seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Death of Martin Fay, Founding Member of The Chieftains

Martin Fay, Irish fiddler and bones player, and a former member of The Chieftains, dies on November 14, 2012. The Chieftains collaborate with musicians from a wide range of genres and cultures and bring in guest performers such as Mick Jagger, Van Morrison and James Galway. Yet traditional tunes lay at the heart of the band, with Fay’s fiddle a vital part of their distinctive sound.

Fay is born in Cabra, Dublin, where his mother teaches him to play the piano. As a boy, he is captivated by the music in the film The Magic Bow (1946), about the life of Niccolò Paganini, and he changes instrument. He progresses well in his classical violin lessons and at fifteen is playing in a Butlins holiday camp orchestra. After leaving school at eighteen, Fay works in an office by day and in the evenings plays in the Abbey Theatre orchestra, where he meets the Abbey’s musical director, Seán Ó Riada.

In the 1950s, traditional music is regarded as distinctly old-fashioned in Ireland, but Ó Riada’s success with a film score, and a play at the Abbey, encourage him to establish a folk orchestra which includes Fay, piper Paddy Moloney and the tin whistle player Seán Potts. Instead of all the musicians playing together in unison, as in the established cèilidh bands, Ó Riada wants to create a chamber orchestra, playing arrangements of folk music. Fay’s classical music background is essential for this approach. The resulting ensemble, Ceoltóirí Cualann, enjoys radio success and, in 1961, plays the soundtrack for a film of The Playboy of the Western World. Fay was soon earning more playing traditional music than in his day job.

Garech Browne, a member of the Guinness family and founder of Claddagh Records, asks Moloney to record some traditional Irish music. Moloney brings in Fay, Potts and Michael Tubridy on flute, and uses a similar approach to arranging the tunes. Their eponymous album, The Chieftains, is released in 1964, before they first perform in public. The success of this new approach to traditional Irish music leads to radio and television work, and they attract celebrity fans. Browne is a great thrower of parties, where the guests included Jagger, Princess Grace of Monaco, Peter O’Toole and Sean Connery, with The Chieftains invariably playing through the night.

By 1968, Moloney is working full time for Claddagh Records, and when he, Potts and Fay are offered a recording contract by a rival company, Gael Linn, Moloney refuses to sign. Potts and Fay believe that their future lay with Gael Linn and they leave The Chieftains, only to return a year later. In the meantime, Seán Keane has joined to play fiddle, but on Fay’s return the pair work well together.

The Chieftains’ popularity is extending far beyond folk enthusiasts but they are still playing only in their spare time. That changes in 1975 when they provide music for the Oscar-winning score of Stanley Kubrick‘s film Barry Lyndon and the promoter Jo Lustig books the group into the Royal Albert Hall in London on St. Patrick’s Day. The sell-out concert is a triumph, and Fay and his fellow Chieftains finally give up their day jobs.

The relentless international touring takes its toll on band members with young families, and Tubridy and Potts leave, to be replaced by the flautist Matt Molloy. Fay is happy to continue. A reserved and modest man with a great sense of humour, he is unfazed by the pressures of extensive touring. He is the only Chieftain not to be racked by nerves when playing to well over a million people at Phoenix Park during Pope John Paul II‘s visit to Dublin in 1979.

Although he has a classical training, Fay has a natural understanding of traditional music. He is a master of changing the mood at Chieftains concerts from the lively onstage parties to a more tranquil atmosphere, through his emotional interpretations of the slow airs. In total, Fay records more than 30 albums with the group before he withdraws from touring in 2001 and retires altogether in 2002.

Martin Fay dies in Cabra, Dublin, on November 14, 2012 after a lengthy illness.

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Birth of Irish Folk Musician Tommy Makem

Thomas “Tommy” Makem, internationally celebrated Irish folk musician, artist, poet and storyteller, is born in Keady, County Armagh, on November 4, 1932. He is best known as a member of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. He plays the long-necked 5-string banjo, tin whistle, low whistle, guitar, bodhrán and bagpipes, and sings in a distinctive baritone. He is sometimes known as “The Bard of Armagh,” taken from a traditional song of the same name, and “The Godfather of Irish Music.”

Makem’s mother, Sarah Makem, is an important source of traditional Irish music, who is visited and recorded by, among others, Diane Guggenheim Hamilton, Jean Ritchie, Peter Kennedy and Sean O’Boyle. His father, Peter Makem, is a fiddler who also plays the bass drum in a local pipe band named “Oliver Plunkett,” after a Roman Catholic martyr of the reign of Charles II of England. His brother and sister are folk musicians as well. Makem, from the age of eight, is member of the St. Patrick’s church choir for 15 years where he sings Gregorian chant and motets. He does not learn to read music but he makes it in his “own way.”

Makem starts to work at 14 as a clerk in a garage and later he works for a while as a barman at Mone’s Bar, a local pub, and as a local correspondent for The Armagh Observer.

Makem emigrates to the United States in 1955, carrying his few possessions and a set of bagpipes from his time in a pipe band. Arriving in Dover, New Hampshire, he works at Kidder Press, where his hand was accidentally crushed by a press in 1956. With his arm in a sling, he leaves Dover for New York City to pursue an acting career.

The Clancys and Makem are signed to Columbia Records in 1961. The same year, at the Newport Folk Festival, Makem and Joan Baez are named the most promising newcomers on the American folk scene. During the 1960s, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem perform sellout concerts at such venues as Carnegie Hall, and make television appearances on shows like The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show. The group performs for President John F. Kennedy. They also play in smaller venues such as the Gate of Horn in Chicago. They appear jointly in the UK Albums Chart in April 1966, when Isn’t It Grand Boys reaches number 22.

Makem leaves the group in 1969 to pursue a solo career. In 1975, he and Liam Clancy are both booked to play a folk festival in Cleveland, Ohio, and are persuaded to do a set together. Thereafter they often perform as Makem and Clancy, recording several albums together. He once again goes solo in 1988. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s he performs both solo and with Liam Clancy on The Irish Rovers‘ various television shows, which are filming in Canada and Ireland.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Makem is a principal in a well-known Irish music venue in New York, “Tommy Makem’s Irish Pavilion.” This East 57th Street club is a prominent and well-loved performance spot for a wide range of musicians. Among the performers and visitors are Paddy Reilly, Joe Burke, and Ronnie Gilbert. Makem is a regular performer, often solo and often as part of Makem and Clancy, particularly in the late fall and holiday season. The club is also used for warm-up performances in the weeks before the 1984 reunion concert of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. In addition, the after-party for Bob Dylan‘s legendary 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration at Madison Square Garden in 1992 is held at the Irish Pavilion.

In 1997 Makem writes a book, Tommy Makem’s Secret Ireland, and in 1999 premiers a one-man theatre show, Invasions and Legacies, in New York. His career includes various other acting, video, composition, and writing credits. He also establishes the Tommy Makem International Festival of Song in South Armagh in 2000.

Tommy Makem dies in Dover, New Hampshire, on August 1, 2007, following a lengthy battle with lung cancer. He continues to record and perform until very close to the end. Paying tribute to him after his death, Liam Clancy says, “He was my brother in every way.” He is buried next to his wife at New Saint Mary Cemetery in Dover.


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Birth of John Sheahan, Musician & Composer

John Sheahan, musician and composer and the last surviving member of the definitive five-member line-up of The Dubliners, is born in Dublin on May 19, 1939. He joins The Dubliners in 1964 and plays with them until 2012 when The Dubliners’ name is retired following the death of founding member Barney McKenna.

Sheahan goes to school at the local Christian Brothers in Marino, Dublin, where he receives his first musical education, learning the tin whistle. When he is about twelve years old he begins to take an active interest in music and soon he transfers the musical knowledge gained on the whistle to a fiddle he finds lying around at home. Enthusiastically supported and encouraged by his parents, he attends the Municipal School of Music in Dublin where he studies classical violin for more than five years.

During this time he continues to maintain his interest in Irish traditional music, which sometimes leads him to improvise on the classics by putting in a few embellishments. His improvisions ultimately lead to the development of his unique style, gaining him a number of awards at various féiseanna. His interest in American bluegrass fiddle music must also have influenced his style, as can be heard in tunes like Flop Eared Mule, recorded with The Dubliners in 1968, 1969 and 1983.

Sheahan plays with a number of bands around the country until he meets The Dubliners in the early 1960s. At that time, the group is formed by Ronnie Drew, Barney McKenna, Ciarán Bourke and Luke Kelly. He joins the band in 1964, together with Bobby Lynch. Both musicians have been playing during the interval at concerts and usually stay on stage for the second half of the show. When Luke Kelly moves to England in 1964, Lynch is taken on as his temporary replacement. When Kelly returns in 1965, Lynch leaves the band and Sheahan stays. He is the only member of the Dubliners to have had a formal musical education.

After 50 years of playing and after the death of founding member Barney McKenna, in the fall of 2012 Sheahan announces the retirement of The Dubliners by the end of the 50th anniversary tour. The last formation of the band features Sheahan, Seán Cannon, Eamonn Campbell, Patsy Watchorn and Gerry O’Connor. He is a steady member of the band for 48 years and the high standards of his playing strongly contribute to forge the Dubliners’ sound.