December 9, 2007
By Ronan Nolan
In the 1950s and 1960s, when the music of Coleman and Morrison seemed to a new generation to have been there forever, hearing Sean McGuire playing his fiddle on Radio Eireann had an uplifting effect.
Sean Stephen Maguire (he later changed his name) was born in Belfast on December 26, 1927, into a musical family. His father, John, played piccolo, concert flute, whistle and fiddle. His brother Jim, who passed away in early 2002, was highly thought of as a fiddle player. The two brothers recorded an album together in 1982.
At the age of 12 Sean began his fiddle playing. His two teachers were Professor George Vincent, from whom he learned fingering, and Madame May Nesbitt, who taught him his bowing technique.
As a teenager he was first violinist with the Belfast Youth Orchestra and he turned down an invitation to join the Belfast Symphony Orchestra because he felt more at home playing traditional music. "I decided to devote my techniques to the furtherance and promotion of my culture," he once said.
At the age of 15 he broadcast on BBC Overseas Radio. At 22 he won the gold medal at the All Ireland Oireachtas Fiddle Championship, scoring 100% from the four judges.
In due course he became an all-round musician playing the piano, guitar, concert flute, whistle and uilleann pipes. In 1948 he joined the Malachy Sweeney Ceili Band as and played alongside his father John, and another fine musician Johnny Pickering. Later he formed The Sean Maguire Ceili Band, playing all over Ireland and England and making a number of solo, group and ceili band albums, and later played with the Four Star Quartet.
In 1952 he toured the USA and Canada playing to a packed audience in Carnegie Hall and followed that with TV appearances on The Arthur Griffith and Ed Sullivan shows. Shortly afterwards he was invited by Wurlitzers of New York to play the Stradivarius and Guanerius violins, held in trust by them, and his name was inscribed in the Golden Book along with those of Fritz Kreisler, Yehudi Menuhin and other famous violinists.
In the 1960s he played with the Gael-linn Cabaret. The Sixties also saw him working in England, playing with flute player Roger Sherlock. For a time they were in the Hibernian Ceili Band together. It was in London that he met accordionist Joe Burke. The two were often to tour together. When possible Barney McKenna of The Dubliners joined them and McKenna and Maguire's duet on The Mason's Apron is a classic.
Back in Belfast he gave classes at the Clonard Traditional School, run by the McPeakes, and later the Andersonstown Music School. In the 1980s cancer of the throat forced him to withdrew from public performance. With spirit and determination he overcame it, had a speech valve fitted in hospital and returned to living a normal life.
He resumed his master classes, interviews, concerts and recorded his Gael-linn Portráid (Portrait) album in 1988. In 1996, with his pupils, he released the album The Hawks and Doves of Irish Culture.
Among his Irish music innovations have been the practice of using sophisticated key changes, the adaptation of advanced classical bowing techniques, and the use of up-the-neck violin positions.
In an interview with Fiddle Magazine in 1998, http://www.fiddle.com/sp98.html, Seamus Connolly, the Co Clare fiddler then based in Boston, summed up McGuire's contribution:
"Before 1957 and '58 many young fiddlers coming up were listening to Michael Coleman on scratchy old 78s, and almost all of Irish fiddling was in just a few keys. Then Sean McGuire's first recordings came out, and we had heard nothing like this - tunes like The Mathematician, with parts where he shifts effortlessly through a number of high positions, or like The Golden Eagle where he switches back and forth between second and third positions. And there were a number of tunes where he was playing with great facility in the flat keys. It took me years to find out what he was doing.
"He certainly influenced a lot of my generation - the level of his technique first of all, and also the way with his variations he could get inside a tune and turn it around. And I have seen that many of the young fiddlers who were initially opposed to his approach came to admit his genius later on. He also opened the way for players in the next generation to take classical training and apply it to the traditional style. As far as I am concerned, McGuire was a real genius of a player and I hope he is ultimately accorded his true place in the annals of traditional Irish music."
Sean McGuire died on March 24, 2005.
The Hawks and Doves of Irish Culture, Sean McGuire and His Pupils, 1996
Portráid, Sean McGuire, 1988
Pure Traditional Irish Fiddle Music, Sean & Jim McGuire, 1982
Two Champions, Sean McGuire and Joe Burke, 1971
Champion of Champions, Sean McGuire and Josephine Keegan, 1969
Irish Traditional Fiddling, Sean McGuire with Roger Sherlock and Josephine Keegan, 1969