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Influential Irish music teacher, historian Noel Rice dies at 84

Noel Rice, here at the Irish American Heritage Center, was an influential flautist and tin whistle player who taught hundreds at his Academy of Irish Music. | Stacy McReynolds photo

Noel Rice carried on a long Chicago tradition of preserving traditional Irish music and breathing new life into old airs.

Depending on how he played his flute and tin whistle, Mr. Rice could make listeners jump up and dance a jig–or lament a lost love. During approximately 30 years as an instructor at his Academy of Irish Music, he taught hundreds of kids. Some accompanied the Chieftains when the Irish supergroup played Chicago.

He contributed to the city’s international reputation for helping to keep Irish music alive, a legacy of Chicago Police Chief Francis O’Neill. Before his death in 1936, O’Neill, a native of Ireland, collected the music for an estimated 3,500 traditional songs that were in danger of vaporizing during generations of immigration. Mr. Rice helped launch the Francis O’Neill Music Club, which organizes dance lessons and ceilis at the Irish American Heritage Center.

He also led the group Baal Tinne, which roughly translates into “god of fire.” And he taught students in a summer school program of Milwaukee’s Irish Fest, which bills itself as the world’s biggest celebration of Celtic culture.

Flautist and music teacher Noel Rice (right) performing in March with his group Baal Tinne. His son Kevin is on the left on the bodhran drum and Catriona Byrne is at center. | Facebook photo
Flautist and music teacher Noel Rice (right) performing in March with his group Baal Tinne. His son Kevin is on the left on the bodhran drum and Catriona Byrne is at center. | Facebook photo

Mr. Rice, 84, who had been having heart trouble, died May 8 at Evanston Hospital, according to Kevin, his son and bandmate.

A musical innovator, “Noel was one of the first accomplished players to abandon the wooden flute for the silver flute,” said banjo player Mick Moloney, a New York University music professor and winner of a heritage award from the National Endowment for the Arts. “You could credit Noel Rice with introducing the silver flute as an acceptable instrument in Irish music.”

Noel Rice | Facebook
Noel Rice | Facebook

He was “an amazing teacher who inspired many young people,” said Tom Carroll, brother and manager of Chicago-born fiddler Liz Carroll, the first American composer to be awarded Ireland’s top cultural prize for traditional music.

Alexa Ramirez, 36, was a homesick 13-year-old German-Peruvian immigrant from Germany when she saw Mr. Rice and his students play a gig in Evanston. “There was so much energy and they were all my age and they were cool kids,” she recalled. A classically-trained cellist, Ramirez approached Mr. Rice. “I remember going up to him and going, ‘I love that,’ and he was like, ‘Whaddya play?’”

Noel Rice | Facebook
Noel Rice | Facebook

When she told him, he replied: “‘Oh, I was looking for a cellist.” Though the cello isn’t a traditional Irish instrument, “He was all about creativity and not sticking to the rules,” Ramirez said.

“He wasn’t going to accept criticism from traditional diehards,” Moloney said. “He was going to go ahead and do it, and do it very well.”

Ramirez made lifelong friends at his academy and later earned advanced degrees in music and film music composition. Today she is a Los Angeles vocalist, composer and cellist.

Born in Nenagh in County Tipperary, Noel grew up in the village of Geashill near Tullamore in County Offaly. His father, John, a member of the Gardai – the Irish police – was a fiddler. Their home was filled with music.

“My earliest recollection was musicians constantly in the house, you know the old story about around the kitchen fire, and playing music until it was time to go home,” he said in a 1977 folk music interview by Moloney that’s in the Library of Congress. The first tune he learned was “The Galway Rambler.”

In 1956, he emigrated to New York. He worked construction and joined the Air Force, where he did radar installation. After moving to Chicago, he helped set up reservation systems at O’Hare Airport, his son said.

Noel and Sheila Rice on their wedding day in 1961. | Facebook
Noel and Sheila Rice on their wedding day in 1961. | Facebook

He met his future wife, Sheila Corcoran, at a Chicago dance. They were married from 1961 until her death last August.

In the 1970s, he told Moloney, the city’s Irish dance culture was much larger than its Irish music community. He estimated there were 5,000 dance students, compared with 50 learning traditional music. It was understandable, he said, because six months of lessons could make someone a passable dancer. Mastery of an instrument took a lot longer.

Noel Rice was a master of the tin whistle and flute. Here he plays with a young Kiera Byrne (left) and Catriona Byrne (right), both of whom grew up to join his group, Baal Tinne. | Facebook photo<br>
Noel Rice was a master of the tin whistle and flute. Here he plays with a young Kiera Byrne (left) and Catriona Byrne (right), both of whom grew up to join his group, Baal Tinne. | Facebook photo

But the benefits of music are important, he said. “A party without music is dead. A people without music doesn’t exist,” Mr. Rice said in the Library of Congress interview. “Without music and song, there is no such thing as culture.”

Before turning to teaching, he worked as an executive headhunter. Since the 1970s, he taught hundreds of students at the Irish American Heritage Center and other spots. Many became instructors in turn, his son said.

Irish music instructor Noel Rice (right) with granddaughter Patricia Halliburton holding another grandchild, Eileen Rice, with a traditional bodhran drum. | Provided photo
Irish music instructor Noel Rice (right) with granddaughter Patricia Halliburton holding another grandchild, Eileen Rice, with a traditional bodhran drum. | Provided photo

“He was big on arranging and orchestrating ensemble groups. He didn’t just teach music,’’ Kevin Rice said. “He taught you how to be a critical thinker, how to harness the creative process. He used to say creativity is a process, not an event.”

Mr. Rice loved going to Costco, where he’d always buy his favorite item, chicken pot pie.

Noel Rice and his group Baal Tinne. His daughter Cathleen Halliburton, who plays fiddle, is on the far left in the front row. His son Kevin is to Mr. Rice’s left. | Stacy McReynolds photo
Noel Rice and his group Baal Tinne. His daughter Cathleen Halliburton, who plays fiddle, is on the far left in the front row. His son Kevin is to Mr. Rice’s left. | Stacy McReynolds photo

In addition to his son Kevin, he is survived by his daughter Cathleen Halliburton, sister Eithnae Kinney and four grandchildren. At his wake Saturday at Cooney’s Funeral Home in Park Ridge, friends and relatives jammed at an Irish music session that went on for hours. Their teacher had a favorite baseball cap, embroidered “Director, Academy of Irish Music.” They placed it on Mr. Rice’s head.

And, his son said, “We put a tin whistle in there with him, too.”

Noel Rice and some of his students from the Academy of Irish Music. | Stacy McReynolds photo
Noel Rice and some of his students from the Academy of Irish Music. | Stacy McReynolds photo