When Billy McComiskey received a call from Sen. Ben Cardin’s office earlier this year, the 64-year-old Parkville resident grabbed his checkbook, ready to donate $20 to the senator’s campaign.
Instead of a solicitation, McComiskey soon heard Cardin’s voice on the other end, delivering the news of a lifetime: McComiskey, an accordion player and major figure in the area’s Irish traditional music scene, had been selected as a 2016 recipient of a National Heritage Fellowship, considered by many the country’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts.
“I was really glad I was sitting down,” McComiskey said this week. “I didn’t collect my composure for a couple of hours after that. It really took a while.”
Awarded to McComiskey at the Library of Congress in September, the National Heritage Fellowship (which includes $25,000) is the latest, and arguably most significant, recognition in a career filled with achievements. But now in his fifth decade as a musician, McComiskey — who celebrates the fellowship with a concert at Creative Alliance on Friday night — remains driven by an unwavering love of Irish music and culture.
“I learned to do Irish step-dancing when I was a little boy. I’ve always loved it,” he said. “It’s who I am.”
Born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., McComiskey remembers recordings of Boston accordion player Joe Derrane constantly being played in his parents’ home. During summers, he hung out at his uncle’s boardinghouse in the Catskill Mountains, where Irish dancers and singers partied and performed. Attracted to the camaraderie, McComiskey soon joined the musicians.
“My first gig was with my uncle,” he said, “I sat beside him and hit a couple of spoons on a table.”
As a teenager, he befriended a regular visitor to his uncle’s home, an accordion player named Sean McGlynn. A pioneer of the technical East Galway style of Irish traditional music, McGlynn taught McComiskey the intricacies of the button accordion. (The instrument uses buttons instead of the piano-style keys seen on other accordions.)
McComiskey was soon participating in accordion competitions in Ireland, where he learned dedicated practicing was his only path to prominence.
“I realized that I was a nervous player,” he said. “I would try to figure out fingering for these fairly complex tunes so I could play them while I was under pressure. … I have unusually refined technique.”
Soon enough, he was winning gold and silver medals at events.
Still based in New York, McComiskey accepted friends’ invitation in 1975 to play a weekend gig in the Silver Spring area. Soon after, he met his future wife, a North Baltimore native named Annie Caskey. They would go on to have three sons — Patrick, Sean and Mikey, all three of whom learned to play traditional Irish instruments. (Sean plays button accordion in former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s Irish folk-rock band, O’Malley’s March.)
As he raised his children with Annie and worked as a mechanic, McComiskey played and promoted the accordion and Irish traditional music in the Baltimore-Washington region via performances big and small. For years, he has taught aspiring musicians through the Maryland State Arts Council’s Maryland Traditions apprenticeship program.
But McComiskey brushed aside the idea that he’s responsible for building a vibrant Irish music culture here.
“There’s no way I could say it all happened because of me. It just doesn’t work that way,” McComiskey said. “There are a lot of really dedicated, good-hearted people in the area.”
Clifford Murphy — the folk and traditional arts director for the National Endowment of the Arts, which awards the National Heritage Fellowships — said members of the organization were impressed by McComiskey’s “artistry and technical ability,” but his contributions in forging the Irish music community here were just as important.
“He’s somebody the panel thought had the skills to be on the road constantly and making a living as an internationally touring artist,” Murphy said, “but really spent most of his time, life and energy teaching and sharing his skills locally.”
Over his career, McComiskey has accumulated quite a resume. He’s released many recordings, including two solo albums (1981’s “Makin’ the Rounds“ and 2008’s “Outside the Box“), and has performed at the White House and the Kennedy Center.
Describing his life as “blessed,” he cherishes these moments, but they’re not why he still regularly plays multiple days per week. McComiskey gets the most enjoyment out of what are called “sessions” — informal, fun jams he joins at Irish bars like Ryan’s Daughter and Liam Flynn’s Ale House.
“The session is at the heart and soul of how the music exists, how it survived. It creates an atmosphere and an ambience. For the people who play it, it’s very much who they are,” McComiskey said. “A session at Ryan’s [Daughter] can be as inspiring as a concert at the Library of Congress.”
Those sessions lift his spirit, but the National Heritage Fellowship prize money gave him something a little more tangible. A “retired blue-collar worker,” McComiskey said the money went in the bank, but he’s eyeing a trip with his wife to Paris and Italy.
In the meantime, McComiskey will keep joining sessions, playing the music that’s remained constant in a life that has taken him many places. For every accolade, even one as prestigious as the National Heritage Fellowship, McComiskey knows it’s the joy of the tight-knit sessions and their celebration of Irish culture that are most fulfilling.
“To play Irish traditional music in public was unheard of when I was growing up,” McComiskey said. “I never envisioned it to be the vehicle that it’s turned out to be.”