s husband Donal Clancy, who accompanied on guitar and bouzouki. It makes absolutely delightful listening.
In America and in Ireland, Mike’s fame has grown within the ranks of traditional musicians of all ages. He is unanimously seen as the “real deal,” representing a kind of timeless center in the venerable musical tradition he so proudly espouses. And it’s not just his musicality that makes him so beloved. He is a gentleman to the core—gracious, good-humored, and good-natured, and willing to help anyone who comes his way.
He truly is the Mighty Raff.
“The Mighty Raff: 2010 National Heritage Award Winner” by Mick Moloney was published in Voices Vol. 36, Fall-Winter 2010. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society now.