The Story

Welcome to Furls of Music, a digital exhibition based on sound recordings made by Leitrim flute player Michael McNamara from 1959 to the mid-1990s.

In the sections below we invite you to discover the story of Michael McNamara’s lifetime as a collector of traditional music and how this exhibition developed in ITMA.


Welcome to Furls of Music, a digital exhibition based on sound recordings made by Leitrim flute player, Michael McNamara from 1959 to the mid-1990s.

In 2019 Michael McNamara generously donated his field recording collection, 83 audio reel-to-reels and 46 audio cassettes to ITMA, to be digitised, preserved and shared with the traditional music community. Furls of Music is a celebration of Michael’s generosity, and how digital technology is ensuring the work of early field recording pioneers is shared, and safely preserved for future generations.

From the 83 audio reel-to-reels and 46 audio cassettes, we have selected 70 sound recordings which highlight the richness of the collection. Michael’s home-place in Carrickavoher, Aughavas, Co. Leitrim sits in a heartland of traditional music, song, and storytelling, so neighbours and friends from south Leitrim feature prominently in the exhibition. Of special note are recordings of John Blessing, the noted flute player and neighbour of Michael’s who was to play a significant role as a musician and friend.

In 1956 a new musical world opened up to Michael and his sister Josephine. Success for the young flute player and singer at fleadhanna brought invitations to perform nationally and to join bands. Furls of Music reflects this aspect of Michael’s life with recordings of some of the bands in which he played, songs from his highly-respected sister Josephine, and other musicians he encountered during his music-filled life in Ireland and abroad. 

Of course Michael’s influence on his own family is part of our story. Michael and his late wife Mary had five children, Brian, Ray, Ciaran, Enda and Deirdre, all of whom play music. 

We are especially indebted to Brian McNamara who has worked enthusiastically with ITMA to curate this project, and provided much of the text and information you will read throughout the exhibition. 

The aims of the Irish Traditional Music Archive are to collect, preserve, organise and make accessible the materials of Irish traditional music. In 2018 ITMA was awarded a grant from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to develop a new long-term digital preservation strategy for its sound collections. Thanks to this funding, The Michael McNamara Sound Collection will be preserved and accessible to future generations of the McNamara family, the people of Leitrim and traditional music communities at home and abroad. 


Michael’s passion for the music, and desire to hear and learn good music, motivated him to acquire a Philips reel-to-reel tape recorder in 1959. Few such devices existed in the Irish traditional music community at that time. It was on this tape recorder that Michael captured the Leitrim Ceili Band playing at the Ceili Mór in Aughavas in 1959, and the local crowning of his sister Josephine as the Ballad Queen of Ireland, following her successive wins at All Ireland Fleadhs in 1958 and 1959.

As more advanced technology came to the market, Michael invested in Toshiba and Sony tape recorders. The Sony tape recorder is shown below. The expense and availability of new tapes meant that many of the reel-to-reel tapes were re-used for recording. But in total 83 reel-to-reels still exist capturing multiple hours of material from 1959 to the early 1970s.

From the early 1970s Michael moved to the more convenient cassette tape recorder. The Furls of Music includes a selection of recordings from the 46 digitised audio tape cassettes in the Michael McNamara Collection, covering the period up to the mid-1990s.

Michael recorded many local musicians, including John Blessing, Pee Fitzpatrick and, recordings we believe of fiddle player Little Jimmy McKiernan

Michael recounts travelling to Edgeworthstown, Co. Longford on his bicycle after a day’s work with recorder in hand to record some musicians. On one such night he encountered none other than Longford singer Larry Cunningham who requested Michael to record him. This is the first such recording of Larry Cunningham ever made. 

Like many traditional musicians and singers over the years Michael recorded radio programmes associated with music, including the popular Saturday night RTÉ Radio programme Ceili House. We are grateful to RTÉ for permission to include some of these recordings in our selection.

Radio also provided a gateway to sports events from G.A.A. matches to Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) fighting Sonny Liston in 1964 - all captured on the Philips tape recorder alongside The Old Cross Ceili Band and Joe 'Lacky' Gallagher.