‘Listen, listen and listen’: RIP Fiddle Player Seán Keane

A tribute to the Irish fiddle player Seán Keane who died on 7 May.

For any fiddle player, the music of Seán Keane, who sadly died on Sunday, is never far from your mind. We may think about how he combined traditional style with classical technique, or his incredible dexterity on the instrument, or that he mastered piping techniques and a variety of regional styles in his playing, but it is the individual voice that he developed, which drew so much out of tunes we thought we knew, that is never easily explained.

It is not that there is no sign of it on the few solo tracks he made for Gael Linn in 1969, when he was in his early twenties. The clear technical ability is there and the natural rhythm, particularly on ‘The Wind That Shakes the Barley’. He had already been playing with Ceoltóirí Chualann for six years, a band he joined when he was, incredibly, just seventeen (‘I just went for it,’ he said in Seán Keane: A Portrait of an Artist, a documentary produced by the Irish Traditional Music Archive), and he joined the Chieftains in 1968. There can rarely have been such an auspicious start for a young Irish musician. 

His solo playing, however, did not feature strongly on the Ceoltóirí Chualann albums, and it wasn’t until The Chieftains 4 (1973) that we experience the full individual artist on ‘The Bucks of Oranmore’. It is here that we begin to hear what fiddle player Paddy Glackin described in the ITMA documentary as the ‘bow-to-string contact’, the attack in his playing, in addition to the mastery of piping ornaments, which would, in part, make Keane so distinctive. But there was more to come.

Perhaps one could speculate that by the time Keane took to recording his first solo album, Gusty’s Frolicks on the Claddagh label, released in 1975, he had been part of two of the most popular Irish traditional music groups for 12 years, with strong individuals, and now was the moment to express something of his own, which he unquestionably did.

Gusty’s Frolicks is an album that draws fiddle players back to it repeatedly. It was produced by Paddy Moloney but features Keane entirely solo for 16 tracks. It asserts itself throughout: the ambush that is the opening tunes ‘Bonnie Ann’ and ‘Jinnie Bang the Weaver’, the cuts and rolls bouncing off the notes of the tune (sometimes the other way around); the prising open of the reels ‘Doctor Gilbert’ and ‘Colonel Fraser’, finding fresh nuances in what are already tightly constructed melodies; the rolling ornaments on ‘The Gold Ring’, the sorrow of the crans and trills on the slow air ‘Mickey “Crumbaw” O’Sullivan’s’. It is quite unprecedented musically and still hugely influential.

His 1981 album, Seán Keane, released on the Ogham label and produced by Brian Masterson with Keane, deserves to be equally well known. On the sleeve notes, Keane writes, ‘On actually sitting down to record this LP, I had no idea of the order of the various tracks. I wanted to relax myself, to take myself easy and float into the spirit of the occasion.’ 

The opening tune, the hornpipe ‘Mrs Galvin’s’, may adhere to that description, but the album soon becomes an intense exposition of virtuosic fiddle-playing, from the jig ‘The Major’ and the set of three reels, ‘The Piper’s Despair’, ‘The Boys of Ballynahinch’ and ‘The Jolly Tinker’, to the Italian classical tune ‘The Banks’. Glackin has used the word ‘volcanic’ to describe aspects of Keane’s style and it is in the reel and jig playing on this album that we increasingly get a sense of this.

Coming in 1981, the recording also seems to bookmark the earlier phase of his career. In the notes, he reflects on his time with Ó Riada and joining at such a young age:

Being only seventeen years old when I joined Ceoltóirí, I was indeed very proud to be accepted amongst my peers. We all had our own style of playing, our leader Seán Ó Riada never wished us to play as one, in fact he became rather anxious when at one time we seemed to be heading in this direction. … We played as much for Ó Riada as with him, he enjoyed us, we were a complete cross section of what traditional Irish music was about. I learned a lot during those golden years with Seán Ó Riada.

In the 1980s, as well as continuing to record with the Chieftains, Keane released Contentment is Wealth with Matt Molloy, followed by The Fire Aflame, again with the flute player and another life-long friend, Liam O’Flynn. His third solo album, Jig it in Style (1990) with Arty McGlynn on guitar, is adventurous, combining an improvised version of the Elvis song ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ with the ‘Cliffs of Moher’ jig, but there is also big statements such as the opening and final sets of reels, sliding between different keys, each tune becoming more challenging and virtuosic than the last.

I met Keane only once, at a session in a pub in Rathcoole, Co. Dublin. He happened to be in another part of the bar having a drink with friends, but when we heard who was there, we all quickly put down our instruments and one by one went in to meet him. He was friendly, kind and interested, and our conversation was partly about Joni Mitchell, who had recently recorded a song with the Chieftains. 

The last time I heard him play was at a gathering in the Teacher’s Club on Parnell Square in Dublin following a commemorative event for the late Tony MacMahon. Keane entered with his fiddle, and rather than dawdle at the bar, he headed directly for the session at the other end of the room that had been struck up by Peadar Ó Riada and James Kelly, and to play with his life-long friend Mick O’Connor. Keane has said that, ever since he was a teenager, all he ever wanted to do was play the fiddle, and it was evident then too.

He was still performing on stage as recently as last month. Maybe that is the explanation behind his unique voice, a commitment to the musical journey, ‘an open mind’, as he says in the ITMA documentary, always ready for new musical and technical challenges. But the mystery of his ability to combine dexterity with subtle artistry remains. Towards the end of the documentary, he says that the three most important things about music are to ‘Listen, listen and listen’. As we lose another giant of traditional music, that is still the most important thing we can do. RIP the great Seán Keane.

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Alt nua: Fís nua ag teastáil do lipéad ceoil Gael Linn

Tá alt agam san eagrán Bealtaine den iris Comhar. Is eagrán speisialta é seo a dhíríonn ar cheiliúradh 70 bliain de Gael Linn. Scríobhaim faoin lipéad ceoil atá ag an eagras agus an fáth go bhfuil fís nua don lipéad ag teastáil anois. Léigh an t-alt anseo.

I have an article in the May edition of the Irish-language magazine Comhar. It’s a special issue focusing on Gael Linn’s 70th birthday. My article focuses on the organisation’s record label and why a new vision for the label is now needed. Read the article here.)

An Ceol sa Phobal – Cén bealach is fearr le tacaíocht a thabhairt d’éiceachóras an cheoil?

Seo caint a thug mé ag an Scoil Gheimhridh Chumann Merriman, i mBóthar Na Trá, Gaillimh, ar an 28 Eanáir 2023.


Dia dhaoibh a chairde, agus go raibh maith agat a Trevor agus an Cumann Merriman as an gcuireadh a bheith libh inniu.

Ba mhaith liom labhairt faoin ceol inniu, an ceol sa phobal, agus an taithí a bhí againn sa Spidéal i gConamara le roinnt blianta anuas. Agus ba mhaith liom labhairt freisin faoi an tionchar atá ag an gceol ar théamaí na scoile i mbliana – an fhiontraíocht, an oidhreacht, an éiceolaíocht, agus an teanga.

Le cúig bliana is tríocha, táim ag casadh ceoil traidisiúnta ar an bhfidil in Éirinn agus timpeall na cruinne, agus ag scríobh faoin ceol ar feadh fiche bliain, agus an rud atá feicthe agam arís agus arís eile, cibé cén áit ina bhfuil mé, agus cibé cén seanra ceoil a bhfuil muid ag caint faoi, ná go bhfuil ról ilghnéitheach ag an gceol – sa phobal, sa sochaí, sa tír, i do shaol fhéin fiú; agus ní ceapaim go labhraíonn muid faoi an ról ilghnéitheach sách minic, b’fhéidir mar gheall go bhfuil sé deacair labhairt faoi. 

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10 Impossible Ideas for Irish Traditional Music

A lot has been achieved in Irish traditional music over the past several decades, but what happens next? What are the challenges for this music, and how can the traditional music community work together to create an even better future? Below is the edited text of a talk given by Toner Quinn, Editor of The Journal of Music, on 24 November 2022 as part of Na Píobairí Uilleann’s ‘Notes & Narratives’ lecture series.

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Tá Desmond Fennell ar fáil

Seo aiste raidió faoi an scríbhneoir Desmond Fennell, á chraoladh ar RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta mar chuid den sraith ‘Aistí ón Aer’ ar 27 Meitheamh. Éist anseo. (A radio essay in Irish on the writer Desmond Fennell, broadcast as part of the ‘Aistí ón Aer’ series on RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta. Listen here.)

Bhí mé díreach seiceáilte isteach san óstán i mBéal Feirste nuair a tháinig dhá théacs isteach ar mo fón, ceann ó mo mháthair agus ceann ó mo dheartháir. Bhí mo bhuanchara, an scríbhneoir Desmond Fennell, básaithe. Ní scéal é a tháinig aniar aduaidh orm – bhí aois mhór aige, 92, agus bhí fhios agam go maith go raibh sé ag éirí níos laige. Sheas mé ar feadh scaithimh, agus ansin, thug mé faoi deara an meangadh gáirí a bhí ar mo bhéal.  ‘Ah, a Desmond’ a dúirt mé liom fhéin, ‘bhí fhios agat go maith go raibh mé i mBéal Feirste!’ ‘Nach i bpríomhchathair an Tuaiscirt a rugadh tusa!’

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Raidió na ‘Fuddy-Duddies’?

RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta celebrates 50 years this week, but however great its achievements and its positive impact on traditional music and song, Irish-language media cannot stand still, writes Toner Quinn.

I don’t think I would be able to speak Irish were it not for RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta, which celebrated 50 years of broadcasting on 2 April. Many people who go to English-language schools are let down by the way Irish is taught and come out with a basic or poor grasp of the language. When I decided to address this gnawing weakness, I used to listen to RnaG while working in my first post-college job – the kitchen of a pizza restaurant in Dublin. At first, I could get lost in the range of dialects and the fluency of the presenters, but slowly I began to find the shows that I could follow, and, with some classes and reading the weekly newspaper Foinse, my understanding grew. When I moved to Conamara, I found I almost had to relearn the language; learned and spoken Irish are two different things. I can recall, however, a breakthrough moment when I was listening to a conversation on RnaG and suddenly realised I wasn’t thinking about the language anymore. My Irish is now good, not fluent, because fluency would mean I could express everything I think and feel through the language, but I am comfortable enough to use it every day. Once you learn Irish, it is like putting on a special headset, whereby everything is now multi-dimensional. You hear and see the language everywhere, you think in terms of both languages, and you are part of a very connected community.

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The Manipulation of Music Goes On

RTÉ recently broadcast a new documentary on the Irish folk revival, titled ‘The Flourishing’. Toner Quinn reviews.

The folk music revival in Ireland, generally associated with the 1950s, 60s and 70s, was an important time. How many of us would be playing this music today were it not for the artists, recordings and ideas of that era? New generations are still seeking a deeper understanding of the work of those artists, whether it is Aoife Ní Bhriain and Liam O’Connor exploring the work of Tommie Potts, Doireann Ní Ghlacáin examining the legacy of her grandfather Seán Ó Riada, or Louise Mulcahy delving into the work of Liam O’Flynn or interrogating the history of uilleann piping with her work into female piping history. Our appreciation of the achievements of the previous generations are only growing with time, and we are in an age where we have many scholars undertaking detailed research into the nuances of this music. Many of the leading artists of that time are also thankfully still with us.

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Where is the Deeper Conversation About Our Decimated Music Scene?

The latest restrictions on live music events leave many unanswered questions, writes Toner Quinn.

Last Friday, a post by the National Campaign for the Arts expressed how many felt:

Anger, frustration, disappointment and exhaustion across our sector as we unravel again. Jobs lost, businesses decimated. We are resilient but we are running on empty.

The Government had just announced that the capacity for concerts and indoor events was to be reduced by fifty per cent, and nightclubs would be closed entirely. By when? As it turned out, in four days time. When the announcement was made, artists and promoters had been putting on full-capacity events for just 43 days. Now their plans, their careers, their well-being, would crumble again.

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What If We Had More Music Hubs?

The new Beatles documentary ‘Get Back’ gives an incredible insight into the band’s creative process, and provides an important lesson for our society today, writes Toner Quinn.

In Peter Jackson’s new three-part Beatles documentary Get Back, we see the magical chemistry that arises when a group of musicians return day after day to the same space.

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