Talent and harmony at heart of Kanes’ success

Fiddle players Liz and Yvonne Kane from Letterfrack, who perform as The Kane Sisters, have won the Grúpa Ceoil award in TG4’s Gradam Ceoil 2024 and will be presented with their Gradam at a special concert in Limerick this Sunday night. Best friends as well as sisters, they tell JUDY MURPHY about their childhood influences and how Liz, the older by five years, was Yvonne’s mentor in the early days.

When Yvonne and Liz Kane used to visit their maternal grandparents Jimmy and Betsy Mullen as children, Jimmy would dispatch them to the bedroom so they could listen to music on the record player.

That was where they first heard some of Ireland’s finest fiddle players, including Sligo’s Michael Coleman and New York-born Kathleen Collins.

“I think he thought if we went there and listened, we’d try and learn tunes from them,” laughs Liz, the older sister by five years.

Clearly, Jimmy was a wise grandfather, because the Kane sisters from Letterfrack in North Connemara have gone on to perform worldwide, winning fans and awards for their superb fiddle playing, not to mention the tunes they both compose.

This Sunday night, Liz and Yvonne will be presented with the 2024 Gradam Ceoil TG4 for Group of the Year at a ceremony in the University of Limerick Concert Hall.

The Kanes have fond memories of playing at the 2001 Gradam ceremony when East Galway fiddle player and composer Paddy Fahey won the Composer of the Year – they’re lifelong fans of the Kilconnell man who died in 2019 and their most recent album, 2022’s In Memory of Paddy Fahey, is a tribute to his music.

Now it’s their turn to be in the spotlight. They’re delighted at the honour and are looking forward to a good night as they’re familiar with several of the other Gradam recipients, including accordion player Derek Hickey, who’s been named Musician of the Year, “and who we’ve known since we were kids”, says Liz.

Likewise with dancer Jean Butler, who will receive this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

“Jean’s sister Cara is married to Nathan’s brother, Jon,” explains Yvonne. She’s referring to her partner, Canadian-born dancer Nathan Pilatzke, who is best known for his performances with the Chieftains over many years and who formed the dance group, The StepCrew with Jon.

He’s also the subject of Liz’s most recent composition, Nathan the Saint, an acknowledgement of his laidback approach to the bond between the Kane sisters, who “are buddies” as well as musical partners, says Liz with a laugh.

There’s lots of laughter when the Kanes are around and they’re great company, whether they’re discussing serious or lighter topics. There’s no doubt that while their music brings them joy, they take it seriously.

Yvonne chuckles as she recalls that, during her childhood, Liz used to supervise her fiddle practice. Liz was studying music at UCC in those days and was a tough taskmaster.

“She was always on my case, saying: ‘Don’t do that!’,” Yvonne laughs.

But it was appreciated by Yvonne, who explains that music came more naturally to Liz than to her.

“She’s my mentor.”

Liz who was always mad about her “baby sister” has fond memories of those days.

“We used to learn sets together for starters and then Yvonne began learning her own tunes.”

The year Yvonne turned 16, the pair embarked on a summer musical tour of America. The idea was born a few years previously when Liz won the Fiddler of Dooney competition in Sligo. Aged 18, she received a trip to the US, visiting New York, Chicago and Boston.

“I did that on my own and decided that the next time Yvonne would come,” she recalls.

Pictured: Yvonne (left) and Liz Kane: Both are composers and teachers as well as accomplished fiddle players. PHOTO: ALAN PLACE.

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