In September 2016, Billy McComiskey received the National Heritage Fellowship award from the National Endowment for the Arts. This award is the highest honor presented to a traditional artist in the United States.
Billy is a world-renowned accordion, or “box” player and composer who was taught by the great Sean McGlynn, a master of the East Galway style of Irish traditional music. It is also known as the Slieve Aughty style, named after the mountains that cross Counties Galway and Clare. McComiskey explained, “The music is slower and steadier than other styles, and the tunes are extremely well thought out—it’s stately music and very round, particularly the grace notes.”
McComiskey was born in 1951 in Brooklyn, New York, to a family steeped in Irish music and dance. It was a home where recordings of the great Flanagan Brothers, the McNulty Family, and Joe Derrane often played, and in a region to which masters in Irish fiddle, accordion, flute, tin whistle, and dance immigrated. He notes that it was through early 20th-century New York, and its network of musicians, that Irish traditional music was brought from more informal settings to the performance stage. Each summer, Irish musicians and dancers from northern cities would congregate in the foothills of the Catskills Mountains north of the city, a place significant to McComiskey’s musical growth. His godfather owned a popular pub in Cairo, and his uncle brought together the legendary Mary Bergin, Joe Cooley, Larry Redican, Andy McGann, Charlie Mulvihill, and Sean McGlynn to regularly perform. McGlynn played his Paolo Soprani accordion for 14-year-old McComiskey, a moment, he recalled, that felt like a “horse kicking my head.” He then became McGlynn’s “sidekick,” learning intricate fingering and phrasing techniques. During the 1970s and ‘80s, McComiskey won gold and silver in the prestigious All-Ireland musical competitions in solo accordion and in duets with the renowned fiddler, Brendan Mulvihill (son of 1984 National Heritage Fellow, Martin Mulvihill).
In the mid-1970s, McComiskey, Mulvihill, and guitarist Andy O’Brien were invited to play a weekend gig at the Dubliner in Washington, DC by Lou Thompson and Peggy Reardon, who were interested in growing an Irish music community in the region. Soon after, McComiskey played at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival during the U.S. Bicentennial, and after meeting his future wife, Annie, they settled in Baltimore. Over several decades, McComiskey has played an integral role in building the now thriving Baltimore-DC Irish traditional music scene, connecting the deep legacy of the Slieve Aughty traditions of New York to the region. Through to today, he teaches musicians all over the world, as well as in his home state, as a master through the Maryland Traditions apprenticeship program. He won the Irish Echo’s Album of the Year for his 2008 Outside the Box and was their 2011 Traditional Artist of the Year. He has been invited to share his outstanding talents at the White House, the Kennedy Center, and throughout the U.S., Ireland, and beyond. Photo by Marianne Mangan.
Instructor – Button Accordion