Ómós: Kevin Henry

Kevin Henry

The great Chicago-based flute player, Kevin Henry, died on June 10. Among the many tributes that followed his death was this from Martin Hayes:The wonderful musician, story teller and carrier of tradition has passed away. He was one of the greats. I was privileged to know him when I lived in Chicago. He is a big loss to the world of traditional music, while piper, Néillidh Mulligan, declared:

One of our greatest has left us… but he has left us such a beautiful and rich legacy.

Born in March 1929 in the townland of Cloonlarin in Doocastle (between Tobercurry and Gorteen) on the Mayo-Sligo border, Kevin was the eighth of eleven children of Thomas and Mary Ann Henry (née Connell) in a very musical household. With his father a lilter and his mother a singer, regular visitors to the house in Cloonlarin included local fiddlers, Pat Kellegher, Pake Spellman and John Michael Cawley, flute players like Pake Maree, Mick Joe Ryan, Michael Duffy and Sonny McDonagh and piper, Pake Joe Maree.

Among Kevin’s near contemporaries in the area were Roger Sherlock and Brendan Tonra. Most of Kevin’s siblings were musicians, singers or reciters – including Kevin’s older brothers, John (a highly accomplished fiddle player) and Martin (widely credited as the writer of the original version of the song, Macalpine’s Fusiliers) and his younger sisters, Carmel (an acclaimed sean-nós singer) and Verona, (also a very fine fiddle player).

After finishing as a runner-up in Fleadh Cheoil na Éireann in Loughrea in 1955, John led the St. Joseph’s Céili Band during the 1950s and 1960s – with sister Verona included in the line-up. He also featured on Seán Ó Riada’s Our Musical Heritage RTE radio series, playing Reidy Johnston’s and Up against the Buachalláns in 1963.

So the young Kevin Henry was surrounded by music in the home and in the surrounding area – with its strong fiddle tradition. Kevin was left-handed and as he said himself jokingly, “only for that I would have been a fiddler.”

Yet Mayo and Sligo also has a strong history of flute playing which Kevin attributed to the long tradition of flute bands and fife and drum marching bands in the area. At about the age of 11 years, Kevin starting playing the tin whistle before progressing to the flute using an old instrument he had repaired. He gradually built a repertoire of tunes gleaned from his brother, John, and other local musicians, and from attending local dances and feiseanna and began to develop his characteristic ‘old-style’ percussive, breathy articulation of notes.

In 1947 Kevin left to join an older brother in Lincolnshire to work as a labourer during the day and playing music at night. Over the next ten years he lived in at least eighteen places in four countries, migrating throughout England, back to Ireland, across the Atlantic to Canada, then on to New York City, Florida, Chicago, Montana, and back to Chicago, where he settled down. On his travels through England, he learned both the uilleann pipes and the war pipes because the flute could not be heard in dance halls during the more boisterous dances like The Siege of Ennis. During this period, Kevin worked as an agricultural labourer, miner, tunnel digger, waiter, dance-hall musician and carpenter.

In Chicago, the one-time home of Chief Francis O’Neill, the prolific collector of traditional music, Kevin became an ironworker (and a long-standing member of the Ironworkers’ Union) – involved in the construction of a number of iconic structures like the John Hancock building, the First National Bank and the IBM building. In 1956 Kevin was one of the founding members – and subsequently President – of the Chicago branch of the Irish Musicians’ Association of America (Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann) along with Johnny McGreevy, Jimmy Donnelly, Jimmy and Eleanor Neary, Mary Donnelly-McDonagh, Pat Roache and Frank Thornton. Local competitions were initiated with winners eventually finding their way to the Fleadh Ceoil na hÉireann.

Among the performers who have acknowledged their debt to Kevin’s passion and commitment to traditional music are Liz Carroll, Jimmy Keane, Seán Gavin, Michael Flatley, and last, but not least, his own daughter, Maggie, who is equally adept on the flute, whistle and fiddle. Maggie features on Kevin’s album, One’s Own Place – A Family Tradition, along with Kevin’s fiddling siblings, John and Verona, and life-long friend Malachy Towey on bodhrán (who also died recently). The album – which consists of stories and poems as well as tunes and songs – served to highlight another side of Kevin’s artistic life: acting.

As a member of Chicago’s Irish Guild Players since the 1950s, arguably his most important role was in 1996, when he appeared in the Goodman Theatre’s production of Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet alongside the late Brian Dennehy. Kevin’s part involved playing the pipes and singing O’Neill’s words, set to a traditional tune.

He also appeared in a Dublin Theatre Festival production of The Well in 2000 along with piper, Néillidh Mulligan, and box player, Tony McMahon, who also devised the show along with director John Comiskey. In 2001 he was awarded a Fellowship in the Traditional Arts from the Illinois Art Council.

It has been tough, talented men like Kevin Henry who through music and recitation have kept the spark of Irish culture stubbornly alive – a man who has dutifully earned his own place in the great tradition.

Justin O’Brien

Kevin was the subject of a ‘Sé Mo Laoch documentary on TG4 in 2017 – directed by Ciarán Ó Maonaigh – which also included contributions from Liz Carroll, Michael Flatley and Tony McMahon. He also featured in a number of performance videos which are still available on YouTube. Michael Flatley decribed Henry as “a gifted artist—truly one of my heroes,” while Seán Gavin agreed that Kevin Henry was the greatest flute player of all time. “The depth of his music was surpassed only by that of his character. I, like so many more, am in his debt forever,” he said.

Kevin Henry is survived by his widow, Pauline, children, Mary, Tom, Kevin Jr. and Maggie, and sisters, Carmel and Verona.

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