SINCE 1978, Frank McArdle, a maths teacher at Roch’s Secondary School in Glasgow’s Royston district, has taught and inspired generations of young musicians, through evening classes and the school’s now legendary ceilidh band. Many of them have gone on to enjoy careers in traditional music, some attaining champion status, with notable names including fiddler John McCusker and accordionists Gerry Conlon and Paddy Callaghan.
In the words of a grateful former pupil, champion accordionist Conlon, “Frank has given many the gift of music.”
Yet, growing up in Dalmellington, Ayrshire, Frank’s own early musical encounters were less than auspicious. He had accordion lessons when he was young, but says he didn’t work had enough at them, preferring to play Shadows and Beatles music on the instrument (so he clearly had an ear). The Sixties and Seventies saw him take up guitar and play a bit around the folk scene.
Graduating from Strathclyde University in 1972, he started teaching maths in 1973, initially at St Gerard’s in Govan before moving on to St Roch’s, forming folk clubs in both schools. He had become interested in Irish music after attending a fleadh in 1972 and in 1978, already running the folk club, he started a ceili band at St Roch’s. Now retired after 36 years at St Roch’s, he remembers that first band as boasting “some whistles, a mandolin, a couple of fiddles and a couple of accordions”. One young member of that initial band, a first-year pupil called Gerry Conlon, would go on to become four times All-Ireland champion and 12 times Great Britain champion on piano accordion and piano.
“The band started playing a few tunes for various local community groups,” Frank recalls. “They also got involved with the Glasgow Irish Minstrels branch of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, the Irish traditional music association. Through Comhaltas, they were encouraged to play at ceilidhs and before long they were in big demand playing Scottish and Irish ceilidhs. I started teaching with Comhaltas and moved the classes to St Roch’s, where they have remained ever since.”
The classes take in pupils from across Glasgow, with some 200 currently converging on the school for these Tuesday night sessions, when they are instructed by around 20 voluntary tutors. As Frank points out, the lessons were entirely free for many years: “It’s probably unique in that respect, and the teachers who themselves learned for free are happy to put something back. But in recent years we’ve had to start charging a nominal £2 to cover administration, let of the school, insurance and the like. The lessons themselves are, in effect, still free.”
For competitions, the young musicians split into as many as 12 different ceilidh bands, ranging from under-12s to seniors, and nine grupai cheoil or music groups Some of these have qualified from the Scottish fleadh to the All-Britain then All-Ireland events, with pupils winning numerous All-Ireland medals for solo or ensemble performance.
His dedication has launched the careers of numerous well-known names on the traditional music scene. Former St Roch’s tyros include champion fiddlers Gavin Pennycook and Johnny Canning, Clare McLaughlin of Deaf Shepherd, flautist Kevin O’ Neill (Treacherous Orchestra), champion ceili band drummers Mark MacGuire (also Deaf Shepherd) and Sean McGinley, while Paddy Callaghan became Young Scottish Traditional Musician of 2013.
With family connections to the Tyrone, Derry and Donegal areas in Ireland, Paddy Callaghan, now an acclaimed young accordionist and multi-instrumentalist, arrived at the St Roch’s Ceoltoiri branch when he was just five. “Frank has given so many young individuals the opportunity to be musicians,” says Callaghan. “Devoting so much of his life to teaching on a voluntary basis and giving young people experience of performing is such an incredible feat.
“I most certainly would not be a professional musician but for the Frank’s work, and there are many more who would say the same.”
Gerry Conlon, winner of 13 Great Britain championships for Irish traditional music and four World Championships, also pays tribute to Frank, who took him on as a music student at a time when his parents couldn’t afford to pay for lessons and when, he says, many of his peers were already involved in crime and drugs: “Through Frank’s generosity, I now had a way of escaping from what was the norm round me. I had a hobby that I really enjoyed.
“Frank had a spare accordion he would let me borrow and each day I happily carried it to and from my home – a three-mile round trip – to feed my desire to play.”
As Frank enlisted him in the ceili band and introduced him to music competitions, Gerry discovered his competitive side which, he says, ultimately shaped his transition from a shy child to a confident adult: “I took pride in competing and quickly established myself as the best in my field. I’d never been the best at anything!”
As well as nurturing the teenage Gerry’s considerable musical talent, Frank realised that the youngster’s maths was suffering and started visiting his house on a Saturday afternoon for extra-curricular maths lessons which helped him progress from St Roch’s to take an MSc degree in mathematics and computer science at Glasgow University.
Asked for his own personal highlights, Frank responds: “Having the first St Roch’s under-15 ceili band qualify for the All-Ireland in 1986, playing to a crowd of 12,000 in George Square at the end of Glasgow’s City of Culture year in 1990, and watching Paddy Callaghan become Young Scottish Traditional Musician of 2013.”
What is it that so motivates him? “I just think that it’s very uplifting music. There’s a great buzz from teaching children who want to learn and watching their progress. I get it occasionally in teaching maths, but in the music the people who come to me are all dead keen to learn. I don’t know how anyone can’t be motivated by traditional music, and something that gives me great satisfaction is the number of people who continue to play music after they leave the classes, in ceilidh bands and sessions, while many come back for the annual concerts and competitions.”
Read accordionist Gerry Conlon’s tribute to Frank McArdle.