The Chieftains were, are and shall remain one of Irish music's defining ensembles. Key players in the development and positioning of what people perceive and understand as Irish traditional music, they brought a modern twist to old themes, added new ideas and approaches. Martin Fay was one of the first musicians to enter the Chieftains' fold when the uilleann piper Paddy Moloney began tuning his musical dreams to realities. Fay was one of the most academically educated musicians to pass through their ranks, and his decision to switch from classical violin to traditional fiddle shaped the Chieftains' music.
Born in 1936, the youngest of four children of Joseph and Ann Fay, he grew up in the Cabra district of Dublin. John Glatt, the author of The Chieftains – The Authorized Biography (1997), described Fay's father as "an Al Jolson-style song and dance man who performed for his own amusement", while Annie, who was a good pianist, "started teaching Martin to play when he was just four." Within the year he made his public debut as a novelty left-hand pianist at the local roller-skating rink.
He took up violin under the influence of The Magic Bow (1946), a romanticised film dramatisation of the life of Paganini with Yehudi Menuhin playing the violin. Fay fell for the instrument and his parents organised lessons at the Municipal School of Music under Seán MacKenzie. "I had no interest whatsoever in a future career in Irish music," he told Glatt. "I wouldn't have known it from Arabian music. Classical music was my forte. I wanted to be a soloist in Carnegie Hall."
However, before Carnegie Hall came Butlin's in Mosney, Co Meath – the company's first holiday camp outside Britain – where he was a teenage member of its theatre orchestra. MacKenzie also wangled him further experience with the Dublin Opera and the Abbey Theatre. Leaving school, he worked for Unidare, a Dublin electronics firm, until the Chieftains went professional in 1975. Despite releasing The Chieftains in 1963 and achieving astonishing success, like most of the Chieftains, he was reluctant to throw in the stability of a steady job and pension plan.
The Abbey changed Fay's life. Its new musical director, the composer Seá* Ó Riada (the former John Reidy), still hot from the success of the 1959 film soundtrack Mise Éire ("I am Ireland"), took a shine to Fay and his playing. Ó Riada was introducing ever more Irish themes into his music and into an ensemble that Fay recalled him saying would be a "folksy chamber orchestra playing Irish music". Fay, Moloney, Seán Potts and Michael Tubridy were among the musicians who attended the first rehearsal of what became Ceoltóirí Chualann, the predecessor of the Chieftains.
Historically, Ireland's fiddle traditions had presented similar patterns to traditions elsewhere, from Scandinavia to Moravia through Slovakia and into Hungary. Territories geographically remote or cut off from mainstream culture developed distinctive stylistic variations on even commonly found tunes and fondnesses for particular dance forms.
Crisscrossed by collectors, the Gaeltacht – the Irish Gaelic-speaking region of Ireland – revealed numerous examples of that principle. As Ó Riada wrote in Our Musical Heritage (1982), , "I doubt if there is a county in Ireland that has not got its own quota of fiddle-players and its own tradition."
Often overlooked is the fact that the Dublin-based Chieftains were not rural, did not pretend to be and did not adopt a specific regional style. Fay no more had Sligo- or Donegal-style fiddle in his bloodstream than Menuhin – although Fay and Seán Keane's double-fiddle overture to "Seóirse Brabston" ("George Brabazon") on The Chieftains 2 (1969) represents the formulation of a coherent Irish style.
Fay was a significant factor in shaping the Chieftains' musical identity. He brought a musical open-mindedness and erudition to bear on their development.
He retired from touring service in 2001, though he played with them into the following year. He leaves behind a formidable body of work that includes their breakthrough soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick's film Barry Lyndon (1975), In Ireland (1987) with James Galway, Irish Heartbeat (1988) with Van Morrison, and The Long Black Veil (1995) with Ry Cooder, Mick Jagger, Sinéad O'Connor, Sting and others. Like Bell's and Moloney's, Fay's sense of humour saw them through hard or absurdly successful times. He is survived by his wife, the former dancer, Gráinne and their two children.
Martin Joseph Fay, musician and composer: born Dublin 19 September 1936; married 1968 Gráinne (Gertie) McCormack (one son and one daughter); died Dublin 14 November 2012.