Why Séamus?

Séamus Ennis, Traditional Music, and Irish Cultural History.

’Séamus was a larger than life figure. He could play to the gallery at times, but his piping was so deep. I listened to him playing slow airs, and I couldn’t make out what he was up to. Then he told me the stories behind the tunes and, through him, I discovered the words to the airs and his piping began make perfect sense. That’s where his genius was – in bringing the words into the music.’[1] – Liam O’Flynn

In the mid-1990s the flute-player and scholar Hammy Hamilton, then teaching at Waterford Regional Technical College, conceived the idea of a statistical survey that would attempt to quantify degrees of traditional music awareness among the region’s population, specifically in response to a rather misleading survey from 1981. Hamilton’s corrective survey began with a question intended to establish a given respondent’s level of specific knowledge of traditional music:

It was decided that we should attempt to get some indication of awareness of the core dance music tradition… . The following format was decided: a person, well known to all who are involved in such music, would be named and the respondent would simply be asked ‘Who is X?’ This question would, if answered correctly, then lead to others.[2]

In its final form, Question #1 on the survey – intended to assess the informant’s ‘awareness of the core dance music tradition’, was ‘Who is Séamus Ennis?’

His appearance at the head of the Waterford survey indicates something of the stature of piper, collector, singer, and broadcaster Séamus Ennis (1919-1982), who died twenty years ago this October. In essence, the survey presupposed that a person knowledgeable about traditional music should be expected to know who Séamus was. It is ironic and rather heartbreaking that at the time of the original 1981 survey Hamilton was critiquing, Ennis was living in straitened financial circumstances, in a caravan on borrowed land, in his father’s home village of The Naul, in North County Dublin. While he had been and continued to be an extraordinary presence and mentor in the traditional music world – helping in this period to inaugurate Na Píobairí Uilleann and Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, appearing on Radio Telefís Éireann programs, and passing songs and tunes to younger musicians – he also had been and continued to be a difficult man who was rather isolated from some aspects of the revival he had helped make possible.[3]

In this article I want to celebrate Séamus Ennis’ life and legacy, but I want to do more. I am currently occupied with a long-term biographical project on Séamus (to the best of my knowledge, the only book-length study existing or currently under consideration). In this article, published in the twentieth anniversary month of his death, I want to suggest that his story is more than just the rich and complex story of an inspired, talented, yet complicated man and musician. His creative life spanned from the mid-1930s through the late 1970s, and thus paralleled a period of enormous change, renewal, and transformation in traditional music. As Christy Moore puts it:

Well you could never go anywhere in Ireland – 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.’[4]

Ennis was there: a key participant, observer and chronicler of traditional music in the twentieth century. Thus, even more than the biographer’s obligation to tell a full, honest, and illuminating story – which I do want to fulfil – I also want to perform (or commit) an act of cultural historiography: through the prism of Ennis’ life, I want to see what happened to traditional music in the twentieth century. How did a music associated with a shrinking rural minority come to emigrate, and be adopted, all around the world and arrive at the end of that century as a key element in the marketing of the ‘Celtic Tiger’?

In the biography I do not intend to be either exclusive or hyperbolic; a number of other persons’ biographies might similarly and legitimately be used for the same purpose (for example, earlier versions of the Waterford survey only abandoned Willie Clancy as the litmus test because of sample respondents’ mistaking Clancy-the-piper with Clancys-the-ballad singers). But I do suggest that Séamus Ennis was uniquely positioned to observe, participate in, and report upon more of the key events in twentieth-century traditional music, with greater insight and a more universal perspective, than almost any other player. He was uniquely equipped to fulfil this role by dint of family and musical lineage, early training, musical virtuosity, early work experience, linguistic skills, and most of all his personal identity as a tradition-bearer himself. He himself served as the conduit for hundreds of songs and tunes from the original source singers and players to musicians of his own and younger generations.

And he was an artist: he consciously, intentionally, and meticulously drew upon the tools and resources of his tradition to construct a performance style, perspective, and aesthetic which let him translate across gaps of language, geography, and cultural experience. For the benefit of those (like myself a few years back) who would perhaps have been unable to answer Hammy Hamilton’s initial question, here follows a brief biographical sketch of Ennis’ life and career.

Himself part of a legendary musical family, Ennis was an influential stylist on the Irish uilleann (‘elbow’) bagpipes, the central instrument defining traditional style; he was also a noted singer, who had contact with most of the traditional culture-bearers of the past 70 years; a collector from the age of 19, and a radio broadcaster whose work for RTÉ and the British Broadcasting System helped define the role of traditional music in the mass media.

Ennis was also a great ‘character’ in a rich musical tradition full of ‘great characters’; a man whose personal style, musical skills, and hair-raising exploits in the west of Ireland and Scotland are the subject of countless anecdotes told and re-told by traditional musicians worldwide. As his friend and colleague Seán Mac Réamoinn put it, ‘He was of course the sort of man who is blessed, or cursed, by having legends attached to him.’[5]

The history of the revival and rediscovery by a mass audience of Irish traditional music is one of the great stories in the last century’s quest to preserve traditional folk expression. Music and song, in which players, singers, dancers, and listeners united in a shared community experience, had played a key role in the maintenance of traditional Irish social and cultural identity. Yet while dance music and song had remained part of Irish rural life from the Middle Ages – surviving colonisation, rebellion, famine, and mass emigration – by the middle of the twentieth century the music was in danger of extinction. Declining rural populations, encroaching modernisation and Anglicisation, and restrictive social and religious pressures all combined to choke off the traditional support networks for music, dance, and song. In this period, and particularly following the end of the Civil War in 1923, Irish governmental officials, radio broadcasters, and folklore collectors collaborated in a great effort to preserve as much of traditional language and culture as possible.[6]

Hence, because the story of Séamus Ennis parallels much of the recorded history of Irish traditional music from the beginnings of the Free State, it is also the story of a period of astonishing activity and change in Irish culture. From the founding of Radio Éireann in 1926, through the activities of the Irish Folklore Commission in the late 1930s and 1940s, the increased use of field recordings and collecting by RTÉ and the BBC in the 1950s, the explosion of interest in rural music by young urban musicians in the fleadh ceol movement of the 1960s, and the rise of seminal young bands like Planxty and the Bothy Band in the 1970s, Séamus Ennis was present as observer, mentor, and key player. His biography must therefore be in part a history of twentieth century Irish music itself.

James Ennis, a Dublin-born, prize-winning piper and dancer, married Mary Josephine McCabe of County Monaghan in 1916, and their second eldest, Séamus, was born at Finglas in North County Dublin in May 1919. This was a period of enormous social, political, and cultural change. In the wake of the Easter Uprising, the First World War and the Civil War, political, culture, and ethnic boundaries were being redrawn, and traditional folk were envisioned as playing a key role. James Ennis, with his Fingal Trio consisting of flute, fiddle and pipes, broadcast live on the first national program by 2RN, the Irish radio network, in 1926, and Séamus himself began playing pipes under his father’s tutelage at age 13. He was simultaneously well-educated in various dialects of the Irish language via choral, summer school, and university experiences and family connections (this facility with dialects would later be crucial to his success as a collector in the Gaeltachta of western and southern Ireland). In 1938 he applied for positions at the Employment Exchange and attempted to enlist in the RAF, but instead, through family connections, began work for the publisher Colm Ó Lochlainn’s Irish-language Three Candles Press, where he learned skills in typesetting and also music transcription. For the rest of his life, the interaction between sound and print, between oral and written culture, between music and the word, would be crucial.

In 1942, Ennis was hired by Séamus Ó Duilearga as a collector for the Irish Folklore Commission. His salary was 30 shillings per week, and his equipment was Spartan in the extreme, consisting of a stack of manuscript paper, a pencil, his formidable musical and linguistic skills, and a bicycle. He later collected in Scotland and Cape Breton as well, and went to work for Radio Éireann in 1947 as ‘Outside Broadcast Officer’, collecting audio material for programs on the regional and cultural life of the country, including but not limited to music. From 1951-58 he lived in London and worked for the BBC, assembling material for the seminal radio series As I Roved Out, while also marrying and fathering two children. He was also a key informant and contact for the American folklorists Jean Ritchie and Alan Lomax in their British Isles collecting trips.

In 1959 he left the BBC, and his family, and moved back to Ireland, recording his first album of songs and tunes, The Bonny Bunch of Roses, and spent the balance of his life as a freelance musician, broadcaster, and presenter. He was a significant influence on the young players of the Irish folk revival, and also lived for a short time in New York, holding court at the first Newport Folk Festivals. Late in his life, with his health deteriorating and drink taking hold, he moved into a trailer at his home place in North County Dublin, but still found time to help found NPU, the Irish pipers’ national association, to originate the piping part of John Cage’s Roaratorio, and to perform at the first Willie Clancy Summer School, the most important Irish music school in the world.

Why Séamus?
Even in the face of the anecdotal evidence of the Waterford survey and the hundreds of Séamus stories musicians still love to share, the question still arises: why choose Ennis as a ‘prism’ for understanding Irish culture in the twentieth century? Why not another? I believe that Ennis’ story provides a particularly useful perspective, not only because of his ubiquity in the various arenas of traditional music (public versus private, 1930s versus 1980s, kitchen versus pub, fleadh versus TV studio), but even more because of the complex and subtle ways that he moved between these realms of very different expectations. There have been many geniuses in many genres of traditional music: musicians whose expressivity, improvisational or compositional skill, command of repertoire or their instruments, commitment to the art form and their communities, have made profound impact on many people. But far fewer of these traditional masters have had Ennis’ ability to function – artistically, conversationally, socially, and technically – in such a wide range of contrasting contexts, while simultaneously retaining the core values and priorities of the traditional art form. Ennis did it by virtue of personality, family background, musical and linguistic training, and, over and over again, through knowing how to be in the right place at the right time. This is why his story can legitimately be used to help tell the story of traditional music in the twentieth century.

Artists are by necessity skilled at negotiating the boundaries of the liminal and the prosaic: the boundaries between ordinary, day-to-day life, and the intuitive, subjective, emotional, and at times magical realm of artistic experience. All artists cross boundaries; successful artists help their audiences do the same. If you see a van Gogh or a Cezanne as the artist intended – if the painting helps you see a cornfield or a vase of flowers the way those painters did – your own facility of vision is transformed, at least for the duration of that viewing. Likewise, if you speak a poem of Verlaine or Séamus Heaney aloud, then as you read your own breathing patterns are shaped as the poet intended. If you hear a work of Stravinsky or Messiaen as the composer did, your own sonic world – your own sense of what is a beautiful sound – is transformed, at least for the duration of that performance.

It is no different with ‘folk’ or ‘traditional’ artists. That a folk performance tradition may be temporal and temporary – that it may require moment-by-moment attention on the part of the audience, and that it may ‘cease to exist’ at the end of the performance – does not lessen its capacity for transforming the boundaries of experience. Many readers will have had the experience of hearing a performance of a composition or in a genre that changed how they heard that music thereafter. If anything, the temporary nature of folk performance makes for an enhanced attention on the part of knowledgeable listeners, because they know the momentary nature of the experience. And the people who make up the community for traditional performance recognise its ability to transform consciousness – it is no surprise that in many traditional cultures, expert performers are simultaneously treasured for the psycho-emotional experience they can enact, and feared for precisely that same power.

Successful folk performers learn how to negotiate such boundaries. Michael Coleman negotiating the transformation of performance environments from Gurteen to the vaudeville theatres of New York; Micho Russell travelling the cultural distance from Doolin to Washington DC; Tony MacMahon busking in the streets of Marrakesh; in all these examples and many others, traditional artists have found ways to negotiate changing cultural and performance contexts while retaining a remarkably large component of traditional repertoire, values, and aesthetics.

More importantly, the above examples, like that of Séamus Ennis, are revealing both of the flexibility of the individual but also of the adaptability of the tradition. Not only were these musicians possessed of extraordinary musical and cultural skills; more profoundly, the resources they used to move across such boundaries were grounded in the tradition, rather than uncomfortably appropriated from the new context. These artists operated from a deep conviction in the value – the potentially global value – of the traditional art forms that shaped them.

In each case, the artist adapted resources, stage conduct, verbal communication, and performance repertoire directly from the traditional approaches in which he or she was schooled. Like Russell, Coleman, and MacMahon, Ennis found the means to cross an enormous range of cultural boundaries, carrying the tradition with him yet without distorting that tradition.[7]

Every aspect of Ennis’ personality, skills, and family background – from his piping lineage to his linguistic skills to his transcription abilities to his storytelling prowess – equipped him to do this. Such skills were also an essential part of his professional ‘toolbox’ as a collector. The ability to cross boundaries let him not only put at ease and entertain those he worked with – at fleadhanna, public houses, fishing villages, in the studios of RTÉ and BBC, on the stages of folk festivals in Europe and America – but helped him retain the cultural contexts from which his source materials came, and finally return to those cultural contexts with ease. As Seán Mac Réamoinn put it:

He could literally speak to people literally in their own language. This was one of his great gifts. He could, even if it were a matter of English – after all, the great majority of the people he was dealing were English speakers – he could speak to them in terms that were of their own experience and culture. He wasn’t the big fellow coming from outside. He could exchange, he could share with them their culture and then ask them to give him some, you know, here’s part of it, here’s a side that he hadn’t heard. And that was a tremendous gift.[8]

At the same time, he had an extraordinary ability to maintain the key expressive, technical, and social elements of traditional music even as he performed it in radically contrasted environments. Sometimes this continuity in more recent, more urbanised, or more global contexts was maintained because his audience knew his legendary reputation, at the Willie Clancy Summer School for example; sometimes it was maintained because he took careful steps to contextualise what he was about to play, speaking in deceptively casual manner of where he got this or that tune (as one respondent said, ‘And then his father, twas all his father… . I think he had no mother’[9]); sometimes because he would precede the tune with a long, fanciful set-piece story (the wonderful ‘Don Niperi Septo’ or ‘The Grip’[10]), the very act of listening to which he could trust to focus his audience’s attention. But in all these cases he maintained (sometimes fiercely or abrasively) the traditional aesthetics and standards of the music he shared, and helped his variegated audiences begin to understand those aesthetics themselves. As Nicholas Spitzer says of public folklorists (as one of which Ennis certainly qualified):

Our mode is collaborative in representing culture under new and current conditions. We assume that performances and meanings will inevitably be altered in representation and do not presume picture-perfect reframing of some isolated, inviolate cultural expression or community.[11]

In thus crossing boundaries to present traditional music and song in non-traditional settings, Ennis was, I believe, implicitly arguing that traditional art forms had relevance and cultural value even for a non-traditional audience. So the final boundary he negotiated was that of the imagination – the perceptual realm in which humans conceive their own identities and synthesise those art forms that help them do so. People choose art forms for their metaphorical power to help them make sense of their place in the world. The music one listens to forms one part of one’s identity.

This is the realm of culture, and it is the most subtle, complicated, and potentially impermeable boundary of all. The evidence that Ennis managed this boundary as well is found in the range of his influence – as piper, singer, collector, song-source, broadcaster, and mentor for younger musicians – and in the stories still told about him in the oral tradition.

He bridged not only age differences but also experiential contexts. He was one of the only players of his generation with a sufficiently broad and sophisticated experience and expertise to be able to move across, and to manipulate, contextual boundaries: to play, for instance, with equal command and an equally favourable reception in the kitchen, the pub, the festival, and the broadcast studio; to be able to speak about the music with and to as many different types of people as heard him, adapting the tradition without doing violence to it.[12] As Henry Glassie says:

In order to locate deep truths and to gain wide appeal, to avoid the trivializing constraints of academic endeavor, the artist roots his work in the folk culture and then accepts two responsibilities: to preserve the old tradition intact for the future; to do battle with the tradition so as to answer the needs of the self while creating new works for new worlds.[13]

In order to adapt traditional materials to function in different contexts, and to be able to pass these materials on effectively and without distortion to a younger generation with very different experience, to ‘preserve the old tradition intact for the future’, Séamus Ennis developed observational and presentational strategies – ’ways of seeing’ and ‘ways of being’ – which make him an invaluable lens for our own observation. Learning to see as he saw; learning how he was seen by others; telling that tale accurately, sensitively, and insightfully in a book-length biography, can help us understand what happened to Irish traditional music and to Irish culture in those times.

Chris Smith welcomes correspondence on the content of this article as well as on other avenues or contacts for the Ennis biography. He may be reached via email at christopher.smith [at] ttu.edu or by post at: Dr Christopher Smith, School of Music, Texas Tech University Mailstop 2033, Lubbock, TX 79410, USA.

1. Quoted in ‘Calling on the Piper: Liam O’Flynn,’ at http://www.folkworld.de/5/liam.html 7/28/02. Interview with Seán Laffey originally published in Irish Music magazine (July 1998).
2. Hammy Hamilton, ‘Tradmyth: The Myth of Traditional Music’s Popularity’, The Journal of Music in Ireland, 1:4 (May-June 2001), 19.
3. As Sean Mac Réamoinn put it: ‘I remember … in the ‘60s, when he took part in a television series called Ballad Session. Uh, Seamus – I remember that … there were two kinds of people, those who said ‘Oh isn’t it wonderful to have Séamus back’, and there were others who said ‘Who is that old man?’ That was chilling because after all I didn’t consider myself an old man in the ‘60s and he was younger than I.’ Quoted in the RTÉ documentary The Séamus Ennis Story (1989), produced by Peter Browne. For biographical details, as for many of the quotes from contemporaries and colleagues, I am indebted to Peter Browne’s magnificent work on this documentary, and to his subsequent notes for RTÉ’s CD release of archival Ennis recordings, The Return from Fingal (RTÉCD199; 1997). I am in turn indebted to Pat Holub for access to the documentary.
4. The Séamus Ennis Story (1989).
5. The Séamus Ennis Story (1989).
6. Eamonn de Valera’s original 1926 platform for Fianna Fail included a call to ‘restore the Irish Language and develop the Irish culture’; again, in a famous St Patrick’s Day RTÉ broadcast in 1943, he argued that the creation of the modern Irish state as ‘the home of a people living the life that God desires that men should live’ would most directly result from ‘the restoration of the unity of the national territory and the restoration of the national language.’ Quoted at http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/people/eamon.htm and http://www.searcs-web.com/dev.html July 27, 2002.
7. Ethnomusicologist Daniel Sheehy describes a group of Mexican traditional musicians, confident in the value of their own indigenous art form, on the stage at New York’s Carnegie Hall: ‘On that stage, they were in command… . They did not abandon their background, they did not soften the way they expressed themselves to please another group of people, and it did work. They did not cross over but rather developed a way to package themselves to cultural outsiders in order to best express the essentials of who they were and what they did. And through their ability to use the medium of the stage as a cultural translating device, they brought the audience closer to them by making them (the audience) feel more confident.’ Sheehy, ‘Crossover Dreams: The Folklorist and the Folk Arriva’, in Public Folklore 217-29 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), 221. Emphasis original.
8. The Séamus Ennis Story (1989).
9. Fiddler Junior Crehan, quoted in The Séamus Ennis Story (1989). This documentary contains several examples of Ennis’ lengthy, poetic attributions of tunes to his father.
10. Both included on Forty Years of Irish Piping. ‘Don Niperi Septo’ was the topic of an unpublished paper (‘“Between Green Hedges and Ditches”: Narrative, Allusion, and Musicality in a Folk-Recitation by Séamus Ennis’), delivered by me at the Annual Meetings of the Narrative Society (Lansing, Michigan) in April 2002, which will be incorporated into the full biographical work.
11. Nicholas R. Spitzer, ‘Cultural Conversations: Metaphors and Methods in Public Folklore’, in Public Folklore 77-103 (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), 97.
12. I develop these ideas in considerably greater detail in the paper on ‘Don Niperi Septo,’ cited in Note 11 above.
13. Henry Glassie, ed., Irish Folktales (New York: Pantheon, 1985): 18. Emphasis added. Glassie, though not a musician, has written with great sensitivity and insight about the role of music in the traditional context, in the ‘Introduction’ to Irish Folktales and in his magnum opus Passing the Time in Ballymenone: Culture and History of an Ulster Community (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995). See especially Chapter 2 in the latter, ‘Ceili at Flanagan’s.’

Published on 1 September 2002

Dr Christopher J. Smith is Assistant Professor of Music History and Literature at Texas Tech University School of Music in Lubbock, Texas, USA. His research interests are in traditional Irish music, American and twentieth-century music, vernacular music and culture, improvisation, and historical performance. He is the author of Celtic Backup for All Instrumentalists, and has published articles and presented papers on many topics in jazz, classical, and world musics.

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