Garvey, Máire (Mary) McDonnell - (1927–2009), traditional musician and writer, was born 10 July 1927 on a farm in Tobracken, near Ballaghaderreen, Co. Roscommon, one of three children (a girl and two boys) of James McDonnell and his wife Annie Theresa (née Talbot). As well as farming, her father worked in the family's cornmill and later sold milk in the town of Ballaghaderreen; the children delivered milk by bicycle on their way to school.
The rural background, the traditional culture and the religious observance of Mary's childhood would have been typical of most households in the area. She was taught by the Sisters of Charity in the convent school in Ballaghaderreen; her parents valued education, and her mother in particular loved music. Neighbours called in for sessions of storytelling, singing and traditional dancing in the kitchen. As a child, Mary went to piano lessons, but the family had no piano to practise on, so from the age of 12 she learned the violin instead, playing on an uncle's fiddle left behind when he emigrated. Her teacher, P. J. Giblin, had collected and published (1938) the old tunes of the locality, and passed on his interest to his enthusiastic pupil. Because another of her uncles was a member of the Aiséirí Céilí Band, the 16-year-old was allowed to join it; they played in local dances, mostly travelling by bicycle, and won first prize at the feis ceoil in Boyle.
Annie McDonnell died young, of breast cancer, in 1946, the year Mary sat her leaving certificate examination. As the only daughter, she had to stay at home when she left school to work on the farm and keep house; less than three months after her father's remarriage, in the autumn of 1948, she married Robert ('Bob') Garvey from Tuam. Like many of their generation, they moved to Dublin, and lived in the new suburb of Walkinstown, where Mary at first felt isolated and cut off. She largely shouldered the responsibility of raising their three daughters and two sons.
St Mary's Music Club on Church Street gave her the chance to meet socially with like-minded people, mostly from the west of Ireland, and she was involved with the early development of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, as founding secretary of the Dublin county board. She also helped run sessions of traditional music in the Belgard Inn, outside Tallaght, Co. Dublin, for nine years, and played in the Éamonn Ceannt Céilí Band in the 1960s, often broadcasting with them on Radio Éireann.
McDonnell-Garvey and colleagues parted company with Comhaltas fairly quickly, when that organisation laid claim to the funds and other assets generated by classes they had been holding even before Comhaltas had been established. She went on to teach music and dance to hundreds of students in night classes in Conradh na Gaeilge. In 1970, aged 43, with teenaged children, she graduated BA from UCD, having studied history, English and Irish. She then gained the H.Dip.Ed., and taught in the gaelscoil Ardscoil Éanna in Crumlin and in Collinstown Park Community College in Clondalkin.
Her recordings and sleeve notes, as well as a book and CD on traditional music collectors, Comhrá na dTonn (2003), preserve her own lifetime of research and study. With friends, including Dan Healy and Ciarán O'Reilly, she produced two CDs, The wyndy turn (1997) and Whispering strains from the past (2001), and also reissued the music collection of her first teacher, P. J. Giblin, with an accompanying CD, The Giblin legacy (2005).
Her strong commitment to her heritage in Roscommon and in traditional music, along with the knowledge of her family history in the context of the locality, prompted her to explore her own background and the histories of the tunes she loved to play. She wrote articles for local historical journals, and published a historical volume, Mid-Connacht: the ancient territory of Sliabh Lugha (1995). A traditional music journey, 1600–2000: from Erris to Mullaghban first appeared in 2000, and in a second edition in 2007, with Arts Council support. In this book she examined the musical traditions of Connacht and south Ulster, finding connections between musicians and tunes. Her last book, Under the shadow of the Summerhills (2004), was still more autobiographical, delineating the country way of living in which she had been brought up.
It is significant that when, very unusually for a married woman in the 1950s, she found a new career in traditional music, she asserted her independence by adding her maiden name to her married name, as well as changing her given name to the Irish form, 'Máire'. Her strong sense of her own identity, her commitment to her religious beliefs, her teaching, and her enthusiasm for the music first heard in her childhood made her a respected figure in the Dublin folk scene. In 2007 she received a Gradam award from the Douglas Hyde Summer School, in honour of her life's work.
Máire McDonnell-Garvey died in Dublin 29 August 2009, after a long illness, and was buried in Kilcolman cemetery, outside Ballaghaderreen, alongside her husband, who had died in 1997.