RIP Séamus Begley

Séamus Begley (Photo: Con Kelleher)

RIP Séamus Begley

Renowned accordion player and singer passes away aged 73.

The Kerry accordion player and singer Séamus Begley has passed away. He was 73.

Begley was a widely influential artist, known for his rhythmic playing, his tender singing of a broad repertoire in Irish and English, and his musical partnerships, in particular with Steve Cooney in the duet Begley and Cooney.

Born in Baile na bPoc in the Kerry Gaeltacht in 1949, he was one of nine children in a musical family. His father played melodeon and his mother sang, particularly songs made famous by John McCormack. Begley left school at fourteen and was already playing for céilís in the local area. In his accordion playing, he was influenced by Joe Burke, Paddy O’Brien and Finbarr Dwyer, but the importance of performing music suitable for dancing was key.

He attended Oireachtas na Gaeilge in 1969 and competed in the singing competitions. Riobard Mac Gióráin of Gael Linn subsequently invited him and his sister Máire to record an album of songs and tunes that was released as An Ciarraíoch Mállaithe in 1973.

Begley met Steve Cooney in 1984 and the guitarist later moved to Dingle and they began playing together more regularly. Cooney appeared on Máire and Séamus’ second album in 1989, Plancstaí Bhaile Na Buc. The following year Begley and Cooney made a recording produced by Mike Scott of the Waterboys, but it was never released. Nonetheless, in the 1990s, their performances became legendary, drawing in audiences with the combination of Begley’s rhythm and Cooney’s driving syncopated accompaniment. The duet created an exciting new sound in traditional music that was captured in their 1996 album Meitheal, which won a National Entertainment Award for traditional music, and they also performed at Glastonbury as support for the Waterboys.

Following this period, Begley developed a new musical partnership with guitarist Jim Murray and they released two albums together, Ragairne – Revelling at Night (2001), which was awarded the Hot Press Folk and Trad Album of the Year and the Irish Times Traditional album of the Year, and Éirí Go Lá in 2009. He also released Disgrace Notes with guitarist Tim Edey (2010). 

Begley was invited to perform on the An Irish Christmas tour in America and this led to a duet album with Oisín Mac DiarmadaLe Chéile/Together, on accordion and fiddle only, and An Irish Christmas Soundscape, both in 2012. In the same year, he was invited to join the group Téada, of which Mac Diarmada is a member, and the box player performed and recorded with the band over the subsequent decade. He also undertook a Music Network tour with Scottish musicians Catriona Mckay and Chris Stout.

In 2013, Begley was presented by Mary Black with the TG4 Gradam Ceoil Amhranaí na Bliana/Singer of the Year award. Two years later he released his solo album The Bold Kerryman, which featured Damien Dempsey in a duet of the song ‘The Banks of the Sweet Primroses’. Early last year, he collaborated with the singer-songwriter Junior Brother on the Black Gate and TG4 series Cumasc.

Begley was renowned as a raconteur and for his stage presence and wit and influenced many younger singers and musicians. In a 2020 ‘Se Mo Laoch documentary on TG4, Begley explained the importance of music in his life:

… mura mbeadh an cheol… Is minic a bhím ag caint le Méabh agus Eoin faoi… Cá mbeimís? Cá mbeimís gan an cheol? Cad a mbeimís ag déanamh? Ní fhéadfainn é a shamhlú.

(…if it wasn’t for music… I often talk to my children Méabh and Eoin about it… Where would we be? Where would we be without music? What would we be doing? I couldn’t imagine it.)

Commenting on Begley’s passing, President Michael D. Higgins said:

It is with sadness that lovers of Irish music across the world will have heard of the death of Séamus Begley. Séamus will be remembered as one of Ireland’s finest accordion players as well as a beautiful singer. Growing up in a family rich in traditional Irish music in Baile na bPoc in the west Kerry Gaeltacht, his recordings and performances captured not only the music of his upbringing but also a knowledge of music far beyond these shores.

From his early albums with his sister Máire starting 50 years ago, to his landmark collaboration with Steve Cooney on the album Meitheal, and in so many more works besides, including with Jim Murray and Tim Edey, Séamus has left us a lasting musical legacy.

Séamus Begley is survived by his wife Mary, his children Breandán, Eoin, Niall and Méabh, and an extended family of musicians and singers. 

Published on 10 January 2023

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