Seamus Ennis being recorded by Jean Ritchie,
courtesy of James Hardiman Library, NUI, Galway. From the
Ritchie-Pickow collection. ©NUIG
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
He loved to drive the roads of Ireland in a by now legendary Ford
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."
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
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
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.
of Seamus Ennis:
The Bonny Bunch of Roses,
The Return from Fingal,
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