RIP Charlie Lennon (1938–2024)

Charlie Lennon (Photo: Stiúideo Cuan)

RIP Charlie Lennon (1938–2024)

Renowned musician and composer passes away aged 85.

The great fiddle player, piano player and composer Charlie Lennon has passed away. He was 85.

Born in Kiltyclogher in County Leitrim, on the border with Fermanagh, in 1938, he grew up in an area rich in music. At the age of seven, he began piano lessons with a local teacher, Theresa Gilmartin, and progressed through the grades of the Royal Irish Academy of Music until he was 13. At the same time, his elder brother, the late Ben Lennon (1928–2020), began teaching him the fiddle. In the 1993 book Musical Memories, Charlie recalls the experience: ‘My brother Ben took me under his wing and soon I was being carried on the crossbar of his bicycle to the houses of musicians within a five-mile radius of our home.’ He was also receiving a grounding in music through listening to the recordings of fiddle players Michael Coleman, James Morrison and Paddy Killoran. He wrote: ‘These 78s were the staple diet of the day and provided much material for debate and dissent in many discussions that took place in our house.’

However, being the youngest of four brothers, Lennon gradually saw the impact of emigration. ‘By the time I was 10, most of the young musicians, including Ben and John Gordon [a fiddle player from Cashel, Co. Fermanagh] had left for England and suddenly the whole life and spirit of the community seemed to die.’ In Musical Memories he writes:

This was a critical time in my own musical development. Having spent some time learning the fiddle I now found myself without my mentors and at ten years of age didn’t have the maturity to continue playing. Not till I was fourteen did I begin to take the instrument seriously again. Michael Shanley came to the town as the Head Teacher in the local Vocational School and soon formed a band which I was asked to join.

That band was the Seán McDermott Céilí Band (named after the 1916 signatory who was also from Kiltyclogher) and Lennon’s musical development continued. At 17 he became a full-time musician and toured for five years with bands such as the Richard Fitzgerald band, the Assaroe band, and the Emerald Valley Dance Band, performing variously on fiddle, piano, double bass, electric guitar and drums. It was at this time that Lennon began developing his nuanced approach to piano accompaniment in traditional music. In his 2012 tune book Irish Tunes for Fiddle – Musical Memories Volume 2, he explains:

I had the melody of many traditional tunes in my head … but the left hand remained a big puzzle. Once my interest was aroused and my imagination fired up, I began for the first time a serious exploration of the music and how the piano might feature in the traditional world. I began to develop my ear to listen closely to harmony lines, rhythms, chordal progressions, modes and influences from other music forms.

The style Lennon developed made more use of chord inversions and rhythmic variety and he became an in-demand accompanist for a range of artists. In the early 1970s, he performed with the late accordionist Joe Burke and they won a televised competition for traditional musicians on RTÉ. The duo subsequently went on to make the classic recording Traditional Music of Ireland in 1973.

Encouraged by his brothers, Lennon entered Liverpool University at the age of 22 to study physics, eventually achieving a PhD in nuclear physics. He continued to play music, however, and was a member of the Liverpool Céilí Band from 1960 to 1968, during which they won two all-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil titles, played in the Royal Albert Hall, and appeared on the ITV show Sunday Night at the London Palladium. In 1966, he married singer Síle Tim Ní Fhlaithearta from An Spidéal in Conamara and they returned to live in Dublin in 1969.

Although he had composed tunes such as ‘Lennon’s No. 4’ in the mid-1960s, it was in the 1970s that Lennon began composing seriously. In 1980, he recorded the latter reel as well as ‘The Road to Cashel’ on the album Lucky in Love with flute player Mick O’Connor. He also composed another now well-established classic, ‘Kilty Town’, for Frankie Gavin’s album Croch Suas É (1983). Around the same time, he wrote the popular set of reels ‘Ríl an Spidéil’ and ‘The Twelve Pins’ and in 1985 he released his first fiddle album, The Emigrant Suite – Deora an Deoraí, which included a number of his compositions.

Lennon gradually moved to large-scale composition and began working on an orchestral suite that in 1991 was released as Bainis Oileáin / Island Wedding, performed by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, Gavin, Mick O’Brien, Vinnie Kilduff, Steve Cooney, Colm Murphy, singers Deirbhile Ní Bhrolcháin and Peadar Ó Ceannabháin, and conducted by Proinnsías Ó Duinn. The suite contains classic tunes such as ‘The Bag of Money’ and ‘The Handsome Young Maidens’.

Another major work, The Famine Suite, was performed in Claremorris, Co. Mayo, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Famine. It later formed part of the government’s commemorative concert in Dublin and was broadcast live on RTÉ. The work was recorded by Charlie’s daughter Eílís Lennon and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, released as Flight from the Hungry Land, and performed at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall in 1997. 

As well as being an influential fiddle player, with later solo albums such as Musical Memories (1993), Time for a Tune (1996) and Turning the Tune (2008), a duet recording with Johnny Óg Connolly, Dusk till Dawn (2003), and playing on The Waterboys’ Fisherman’s Blues (1988), Lennon also contributed remarkable tunes such as ‘Christmas in Spiddal’ and ‘Twelve to the Bar’ to Connolly and Brian McGrath’s Dreaming up the Tunes (1998) and ‘Jig for Johnny’ to the late melodeon player Johnny Connolly’s An Mileoidean Scaoilte (2004). In 1994, the extended Lennon family, including Éilís, his sons Séan and Dónal, and nephews Maurice Lennon and Brian Lennon, recorded Dúchas Ceoil featuring ‘Dance of the Honey Bees’, ‘The Windy City’ and ‘The San Francisco Reel’. In 2005, Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann awarded Lennon the title Ard-Ollamh, and the following year he was the recipient of the Gradam Ceoil TG4 Cumadóir na Bliana/Composer of the Year award.

Gael Linn commissioned Lennon to write a work to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising that was released in 2016. Titled Áille na hÁille, the album featured a range of new music including a Sonata for Violin and Piano played by Finghin Collins and Elizabeth Cooney as well as compositions performed by Con Tempo Quartet, Ronan Browne and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh. This was followed by another suite, Seeking Sanctuary, premiered in Boston in 2018 with Irish artists and the Palaver String Orchestra.

Charlie and Éilís opened a recording studio in An Spidéal in 1999, which later was also the location of a University of Galway diploma in traditional music. The studio was reimagined, renovated and reopened in 2021 as the music and arts venue Stiúideo Cuan. Under Éilís (Executive Director) and Darach Mac Con Iomaire (Creative Director), Stiúideo Cuan has since produced a range of programmes for broadcast, including Ben’s Departure, a film about the passing of Ben Lennon during the pandemic; premiered new music by a range of composers; and also hosts a successful annual series of concerts titled Féasta Ceoil an Spidéil. 

Lennon’s rich legacy of tune composition, fiddle playing and piano accompaniment will undoubtedly fuel the imagination of musicians and listeners for many years to come. 

Commenting on Lennon’s life and work, President Michael D. Higgins said:

With the passing of Charlie Lennon Irish music has lost one of its most talented and generous artists. Charlie Lennon was an outstanding musician and composer who leaves behind a rich catalogue of compositions. … His compositions such as ‘The Twelve Pins’, ‘The Smiling Bride’, and ‘The Road to Cashel’ among so many others will live on through the many musicians who will continue to play them in the decades to come. Named TG4 Composer of the Year in 2006, he will be rightly remembered as both a superb composer, both of traditional tunes and orchestral works and as an accomplished fiddler player and pianist.

Charlie Lennon is survived by his wife Síle Tim Ní Fhlaithearta, children Seán, Dónal and Éilís, and extended family.

Read a tribute to Charlie Lennon here.

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Published on 9 June 2024

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