Frank is a real Community Champion

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Paddy Callaghan

ONE of the leading figures in Glasgow’s thriving Irish traditional music community was recently honoured as a Community Champion for his dedication to teaching the tradition in the city.

Frank McArdle (above) beat off stiff competition via a public vote to be named ‘Evening Times: Teacher of the Year’ following an online public vote process—the first time the annual award winners have been decided by the public.

Each year the Evening Times run the Community Champion event to recognise those who go above and beyond in their work with the various communities in Glasgow. Some of the other winners come a mixture of individuals and groups such as the Red Watch Maryhill Fire Brigade charity, which helps their local community through various means and the Beatson Cancer charity voluntary team, who raise crucial fundraising for the Beatson unit in Glasgow, and its tremendous to have Frank’s name mentioned alongside such esteemed and deserving company.

Success story
In the 1970s Frank took up a post as teacher of mathematics at St Roch’s Secondary School in the Garngad district of Glasgow, a school which came with a challenging reputation. Before long, Frank became well settled in the school and started to incorporate some of his extra-curricular interests in his weekly routine by forming a ceili band in the school, having had a keen interest in traditional music from a young age.

Frank would give up his lunch break one day a week to teach the pupils who had signed up to his ceili band, initially on the tin whistle but also incorporating other instruments. As a piano accordion player himself, it was no surprise that one of the first stars to emerge from Frank’s musical tuition would be a musician by the name of Gerry Conlon—a musician who would go on to not only be an All-Ireland champion, but a worldwide household name particularly amongst the Irish feis community.

As popularity of the school ceili band started to take off, another group that Frank was involved with—the Irish Minstrels branch of Comhaltas—were looking for a new home and they began to use St Roch’s Secondary School for their bi-weekly classes.

Undoubtedly musical, what set Frank apart from most other music educators was his ability to teach and his inventive systems of learning which made things easier for his pupils. Possibly influenced by his mathematics background, he devised a system of teaching the tin whistle by numbers as opposed learning to read music or learning note names first. It’s incredibly simple, and allows even the least musical child to be able to play a tune—usually Twinkle Twinkle Little Star—within their first lesson, but Frank was the person to have the foresight to see a task, simplify it, and clearly pass on instruction to his pupils.

From humble beginnings, St Roch’s Ceili Band have gone on to be recognised as a worldwide institution, and as recognised as the St Roch’s name is, so is Frank’s. In 2018 St Roch’s Ceili Band hosted a 40th Anniversary Dinner-Ceili which featured some of the many generations of musicians who have passed along the St Roch’s conveyor belt over the years.

When asked to put a number on how many people Frank has taught music to over the years, the humble Frank simply shrugged his shoulders and said: “I suppose there would be a fair few… maybe a few hundred… well hang on… maybe more…”

The real number is well in excess of a thousand and amongst the crowds flocking to St Roch’s Secondary every Tuesday for the classes these days are often children and grandchildren of previous pupils of Frank’s.

Keeping it fresh
Another stroke of genius from the man himself, has been his ability to keep things fresh and relevant for the current crop of pupils, whilst also maintaining a certain amount of consistency—demonstrated at the 40th Anniversary Dinner, where you had those who learned in the 70s and 80s playing alongside those learning today, and despite never having played together before, or indeed ever having previously met, were all able to perform seamlessly as a group.

Although now retired from his maths post in the school, Frank is still very much the man at the heart of St Roch’s Ceili Band and the teaching of the Irish Minstrels CCÉ. Though he has found himself delegating many of the tasks he used to carry out single -handedly to his many capable apprentices, he still makes sure that those beginning their journey in music start with his numbers system, and he carefully watches their progress right through to many being recognised professional musicians in their own right.

One thing retirement has done for Frank is to give him a bit more time during the day. With that in mind, it was no surprise when he started up a music class in Govanhill on Friday afternoons teaching a mainly pensioner-aged group traditional music. Music is in Frank’s very bones, but to an even greater extent in teaching. The traditional music scene in Glasgow has been thriving for a long time, and the years ahead are already looking promising. The effect this one man has had on that cannot be overstated.

Modesty prevents Frank from talking too much about his various awards to date, including being the recipient of the Bardic Award by CCÉ and being one of the few living musicians inducted into the Scots Traditional Music Hall of Fame, so we will have to do the talking for him.

Quite simply, Frank McArdle you are our Community Champion. Well done Frank!

Paddy Callaghan is the Scottish Region Development Officer for Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann

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