Séamus Ennis: The godfather of traditional music

Séamus Ennis at Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy in 1978 (Photo: RTÉ)

This year marks the centenary of the birth of Séamus Ennis, consummate uilleann piper, and prodigious collector of music, songs and folklore.

Ennis was born on May 5, 1919 in Jamestown, Finglas, which was then part of rural North County Dublin. His father, James, a civil servant, was originally from the Naul in North County Dublin. He was a champion Irish dancer and a highly accomplished musician – playing several instruments including the war pipes, the uilleann pipes and the flute. Séamus’ mother, Mary Josephine Ennis (née McCabe) was also a talented fiddle player, hailing from Co. Monaghan.

Ennis Senior was the leader of the Dublin Warpipers’ Band which took first prize in the band competition at the Oireachtas of 1912 while he had won first prize in the solo playing and also the Bigger prize for the best all-round warpiper. He also awarded the Oireachtas second prize on the uilleann (or Union) pipes at the Oireachtas prompting these comments from ‘Chief’ Francis O’Neill: Accompanied by Mrs Kenny “Queen of Irish Fiddlers” – this talented young man’s playing proved how well the Union pipes and fiddle play in union. As Union piper, Warpiper, and dancer, this native of the parish of Naul in his round of triumph exemplified the possibilities of intelligent effort sustained by national sentiment.

Jimmy Ennis had acquired his set of uilleann pipes – made by Maurice Coyne in Thomas Street, Dublin in the 1830s – when he happened to visit a pawn shop in London. His tutor at the Dublin Pipers’ Club was Nicholas Markey, from Meath, who had in turn been a pupil of Billy Taylor of Drogheda (and subsequently Philadelphia). Under Markey’s guidance – reinforced by his friendship with pipers, Pat Ward and Liam Andrews, and his exposure to many experienced pipers through the Club – Jimmy Ennis developed a broad repertoire. Ward and Andrews were among the many musicians who visited the Ennis house in Finglas, Others included reed maker, James McCrone, fiddler Frank O’Higgins and flute player John Cawley.

When Séamus was born, it is claimed, his father played the pipes to the baby in the cradle. When the child began humming tunes at the age of two, Jimmy carved an imitation set of pipes for him. By the age of three, the precocious child was beginning to identify tunes and to absorb his father’s extensive repertoire. After his early education at the Holy Faith Convent in Glasnevin and Belvedere College, Séamus went to the all-Irish schools at Scoil Cholm Cille and Coláiste Mhuire where he developed a great aptitude for the Irish language, which would serve him well when he became a collector of songs and tunes.

On leaving school he was employed by a family friend, Colm Ó Lochlainn (pictured left), the proprietor of the Three Candles Press in Fleet Street, Dublin and editor of Irish Street Ballads and More Irish Street Ballads. Ó Lochlainn was a regular visitor to Jamestown in Finglas, where in return for piping lessons from Jimmy Ennis, he provided conversation in Irish. As a collector of songs, Ó Lochlainn organised a weekly singing session of Irish songs, An Claisceadal, with Finán Mac Coluim. One of Séamus Ennis’ first jobs at the Three Candles was to prepare a collection of the group’s songs for printing.

But, as well as learning about the printing trade, the young Ennis also honed his skills in transcribing slow airs and dance tunes in music notation – another talent he would use to great effect later in his career. With the prospect of lay-offs caused by wartime shortages of raw materials, Ennis made up his mind to head to London to join the Royal Air Force.

When Ó Lochlainn heard of his erstwhile protégé’s intentions, he took prompt action to find him a more suitable alternative position in Ireland. A few days later, Ennis was interviewed by Professor Séamus Ó Duilearge of the Irish Folklore Commission which was concerned at the increasing threat to Ireland’s cultural heritage. In her introduction to Ennis’s diaries, Ríonach Uí Ógáin observes that by the 1940s the twin dangers of emigration and modernisation were presaging “a speedy decline in many aspects of a hitherto relatively unchanged lifestyle and its associated traditions, especially in storytelling in Irish.”

Séamus Ennis taking notes from Colm Ó Caoidheáin in Glinsce, Co. Galway, 1945. (Image: National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin)

After an ‘audition’ by staff of the music department in University College Dublin, Ennis was engaged by the Commission to collect traditional songs in Irish on a temporary contract paying almost £3 a week. Although he had no formal musical training, his practical experience at the Three Candles had consolidated Ennis’s natural talents of perfect pitch and a remarkable memory which included the capacity to reproduce tunes accurately after only one hearing. Furthermore his facility in all dialects of Irish made him uniquely qualified for the task ahead.

So with Europe still locked in war in 1942, Séamus Ennis embarked on a great cultural expedition, at the age of 23, armed with a whistle and “pen, paper and pushbike,” to preserve the oral and music traditions of rural Ireland for posterity. The first of his field trips for the Commission brought him to Cois Fharraige and the Aran Islands and then further west into Connemara. In Connemara he met Pat Cannin who whistled a reel to him. Ennis transcribed the reel using pen and paper with the title, The Mist on the Mountain. Ennis overcame the initial hesitation of older singers and musicians by replaying on the whistle the air or tune he had just taken down from them. Such was his speed and accuracy that they could hardly believe that he had not known it already.

Colm Ó Caoidheáin from Glinnsce in North Connemara, who eventually provided Ennis with 212 pieces – the most of any of his sources – told him subsequently that he had initially selected his most difficult songs when they first met to try to scare Ennis away but to no avail. His travels by bicycle took him to many isolated places – often over very difficult terrain. One contemporary account described him as “long in the leg, famished looking, thin-shouldered and nervous.”

Ennis was here
You could never be anywhere for any length of time in Ireland without Séamus Ennis cropping up. [People would say] ‘Oh we remember when Ennis was here in ‘47,’ or ‘he passed through here in ‘56.’

Christy Moore

Séamus Ennis (Photo: Alan Lomax,
Library of Congress).

However, far from being nervous, Ennis seems to have enjoyed his interactions, if his diaries are any guide. In one account of a visit to Carna in Connemara in July 1944, he recorded that “a few lads and girls gathered in and we had a great night’s music and dancing in a house. The man of the house, Breathnach, is one of the great old-style dancers. We left the house at 5.30am after a great night’s sport and music and dancing. Went to bed at eight o’clock.”

Ennis went on to collect widely along the Western seaboard – striking up friendships with most of the leading musicians and singers of the time including the O’Doherty’s, the O’Beirnes and Cití Ní Gallchóir in Donegal, Willie Clancy in Clare, Pádraig O’Keeffe and his pupils, Denis and Julia Murphy, in Sliabh Luachra and Elizabeth Cronin in Baile Mhuirne.

In 1946, the Irish Folklore Commission asked him to concentrate on Ireland’s musical connections with Scotland. So he headed to the Western Isles where his insistence on swimming every day during an inhospitable winter’s stay earned him a reputation among the islanders as “the mad Irishman.” According to Ennis, the colder the weather, the more people turned out to watch him take the plunge. On the day he had to break the ice at the water’s edge, the whole village had turned out to watch.However, on the more serious side, Ennis’s facility with Scots Gaelic enabled him to transcribe many of the songs of John Lorne Campbell.

By the time Ennis left the Commission to join the staff of Radio Éireann as an Outside Broadcast Officer in 1947, he had transcribed over 2,000 dance tunes and song airs with texts a remarkable achievement. In Radio Éireann Ennis was to continue collecting music noting wryly how he went from Galway to Dublin to take up his new post only to be sent back to Galway to take up duty.

Alan Lomax in 1959 (Photo: Bess Lomax Hawes collection in the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress)

Since the material to be collected was intended to be broadcast, he was advised to focus more on instrumental music than songs. So he returned to many of the great players he had met during his time with the Commission. He also proved himself to be a skilled presenter. On one famous trip to Clare in 1949, he recorded the playing of Willie Clancy, Bobby Casey, Micho Russell, Martin Talty and Seán Reid. His intimate knowledge of so many rich sources of traditional music and song proved invaluable to the great American collector and folklorist, Alan Lomax, on his ground-breaking field trip to Ireland in 1951. Ennis conducted Lomax and his partner, Robin Roberts, on a whirlwind tour of the areas most likely to produce promising prospects – one of whom turned out to be Ennis, himself, both as a musician and as a singer.
While Lomax has been widely and deservedly acclaimed for his ambitious project to collect the world music, Ennis was acknowledged for his key role on the Irish leg in the credits of the CBS album which was eventually released in 1955. Indeed in his notes, Lomax wrote: “all of us travelled with Séamus … this collection is his.” 

Jean Ritchie recording Séamus Ennis playing the uilleann pipes and singing, c. 1952. (Photo by George Pickow in the Ritchie-Pickow Archive, James Hardiman Library, National University of Ireland, Galway)

In 1952 Ennis performed a similar role as music guide for American folk singer, Jean Ritchie, who was on a Fulbright Scholarship to collect folk songs in Britain and Ireland, accompanied by her husband, George Pickow.

With his burgeoning reputation as a collector of music and folklore, Ennis went to work with the BBC in London In 1951. There he joined a team of collectors being assembled by the Head of the Sound Archives Department, Brian George (originally from Donegal). The team – which included Seán O’Boyle and Peter Kennedy, seconded by the English Folk Dance and Song Society – was to undertake a major five-year project to record the folk culture of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.The collectors were instructed to record as much of the surviving folk music and local forms of speech as possible for the purposes of broadcasting. The collectors were advised to ask themselves two questions:

  • First, is the material authentic from the folklore point of view?
  • Second, is the quality of the sound recording likely to be acceptable for broadcasting?

But exceptions to the quality rule could be made for something that was particularly valuable in terms of folklore.

The collectors were also given the opportunity of reporting personally on their travels, in several series of weekly programmes called As I Roved Out where Ennis excelled. The five-year scheme made a significant contribution to the archive collection of over 3,300 items (approximately 150 hours) gathered from over 700 contributors ranging in age from about 16 to 96 – representing almost every county in Great Britain and Ireland.

As I Roved Out: Séamus Ennis (centre) with colleagues from the BBC programme (from left) Peter Kennedy, Marie Slocombe, Bob Copper and Brian George (Photo: BBC).

Among the material collected by Ennis, himself, were the earliest recordings of some of the extensive repertoire of the Copper family of Rottingdean in Sussex. Bob Copper subsequently joined the team at As I Roved Out. While Ennis made a major contribution to the collection of material in Ireland and Scotland as well as many parts of England, he struck the ‘mother lode’ in Mohill, Co. Leitrim, where he recorded Thomas Moran, a 79-year-old farmer, who produced versions of an amazing number of songs. Despite the success of the project and the programme, Ennis was made redundant after seven years at the BBC during a staff re-organisation in 1958.

Around this time he was engaged in various activities which stalled for one reason or another. He was commissioned by the Clare County Board of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann to write a tutor for the pipes but the project budget ran out before the work was completed. Another undertaking involved the preparation of singable versions of many of well known Irish love songs for publication in English. But this does not appear to have come to fruition. A proposal for Ennis to arrange a collection of slow airs for the fiddle for publication by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann met a similar fate.

Séamus Ennis at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 (Photo: John Rudoff)

1958 also saw the end of his six-year marriage to Margaret Glynn. They had two children – a daughter, Catherine, who is now one of the best known organists in Britain, and a son, Christopher, who plays the fiddle and sings some of his father’s old songs.

Back in Ireland, he began to concentrate on playing the pipes – although he worked for Radio Éireann from time to time as a freelance presenter on programmes like An Ceoltoir Sidhe and Séamus Ennis san Chathaoir. As the traditional music revival gathered momentum, Ennis became a much sought-after performer, playing major events like the Newport Folk Festival in the US and Lisdoonvarna in Ireland, as well as becoming a favourite on Britain’s thriving folk music circuit. The Gateshead traditional singer, Bob Davenport, noted: “When he played, there was nobody ever came close. It stood your hair on end. It was just absolutely devastating.”

Ennis continued to perform around Ireland throughout the 1960s. He attended the founding meeting of Na Píobairí Uilleann in Bettystown, Co. Meath in 1968. He was credited with having proposed the name of the new body. He was acclaimed as joint patron of the NPU along with Leo Rowsome.

“Having a prodigious memory and possessing a complete mastery of his instrument, there were few limitations to his acquisition of tunes,” wrote Breandán Breathnach. “He knew hundreds and hundreds and these he rendered in excellent musical taste. Even common-place tunes took a deft turn displaying his total mastery. Exploiting piping ornamentation to the full, he never descended into gimmickry. The antics on the chanter indulged in by some younger players did not appeal to him and, more in sorrow than in anger, he would dismiss them with a nod of the head saying ‘My father would not have done that.’”

First among equals
One story in common currency tells of a man in a pub asking Séamus Ennis for his opinion on the three best living pipers, to which he replied: “Felix Doran and Willie Clancy. ”

“But who is the third?” the man asked. “You mean the first,” replied Ennis. 

As a piper, Ennis was a generous colleague. He had no trade secrets or special collection of tunes regarded as his own ‘private property.’ He was always willing to share his knowledge and skills with aspiring pipers by demonstrating some intricate technique. Liam O’Flynn summarised Ennis’s approach: “His taste was impeccable. He never aimed to impress by showing off, restraint and elegance were the hallmark of his piping.”

Around this time, Ennis stayed at Ted and Nora Furey’s house in Ballyfermot. “My mother looked after him,” said Finbar Furey. “He was very sick. He would have been there for six months or so because he had no place else to go. He was an awful man for the drink. I think he had TB, I’m not sure. But I remember when he was as thin as a rake – Jesus, you’d be afraid to touch him in case you’d break him.”

In the early 1970s he shared a house in Dublin with Liam O’Flynn and his brother for about three years. Although Ennis never gave lessons in the formal sense, he made a lasting impression on the young piper who tapped into the older man’s encyclopaedic knowledge and expertise. During this time in O’Flynn’s Mount Street flat, Ennis heard some of Planxty’s early rehearsals. “Any time I took out the pipes,” recalled O’Flynn, “a door would open very quietly and this vision would appear in the form of Séamus. And he’d just sit and listen and offer advice.”

O’Flynn believed that Ennis’s passionate and deep immersion in the tradition made him unique among his peers: “he was this incredible musician – but most incredible musicians like that don’t tend to go into the background of things in any sort of academic or structured way… Ennis combined the two.” During that time they formed the Halfpenny Bridge Quartet, with Liam on the pipes, Tommy Grogan on accordion and Seán Keane on fiddle.

Séamus Ennis in London 1966
(Photo: Bob Rundle).

“He made me realise music is magic and a spiritual experience. It cannot be taught in any university. It is beyond that.”

Tony MacMahon 

In 1975, he moved to the Naul to live out his remaining years on the land which had once belonged to his grandparents in a caravan he called Easter Snow after the traditional air. The Séamus Ennis Arts Centre, named in his honour, is nearby. Ennis loved North County Dublin, remarking that he had never cared much for any city and that he was a countryman at heart. Although an intensely private man, he was visited at Easter Snow by his children and close friends from the world of music, swapping stories, listening to and playing songs and tunes, and playing cards until late into the night.

In 1979, Ennis was one of a number of traditional musicians who collaborated with the avant-garde American composer, John Cage in his work, Roaratorio: an Irish Circus on Finegans Wake. Indebted to sound engineer John Fulleman, Cage’s piece was a complex amalgam of over 2,600 recorded sounds, including Cage’s voice and taped performances by six Irish traditional musicians – Ennis; fiddler Paddy Glackin; flute player, Matt Molloy; percussionists, Peadar and Mel Mercier; and singer, Joe Heaney. Originally commissioned for broadcast on WDR Radio (Cologne) the piece was subsequently performed live throughout the 1980s in Europe and North America. For the live performances Liam O’Flynn replaced Ennis, with Séamus Tansey taking over from Matt Molloy.

“There’s a lot of talk about purists in traditional music, but these musicians all played quite a bizarre piece of music for Cage, and they were so open-minded. That’s what makes great musicians great, if you ask me.”

David Flynn

Ennis continued performing at home and abroad until he finally died of cancer in October 1982 at the age of 63. Among his last performances were those at the Willie Clancy Summer School and the Lisdoonvarna Folk Festival.

Even if Séamus Ennis had never emerged as the foremost piper of his generation, his earlier career as a collector of songs, tunes and folklore would have earned him a revered place in the history of the music of Ireland (and to a lesser extent Britain).

His dedication and diligence in transcribing and recording songs and tunes has meant that an enormous treasury of music has been saved that might otherwise have been lost.

But perhaps more importantly as a passionate and engaged performer of the music he helped to preserve, he brought it to life for new generations – ensuring that the pipes in particular would be rescued from near extinction so that today the instrument is known around the world.

Liam O’Flynn, to continue the tradition

It was no accident that his protégé, Liam O’Flynn, was to play such a pivotal role in bringing traditional music to wider (and younger) audiences through his work with Planxty and as a soloist. Ennis once described how his father announced that he would play no longer and then formally handed over his pipes to his son to continue the tradition. The Coyne set was then left by Ennis to his younger friend.

Liam O’Flynn plays a lament beside the grave of Séamus Ennis in 1982. (Photo: Irish Independent)

Shortly before his own death last year, O’Flynn then passed the Coyne set on to the piper and doctor, Pádraic Mac Mathúna, whose father, the broadcaster, Ciarán Mac Mathúna had said of Ennis on his death in 1982:
“Séamus Ennis was unique. Of course every person in the world is unique but some people are more unique than others… Young musicians worshipped at his feet and followed him in the way medieval students followed their Abelard. And all this he enjoyed because there was no false humility in Séamus Ennis. He knew his own worth.”

“As a piper he enriched and enlarged the living tradition and therein lay his most valued contribution to the cultural life of his country,” wrote Breandán Breathnach.

Ennis on the double: Painting by Julie Cope (Courtesy of Na Píobairí Uilleann) and Photograph by RTÉ

A CD of Ennis’s music, sourced from forty years of acetate and tapes in the Radio Éireann – and later RTÉ – archives was compiled by uilleann piper and radio producer, Peter Browne. Released in 1997, The Return from Fingal is available from the Séamus Ennis Arts Centre in the Naul. Sources: The Séamus Ennis Arts Centre, Na Píobairí Uilleann, Séamus Ennis by Breandán Breathnach (Musical Traditions No. 1, 1983 and Dal gCais, Vol 7 1984), The BBC Folk Music Collection by Marie Slocombe, and The Wheels of the World: 300 Years of Irish Uilleann Pipers by Colin Harper with John McSherry.

Séamus Ennis Discography

  • The Bonny Bunch of Roses, Tradition Records 1958
  • Ceol, Scealta agus Amhrain, Gael-Linn 1961
  • The Ace And Deuce of Piping (EP), Collector Records 1961
  • Irish Music in London Pubs (with Margaret Barry, Michael Gorman and Joe Heaney) Folkways Records 1963
  • Séamus Ennis (Masters of Irish Music), Leader 1969
  • Seoda Ceoil 2 (with Seán Keane, Seosamh Ó hÉanaí, J. J. Gannon), Gael-Linn 1969
  • Strains On Wind Once Blown – Vol. 1: The Pure Drop, Tara 1973
  • The Fox Chase, Tara 1974
  • The Wandering Minstrel, Topic 1974
  • The Best of Irish Piping, Tara 1974
  • Irish Pipe and Tin Whistle Songs, Olympic Records 1976
  • Forty Years of Irish Piping, Green Linnet 1977
  • Féidhlim Tonn Rí’s Castle or The King of Ireland’s Son, Claddagh Records 1977
  • The Fox Chase, Tara 1978
  • Visit To Ireland, Volume Three (Compilation), Fat Boy Records 1994
  • The Return from Fingal, RTÉ 1997

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