When Malachy Towey beat on his drum, it could make a person want to dance a jig — or march off to war.
He probably was the oldest person in Chicago to play the bodhrán, a traditional Irish instrument made from a goatskin stretched over a round wooden frame.
Accordionist Jimmy Keane said he was “the first musician I ever saw play the bodhrán with his massive hands and knuckles — no sticks, brooms nor brushes for Malachy — just straight from his heart to his hand.”
Those big hands also could replicate the tiny rosettes in the moldings at the Chicago Cultural Center. The founder of Beverly Plastering, he worked as a plasterer at the center and other buildings including hospitals, schools and restaurants.
Mr. Towey, an Irish immigrant from Cloontia in County Mayo, died in his sleep Wednesday at 99 at his Mount Greenwood home.
“He had a wonderful day,” his daughter Esther Muhr said. “He had a great dinner and was really happy and content.”
Only two weeks ago, he’d played a session at Lanigan’s Irish Pub, 3119 W. 11th St.
“He still was able to play a tune,” said Nick Glynn, a manager there. “He loved the bodhrán.”
“He certainly made a mark with his playing and his presence at the session at Lanigan’s all these years,” said Liz Carroll, an acclaimed fiddler from Chicago who was the first American composer to receive Ireland’s top cultural prize for traditional music.
Young Malachy made his first bodhran at 9. When he was a boy, “The bodhrán was usually only played one day of the year in Ireland, and that was what they called St. Stephen’s Day” — Dec. 26,” he said in a 2016 interview with Jay Shefsky on WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight.”
He and his four brothers and sister grew up on a farm. Even during the Great Depression, his parents Bridget and Martin “were completely self-sufficient,” his daughter said. “They made everything or produced everything they needed except for tea and sugar.”
They heated their home with turf–peat cut from bogland. While working in the bog, their cousin John Towey uncovered a famous archaeological treasure when his turf spade hit an eighth-century artifact now known as the Moylough Belt Shrine. A lavishly decorated metal casing for a leather belt, it’s in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland.
When Malachy was a boy, “every house was full and there were lots of kids,” his daughter said. But with few jobs, “Eventually, everyone left.”
He followed his brothers to London, where he helped repair the damage from German bombs during the Blitz. He stayed busy because he knew how to do plastering, painting, carpentry and bricklaying.
Able-bodied men went to war, so, “at 17, he had a whole gang of men working under him,” said another daughter, Julia McSweeney.
One day, “He and his brothers were repairing some building that had been damaged in the bombing. and he walked across a roof,” Muhr said. “What he didn’t know was the roof was glass that had been painted black during the blackout” to shield the lights from enemy aircraft. “He fell through the glass really hard on a big table, and he was out of breath, and the table was surrounded by people, and they were all screaming at him. He looked around, and he realized he was lying on a big map of Europe with little boats and flags. It was the British Army’s battle headquarters.
“He was promptly arrested,” Muhr said. “They let him go right away when they realized he was one of the guys trying to repair the damage.”
In London, he met Bridget Mooney, a fellow Irish immigrant from Ardee in County Louth. Beside working at a hospital, she had a wartime factory job making timers for bombs, according to their daughters.
“My mom and dad were fantastic ballroom dancers,” Muhr said. “My dad said the ballroom dancing was destroyed when the Yanks came over during the war with the jitterbug.”
They married in 1947.
They immigrated again, to Canada, and later to Cleveland. When he visited Chicago for a Gaelic football game, “He realized a lot of his friends were here,” Muhr said, and the Toweys settled in Mount Greenwood in 1963.
He didn’t have a bodhrán at first. “You couldn’t go out and kill a goat here,” McSweeney said. “He’d find a flat surface like a tray. He’d keep the beat on that.”
Eventually, Mr. Towey found the traditional drum, and, “as far as I know, I had the only bodhrán in Chicago,” he told WTTW.
But after the Chieftains, the Irish maestros of traditional music, became popular, “suddenly you started seeing them everywhere,” Muhr said.
When he came to Lanigan’s a few years ago to watch County Mayo compete in an all-Ireland football match, patrons leaned in to listen to stories from Mr. Towey, who’d witnessed the last time Mayo won the competition. It’s been said Mayo was cursed by a priest after its last all-Ireland victory because the team ignored a nearby funeral procession.
“He was saying I was at the last all-Ireland they won, at [Dublin’s] Croke Park in 1951,” Glynn said. Nearly 70 years later, the team is yet to break its losing streak.
People were drawn to him, McSweeney said. “My dad was very inclusive, especially young people, especially at the [music] sessions,” she said. “He was ‘Come sit down, you’re welcome here.’ He would talk to them later. They’d talk about music.”
His wife Bridget and son Shamus died before him. Beside daughters Esther Muhr and Julia McSweeney, he’s survived by daughters Marie Szyman and Shirley Saldaña, sons Malachy, Kevin and Brendan, 12 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren. Arrangements are pending.