Honored May 9, 2015
Frankie McCormick grew up on the border of Counties Armagh and Tyrone. His earliest home was in Benburb on the Tyrone side but his father Francie moved the family into a disused police station across the river in Blackwatertown, Armagh in 1966, when young Frankie was only six months old.
His father, from the nearby townland of Mullinary, played the button accordion in a marching band in his youth but according to Frankie, “there was only one accordion for every two willing marchers, so he didn’t always get to play.” Frankie says his mother Mary (née Keenan) “had a very comforting way of singing.” She hailed from Dernahesco, Knockatallon, County Monaghan and, as Frankie relates: “I spent many summers up there as a child working on the farm and then appreciating my uncle bringing me into Henry’s Bar in Scotstown in the evening to play my banjo mandolin and fill up on minerals and peanuts.”
All of Frankie’s siblings, including sisters Geraldine, Maura, and Angela; and brothers Brian and Cormac, played music as children but Frankie was especially keen: “I used to get up early every morning when I was in High School and practice music because I wanted to. I would watch for the school bus from the window as I played and then run across the street when I saw the other kids moving.” Frankie’s acquired his unique “upside down” style on the mandolin and tenor banjo when he started playing left-handed on an instrument strung for righties. His got his first instruction from John Convery, a marching band piano accordion player. “He wasn’t going to correct the way I held it,” Frankie recalls, adding that “it just felt natural.” Both of Frankie’s boys, Frankie Jr and Ryan are also keeping the tradition alive.
The McCormick family was deeply involved in the Irish sports and cultural life of Blackwatertown. Frankie played Gaelic football (“very averagely, but thoroughly enjoyed it”) for An Port Mor GFC. Francie, Sr. chaired the local Comhaltas branch and the AOH hall across the street from the family home hosted the weekly practices of the Port Mor Pipe Band, for which the pipe major was Frankie’s uncle John.
Frankie won the Under-12 All-Ireland mandolin championship in 1977 and the Under-15 banjo competition in 1979. Always resourceful, he competed at one fleadh in Kilkenny with a broken tailpiece attached to his banjo with one of his shoelaces. Frankie also entered the Scór competitions sponsored by the GAA, winning the 1985 instrumental group championship in Dublin with piper Peter Grew and fluter player Aidan Prunty.
Moving to the U.S. in March of 1986, Frankie spent his first years in America at Bainbridge Avenue and 204th street in the Bronx. Busy years followed in which he worked six days a week in the city as a union carpenter and five nights a week with the band New Image at venues that included the Roaring 20’s, Fibber Magee’s, Peggy O’Neill’s, Sally O’Brien’s and the Phoenix. “I never went to bed on a Friday night for about four years because I only got home in time to go to work,” Frankie recalls. He later joined Celtic Cross, a popular band in New York, New Jersey and the Catskills.
Frankie’s membership in Comhaltas never lapsed in America and he made many lasting musical friendships at the annual Mid-Atlantic fleadhanna held at Manhattan College. After moving to Rockland County, he began teaching the mandolin and banjo, helping dozens of youngsters get their musical start. The regional fleadh also moved across the river, and Frankie has served as an adjudicator and a member of the fleadh committee. Frankie and his wife Julie now make their home on Long Island but he has continued his work on behalf of Comhaltas and currently serves as Mid-Atlantic regional chairman.