A Tribute to Charlie Lennon

Charlie Lennon (Photo: Stiúideo Cuan)

A Tribute to Charlie Lennon

Remembering the great traditional musician and composer who passed away on 8 June.

When the sad news came that the great fiddle player, piano player and composer Charlie Lennon had passed away on 8 June, my mind turned to something that had happened just two evenings before and which I had, somehow, already been thinking about repeatedly.

On the previous Thursday, Stiúideo Cuan – the beautiful boutique music venue at the heart of An Spidéal that Charlie, his daughter Éilís and Darach Mac Con Iomaire had opened in 2021 – played host to the fiddle player Martin Hayes and Brian Donnelan. In the second half of the concert, Hayes broke into the reel ‘The Road to Cashel’, one of Charlie’s most famous tunes. Charlie, as was often the case during these concerts, was sitting just inside the entrance to the venue, above a short set of steps. The Clare fiddler’s interpretation was classic Hayes, leaning into the low E and the high rolls, exploring the range of the tune. The audience moved with every beat. As I do sometimes when I sense a special moment in a concert, I reached for my phone to capture a short 30 seconds: hearing the tune in this concert with the composer present was one of those occasions. 

But there was more. After the set, Hayes acknowledged Charlie as the composer, and there was spontaneous applause from the audience. Then at the end of the concert, Hayes thanked Charlie again for his music and his work at Stiúideo Cuan, and again there was instant applause. I realised the deep impact that this musical space was having on this Gaeltacht village community, providing them with so many extraordinary musical evenings in just a short three years. 

The opening of Stiúideo Cuan was just one of Lennon’s achievements. In traditional music, we marvel at his tunes: the colour and range of ‘Kilty Town’ and ‘The Twelve Pins’, the way they never settle for the obvious route through a melody. Or the creative approach of ‘The Moving Pint’ and ‘Planxty Joe Burke’, and the sheer joy of the ‘Ladies’ 2nd Choice’ barndance and ‘The Handsome Young Maidens’. And then there is the rhythmic brilliance of ‘Christmas in Spiddal’. His tunes leap out to the ear in every session. Charlie really did seem to have Carolan’s skill for melody.

It all could have been quite different. Charlie told me once that when he started writing tunes, he was not sure about them, but a stranger came up to him at a festival and complimented him on one of his early compositions, ‘Lennon’s No. 4’. Those simple few words encouraged him to write more. 

But of course Charlie’s own fiddle playing was also extremely influential. Being from Kiltyclogher, his fiddle music had that unique rhythm and snap of the Leitrim/Fermanagh border, while his piano accompaniment enriches many of the seminal recordings of our time. His most recent solo album, Turning the Tune, has two sides to it: the core traditional repertoire he grew up with, and then his own original tunes. What is extraordinary is how they blend so well together.

Sometimes in music you experience periods when your understanding of music suddenly goes deeper. When Stiúideo Cuan opened, a Sunday afternoon session was started to attract people in, and although I had played in sessions with Charlie before, this was the first time I got to play with him regularly and listen to him closely. Every week between those sessions, I would sit with his two books, Musical Memories volumes 1 and 2, and practise hard to learn his tunes so that I would be able to play them with him if the opportunity arose. I would also listen to his recordings of traditional repertoire to make sure I had some of his sets in case he played them, or if he asked me to start a tune. The result was that I got to play many sets of his own tunes with him, and with Eílís and his son Seán, over a couple of months before the full Stiúideo Cuan programme began. 

In that short time, my own understanding of this tradition seemed to deepen. I could hear how rooted his music was, and at the same time how it fueled his original compositional imagination.

How fortunate we were to have him in An Spidéal, with all the creative gifts that he brought. RIP the great Charlie Lennon.

Read a full obituary of Charlie Lennon here.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Published on 9 June 2024

Toner Quinn is Editor of the Journal of Music. His new book, What Ireland Can Teach the World About Music, is available here.

comments powered by Disqus