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'Often for the first time, musicians, say, in Kerry heard their fellow practitioners in Donegal. Clare heard Monaghan, Leitrim heard Wexford and so on'
- Broadcaster Sean Mac Reamoinn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last Updated
December 17, 2007


Seamus Ennis being recorded by Jean Ritchie, winter 1952-53.
Photo courtesy of James Hardiman Library, NUI, Galway. From the Ritchie-Pickow collection. ©NUIG

Seamus Ennis 1919-1982
Seamus Ennis used to say that it took all of 21 years to become a piper - seven years learning, seven years practising and seven years playing. He may be the exception that proves the rule, because by the age of 21, his playing as evidenced on recordings he made for Radio Eireann in 1940 was as fully developed as when he was 50.
Seamus Ennis, uilleann piper, broadcaster and folklore and music collector, was born on May 5, 1919, in Jamestown in Finglas, then a rural area of North Co Dublin.
As for his musical talent, "it wasn't off the wind he got it," as Sean Mac Reamoinn once commented. His father was James Ennis, a civil servant in the Department of Agriculture, from Naul, Co Dublin, who was a prize-winning musician on several instruments including the uilleann pipes and also a champion dancer. He married Mary Josephine McCabe of County Monaghan in 1916. They had six children.
Seamus's early schooling was at the Holy Faith Convent in Glasnevin and at Belvedere College. Then he attended all-Irish schools at Scoil Cholm Cille and Colaiste Mhuire and this, coupled with family visits to Rosmuc in the Connemara Gaeltacht as a teenager and his father being a keen lover of all things Irish, gave Seamus a grounding in Irish which he developed to the full.
His Irish language proficiency proved a major asset later on. While collecting folk songs and tunes for Radio Eireann and the BBC, he had an uncanny ability to converse in the regional Gaelic dialects with people in Connemara, Donegal, Kerry and even Scotland.
Having studied at commercial college he sat an exam for a post as Employment Exchange Clerk and missed being called for a job by one place. Then in Dublin one day in 1938 he met a close family friend Colm O Lochlainn, who offered him a job at his printing and publishing firm, the Sign of the Three Candles in Fleet Street, Dublin.

Cradle music
Seamus remembers hearing music in the cradle and going to sleep with the sound of his father's pipes in his ears. He knew the names of some of the tunes when he was only three years old and one night, despite valiantly trying to stay awake, he fell asleep as his father played Munster Buttermilk. He tells of how in the morning he was upset at having missed the end of the tune.
There were many musical visitors to the house in Jamestown - pipers Liam Andrews of Dublin and Pat Ward of Drogheda whose face Seamus describes as being adorned by a white "halo beard", James McCrone, a reed maker, the influential fiddle player Frank O'Higgins and John Cawley (flute) - the other members of the Fingal Trio with whom his father played and broadcast in the early days of 2RN which preceded Radio Eireann.
It was on a wet Saturday afternoon that Seamus first put on a Jack Brogan set of pipes which his father had bought in order to play with the Fingal Trio. He had no formal piping lessons from his father who used, however, explain the "difficult bits" and also showed him how to read music in order to learn tunes from Francis O'Neill's book. Seamus said that the only major influence on his piping was his father, who had in turn learned from Nicholas Markey of County Meath, Pat Ward and the other old pipers who used to play in the early years of the Oireachtas competitions.
Folklore Commission
Seamus was employed for years by Colm O Lochlainn at the Three Candle Press and performed all the usual tasks associated with the printing trade as well as learning to write down slow airs in staff notation which - along with the ability to write dance music his father had taught him - was to be of enormous benefit to him in the years to come. He said that Colm O Lochlainn was a major cause of his love for the Irish language and at this time also he got much practice at singing with An Claisceadal - an Irish language choir of which Colm was a director.
In 1942 the Second World War caused shortages in printing trade materials and Colm introduced Seamus to Professor Seamus O Duilearge of the Irish Folklore Commission. He was hired as a folk-music collector and sent to Connemara with "pen, paper and pushbike" on a salary of £3.00 a week. He wrote down his first song from a man working on the roadside between Oranmore and Galway city.
In the ensuing years to 1947 he collected songs in West Munster, Galway, Cavan, Mayo, Donegal, and in 1946 in the Scottish Gaeltacht. It was a wonderful part of his career and the collection of written music and song which resulted is to this day a major legacy.
He was clearly accepted and well-liked by those from whom he sought music and was able instantly to spot the genuine and good players and singers. Being a musician himself meant that he was in turn fully accepted by them - a case of like recognising like.
Elizabeth 'Bess' Cronin of Baile Mhuirne, Co Cork, herself a well-known collector, who supplied Seamus with many beautiful songs, used to write them down on paper when she was expecting him to call and hand a sheaf of songs to him upon his arrival so that they could spend their time together in conversation and without distraction. Colm O Caoidheain of Glinnsce, in the Connemara Gaeltacht, used to trawl his mind for more and more songs in order to prolong the number and duration of Seamus's visits. A good friend of Seamus, the sean-nós singer Sean Mac Donncha, said that in his work "Seamus needed no clock."

On the Road
In 1946 when Seamus was working for the Irish Folklore Commission in Scotland he applied for a job in Radio Eireann as an Outside Broadcast Officer. He got the job and started work in August 1947. A couple of surviving programmes on sean-nós singing, Music Stand and Folk Songs from the West, show Seamus as a naturally skilled presenter. On a visit to Clare in 1949 he recorded for the first time the likes of Willie Clancy, Bobby Casey, Sean Reid, Martin Talty and Micho Russell.
Broadcaster Sean Mac Reamoinn, who travelled and worked on the road with Seamus Ennis, said that their programmes brought Irish music into the larger cities. "In this the contribution of the radio was crucial. Crucial too, in that, often for the first time, musicians, say, in Kerry heard their fellow practitioners in Donegal. Clare heard Monaghan, Leitrim heard Wexford and so on,"
Early in 1951, the US music collector Alan Lomax arrived in Ireland with singer Robyn Roberts, also a collector. But on thair arrival, they discovered that their recording equipment had broken down. As luck would have it, Radio Eireann not only supplied them with recording gear, but also lent them the services of Seamus Ennis. On that field trip, Lomax recorded, among others, Bess Cronin in Cork and Colm O Ciadháin in Connemara.
In May 1951 he left Radio Eireann and renewed an acquaintance of some years earlier with Brian George, a BBC producer who was setting up a scheme to record extensively the surviving folk culture of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and in late 1951 Seamus moved to London to work with the BBC.
He collected all over Britain and Ireland and was one of the presenters of a famous pioneering folk music radio programme As I Roved Out on the BBC Home Service. During this period, in 1952, he married Margaret Glynn and they had two children, Catherine and Christopher.
His job in the BBC ended in 1958 and for a time he tried his hand at freelance work, a pursuit which he himself described as "unrewarding." At this time also his marriage ended and he returned to Ireland where he once more found freelance work with Radio Eireann and also presented programmes such as An Ceoltoir Sidhe and Seamus Ennis sa Chathaoir on the new TV station, Teilifis Eireann.
During the 1960s he travelled around Ireland playing music. He played at the Newport Folk Festival in the US in the summer of 1964, staying there some months.In early 1968 he was present and performed at the first meeting of Na Piobairí Uilleann in Bettystown, Co Meath.
He loved to drive the roads of Ireland in a by now legendary Ford Zephyr car.
In the early 1970s Seamus Ennis shared accommodation with piper Liam O Floinn in Dublin and even formed a music group, The Halfpenny Bridge Quartet, with Liam on the pipes, Tommy Grogan on accordion and Sean Keane on fiddle. Finally in 1975 he returned to the Naul to live in a mobile home on land once owned by his grandparents.
Seamus left a lasting impression on Liam O Floinn. As a young piper he had heard of Seamus from other musicians. "It was a hugely exciting and daunting experience for me when I finally met him at a session in Dowlings' pub in Prosperous in County Kildare, in the late 1960s. Before leaving that night he offered me any assistance he could give and told me to 'keep in touch'. I very eagerly followed up on this invitation and we became firm friends, sharing a house together for almost three years.
"His willingness to impart his great store of knowledge and piping skills was extraordinary. When we travelled together he always drove and that could be a fairly 'hairy' experience. the conversation always turned to music with fascinating stories about places, tunes, songs, players and singers. I absorbed a great deal from him in this way. Planxty was in full flight at this time and he took a terrific interest in the group. He gave us songs and tunes in abundance."

The piper
Seamus's playing of the uilleann pipes was always instantly recognisable for his tone, technique and particular versions of tunes and the variations which he employed while playing them. Any tune, no matter how commonly played by musicians at sessions or elsewhere, became different when he played it and despite the amount of skill and technique which he used, the tune was never stifled or bent out of shape in any way and this was because Seamus had a great respect for the music and its idiomatic integrity.
His playing of slow airs was special because he had a deep understanding of the songs from which they came and he used this knowledge to play the airs as they might be sung by a good singer. Some of his techniques in dance music were special to himself - a trill on the E' or F' which he used to describe as a "shiver" as it was done by shaking the centre forearm rather than just the fingers, his unique cran (a stuttering roll on the bottom D) and the "ghost D" (an effect which suggests to the listener that two notes are sounding simultaneously). He also had the rare ability to play several notes in the third octave of his chanter.
Seamus's set of pipes have an interesting history. In 1908 his father found them in a sack, in pieces, in a pawnbroker's shop in London and purchased them for a small sum. They turned out after examination and repair to be a set made by Coyne of Thomas Street in Dublin in the early years of the 19th century and their tone to this day is distinctive and beautiful.
He was an excellent communicator and had a special way with children. He loved words and wordplay and liked nothing better than to swap limericks and rhyming couplets with friends such as Willie Clancy and Denis Murphy.

The final years
Having spent years based in various flats and houses around Dublin while touring Ireland and occasionally England with his music, Seamus finally "came home" in the mid 1970s. He procured a small piece of land in Naul on a farm which had once been his grandfather's. Here he had a mobile home, called Easter Snow, where he lived out the rest of his life.
Living once more in North County Dublin was something in which he took great pride - he had gone back to his roots to a place which was still in effect rural. He told people that he was a "homebird", that he "never did like any city" and that he could finally come and go as he pleased. From here he travelled around giving concerts, illustrated recitals and lectures and regularly visited his friends - those families with whom he had always been close.
Despite failing health he continued on in this way until almost the very end. He performed at the Willie Clancy Summer School of 1982 and also at the Lisdoonvarna Folk Festival before returning to Naul. He was receiving treatment for cancer but died in his home on October 5, 1982. He was aged 63. His graveside oration was given by his friend Seam Mac Reamoinn who said: "Thank you, Seamus, for what you brought to us of joy, of beauty and a sense of belonging."
The CD of his music, The Return from Fingal, which was compiled by piper and radio producer Peter Browne from 40 years of acetate and tapes in the Radio Eireann and later RTE archives, was released in 1997. It won a new audience for Seamus Ennis and resulted in a reappraisal of his work and skill among a new generation of musicians.

Special thanks to Peter Browne, upon whose research much of this article is based.
Recordings of Seamus Ennis:
The Bonny Bunch of Roses, Tradition, 1959
The Return from Fingal, RTE, 1997.


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