Tuesday, 1 April 2014

John McKenna's Flute

Some times it's not the flute itself, but who owned it that's important.
For all Irish traditional flute players the name John McKenna jumps out at them in the same way as Michael Coleman does for fiddle players. He is one of the great sources of traditional music, not just on the flute,  and his many recordings, made in New York between 1925 and 1934 are still referenced by all the great players of today. You can find out more about the man himself here, and in fact it was when I was in contact with Sean Gilrane of the John McKenna Traditional Music Society, that the following story emerged.
In 1985 In paid a visit to the US, and one of the people I met, and who showed me great hospitality, was a Kerryman, long resident in upper NY State, called John McAuliffe, a man with a passionate interest and deep knowledge of traditional flute playing.
Fast forward to 2009, when I got an E-Mail from John telling me about a flute that had belonged to his uncle Joe, and which he had gotten from John McKenna.
Here's a photo of John's father and two uncles, flute players all.

We exchanged E-mails about this and some old recordings that he had, for sometime, but then in the way that things have a habit of doing, it got put on a longer and longer finger...until late last year when, wearing my Cruinniú na bhFliúit hat, I was talking to Sean Gilrane, who was telling me about the JMTMS project on John McKenna, and I happened to mention that I knew where McKenna's flute was. Cue extreme excitment, until I realised that I had lost all contact with John, and due to computer crashes, had no record of his E-Mail or the photos that he had sent me. However thanks to Mac and TimeMachine ( and Steve Jobs, to be fair) I eventually retrieved the mails and we were able to re-establish contact with John. Here's what he says about the flute in his own words:

" About that flute, well I will try to explain, The flute belonged to my uncle Joe Mc Auliffe, He was a close friend of Jack Mc Kenna, Mc Kenna spent many nights up at Joe's  place in Kingsbridge road in the Bronx, playing music.
Joe was a flute player, as was my father John and also Tim, (actually if you look in the search engine for Moyvane you will see an old picture of the three of them with flutes, taken in the Bronx in the late fifties) Anyway, when Joe's flute was stolen after a music night in a bar in Queens NY, he pestered Mc Kenna (who had a few flutes) to sell him that flute after he had it on loan from him for a few months. Mc Kenna wasn't inclined to sell as it was one of his better flutes and one that he had used on his recordings, but finally Joe got the flute. My father relayed all this to me when I asked him about that flute, he got the flute from Joe in 1970 when Joe was in poor health and not playing anymore, my father was living in the Bronx at that time, Joe and his wife moved back to Abbeyfeale in 1972, and he passed away in 1973. My father moved back to Moyvane also in 1972 and took that flute with him. He also had another flute that he got in London years before that. Anyway my father passed away, and I brought that flute back here to the US. a few years ago"

To cut a long story short, the flute even though playing well when John got it originally, was beginning to suffer from a few problems mainly caused by a bad crack in the head, and the head liner coming unsoldered, so I proposed to restore it, so that it could be used in connection with the launch of the McKenna CD, and also Cruinniú na bhFliúit.
The flute arrived to me in March, and here it is....

So for the moment there are two things that interest me about the flute. Firstly, how to repair that nasty crack in the head, and secondly who made it. It's a very good quality flute, cocus wood, silver keywork, and excellent workmanship. But it has no maker's stamp. 
I'll follow up with the progress on both fronts, and would welcome any input from anyone who might have any insights.


  1. So my guess is the flute was made by Asa Hopkins/ Fluteville Conn. Used to have a very similar flute. The double rings and barrel that is tapered the other direction would bring to mind a Hopkins. He also used the Eb pewter plug, similar to R&R.