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Tradition in Review
Let’s take a break from the normal argy bargy of the column reviews. Let’s speak briefly this month about one of the giants of the music. All the young musicians out there blasting away, some with real ability (we’ll review Teada’s brill new album next month, along with a new fiddler on the scene Grainne Murphy). All of these musicians worldwide simply stand on the shoulders of the immortals, such as Seamus Ennis. You cannot grasp Irish traditional music today without embracing Seamus Ennis. So this month, Seamus Ennis it is.
Born into a musical family in Finglas, north Dublin, in 1919, he came into a rich musical culture and heritage, based in no small part on the ins and outs of the uillean pipes, of which his father was a strong player. His Dad had purchased an old set of Coyne pipes as a young man, setting the direction not only for himself, but son Seamus, as well. True, traditional music was not in vogue, and would not be for decades. But, it was still vibrant as always and being widely played. At an early age, he was employed by Three Candle Press through a family friend. Some say the job was offered to keep him from going to England and volunteering for the army. In any event, it was at Three Candle that he learned the critical skill of transcribing music into notation form. This would stand him very well in the future. Of course, he continued his life-long playing of the uillean pipes, as he broadened his knowledge of both traditional music and music itself. There were an extremely limited number of people with any real understanding of the importance or the cultural value of traditional music at this time in Dublin. Nevertheless, Seamus made contacts with people at the Irish Folklore Commission who hired him for a special project. He was given paper, pen and a bicycle and told to go collect Irish music and song. And, so he did. He literally rode his bike through Ireland, concentrating in the West. He even made his way to the Hebrides off the northern coast of Scotland, though not by bike. He was a fluent speaker of Irish and had a knowledge of Scots Gaelic. This went on for five years from 1942-47. He is literally helping save a culture. The old ones were passing away and taking songs and tunes with them to the grave. Not only did Seamus Ennis save them, he notated them. Critical. We know exactly what they should sound like. As with Francis O’Neill in Chicago and the Breatnach family in Ireland, they are saving not only words and descriptions. They are saving the actual notes, the timings, the tempos. By this time, Ennis was also a gifted fiddler and singer. The real deal, all-round.
So, we now have the iconic, historic vision of Seamus Ennis in full bloom of romanticism--riding his bike through rural Ireland, collecting the music in a magical kind of farry offy placey type of thing. For once, the historical fancy is close to fact. In 1947, Ennis began with Radio Eireann, what we know today as the RTE. He was still traveling the country, recording the likes of Willie Clancy and Micho Russell. Only now, it was in a truck with tape gear and sound men. Things had changed, indeed. He was also a presenter on the radio. People such as the great folk collector from America, Alan Lomax and Jean Ritchie realized what Seamus Ennis was doing, and they travelled to Ireland to record him. By 1951, he was feeling extremely unhappy at RTE, as so many eventually do. He felt the station was not giving the music, or himself, the respect they deserved. So, in 1951, the BBC hired Ennis to present what became the iconic Irish traditional music program of all time, As I Roved Out. He also married Margaret Glynn at this time, and they had two children, both of whom survive. The BBC program truly made history and lasted until 1958. True honest-to-God history making programming. After that, Ennis went full time into playing music, doing the occasional program and continuing as, arguably, THE force in the music.
Of course, we run out of space. The story ends sadly. After all, we ARE talking Irish music here. Seamus Ennis ended up living in a mobile home on his old grounds in north Dublin he named, Easter Snow. He wrote an air by that name, and Christy Moore wrote a song with the title. Ennis passed tragically young in 1982, at the age of 63. Too much drink, too poor health, too much and too little of a lot of things. In the end, it does not matter. Here is a hero of the music. Was his the happiest life? Probably not. Okay, definitely not. But, what matters is what a man creates and leaves behind. Few, if any, have left more in Irish history. Every time you hear a bit of real Irish music, somehow, someway, it can be tracked to Seamus Ennis. We have never had a similar type in America---probably Alan and John Lomax come closest. But, they were basic musicians at the best of times. Seamus Ennis is the greatest uillean piper ever. We suggest 40 Years of Irish Piping as a wonderful introduction to the man himself, as well as his musicianship. You can get it now through Compass Records in Nashville, who bought the Green Linnet hard copy library years ago. Find it. It is Irish music. Seamus Ennis was a hero during his lifetime, and an even bigger one now. He lived with shoulders broad enough that every musician playing the music today stands on them.
*If you want to hear the likes of Seamus Ennis and other real Irish musicians, turn in Ireland Tonight every Monday night at 8:00 pm, Chicago time, on WDCB, 90.9 fm., or wdcb.org. Co-host Mary Ann Keifer and I will love to welcome you to our musical home!
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