Seamus Ennis, Sketch of a Master
My admiration for Seamus Ennis – always fairly idolatrous – reached its peak one night in March 1971 at Thurso Folk Club. Seamus, the Scotish folk singer/songwriter Archie Fisher and I had driven from Aberdeen; stopping only for a flat tyre in Dingwall, and making the last hundred miles in a slithery drizzle along a serpentine coast road, stretches of which had nothing but a three-foot paling between us and a two-hundred foot drop into the North Sea and oblivion. When we arrived after a nine hour journey Archie went straight on stage, as though he had just walked around the corner and did his usual first-rate set, whereupon Seamus took the stage. His pipes were not acclimatized to the very hot and crowded room and as he yoked them on – a complicated enough process at any time – he sang the fine version of “Lord Gregory” collected by him from Mrs. Elizabeth Cronin of Ballyvourney, Co. Cork. Anyone who has heard Seamus sing will admit that his voice is neither particularly attractive in timbre nor especially melodic, but the essence of ballad singing is storytelling and Seamus is a spellbinding storyteller. At the end of the song, with no pause, he broke into a perfectly executed slip jig. The audience, who for the most part had only the haziest idea of who he was and were not by any means traditionalists, and further had been waiting for over two hours in the smoke and sweat, reacted first with awe, then appreciation and finally wild enthusiasm. It seemed to me at the time an extraordinary display of virtuosity, magnetism and show-must-go-on professionalism and the memory is a treasured one.
Virtuosity has always been Seamus Ennis’s leading claim to immortality. The Uillean or Irish Union pipes is one of the most sophisticated musical instruments in the world and he has been the undisputed master of pipers for most of his adult life. He is certainly the finest piper of his generation and some knowledgeable people hold that he is the greatest player of the century and possibly of all time. Such speculative hyperbole is, of course, pretty much meaningless but it does give some idea of his relative stature.
Seamus Ennis was born in Jamestown, North County Dublin in 1919. His father was a fine flutist and fiddler. He was also a founder of the Naul Pipers Band, players of what are now called war pipes. He became interested in the Uillean pipes when hearing the old country pipers who were brought to Dublin for the Oireachtas festivals each year. (Some of the older players prefer to call themselves piperers rather than pipers, reasoning that they are musicians, not plumbers.) Seamus’s mother is a Monaghan woman with school tuition level fiddle who still, at the age of 83, takes a lively interest in the music. The house, as may be imagined, was a musical one. Seamus recalls that he could recite the names of tunes by rote before he could match them up with their respective melodies. His father, he says, used to play him to sleep at night and he remembers on one occasion asking for a favourite tune called “Munster Buttermilk” and waking up the next morning in a temper with himself for having fallen asleep after only a few bars. On a wall in the back lounge of O’Donoghue’s of Merrion Row, Dublin there hangs a fascinating photograph of Seamus at the age of about four. He is dressed in what appears to be his Sunday best and is sitting in the garden with a series of sticks so arranged in his hands and lap as to represent a set of pipes. In spite of this atmosphere, and although he was given a set of bellows, bag and chanter for Christmas one year, he did not take up the pipes seriously until he was thirteen and was not encouraged to do so until he showed a genuine interest. He admires his father’s wisdom in this regard very highly; feeling that a negative aspect of the current revival of interest in the pipes – of which he is a prime inspiration – has been the pressuring of very young children to play, often in competition, this complicated and demanding instrument before they are truly inclined to do so. When he did begin to play, however, it was his father who taught him and his influence remains the primary one.
In the late 1930s, after finishing secondary school and commercial college, Seamus entered what he refers to as his university. He started work at the Three Candles Press under the publisher, collector and anthologist Colm O Lochlainn. During four years there he was a proof reader, editor, translator and general dogsbody, doing about any- and everything that it is possible to do around a publisher’s office. In 1942 O Lochlainn introduced Seamus to the Irish Folklore Commission and there he began his long and fruitful career as a collector. On a recent visit to the Commission’s commodious new headquarters at the Belfield campus of University College Dublin, I was allowed the privilege of going through some of the thousands of pages of MSS in Seamus’s beautiful and distinctive hand. Dance tunes and airs from all parts of Ireland and countless songs and stories in both Irish and English. All collected over five years during which Seamus traversed the entire country on a bicycle, using for most part no recording equipment but his ears, hands and mind. While working for the Commission Seamus also collected widely in Scotland; particularly in the Hebrides and the North Eastern areas around Elgin and Huntley. In addition to collecting he translated the John Lorne Campbell Hebridean collection on his first trip to Scotland. All of this material now lives in the secure, scholarly fortress of the Commission; an important and widely respected part of the great body of work done over the past 45 years by the people of that (until recently) sadly neglected institution.
In 1947 Seamus left the Commission to work for Radio Eireann as a collector, producer and performer. During this period he made a collecting trip with Alan Lomax. Much of the material gathered was subsequently used on an excellent two-disc CBS LP, which has since been deleted as far as I know. This is a pity because the records contain the music of some of Seamus’s best informants. In 1954 Seamus moved again, this time to London and the BBC, again as a collector. While there he helped Wilfred Pickles launch the Great British Folk Music Revival. In order to justify the expense of paying full-time collectors, the BBC began a series of revered memory, “As I Roved Out”, an important vehicle of the early revival. Seamus, only half-jokingly, attributes that programme’s wide popularity to the fact that it immediately preceded Wilfred Pickles’s “Have A Go” quiz programme and thus caught many early tuners-in. While with the BBC Seamus collected in many parts of England and returned to Scotland as well. Some material from this period is available on the Topic Records “Folk Song In Britain” series: although how it got there from the original Caedmon recordings is something of a mystery to Seamus.
Sean O Suilleabhain, a noted Irish folklorist and a long-time friend and colleague of Seamus’s, when asked what made him such a fine collector, pointed to his great knowledge and technical expertise but emphasized his many social gifts. He is a great mixer; an unmatched musician and mimic; and a person of natural manners, charm and civility. Seamus, he said, gave as much to his informants as he received from them.
Throughout the years of collecting and translating Seamus had, of course, been playing and performing. Not in clubs as there weren’t any to speak of in those days, but in concert, on radio starting in 1935, and television, first on the BBC in 1952, but most of all in country kitchens, pubs and traditional gatherings of every kind. Over the years he developed and refined the techniques and philosophy of pipering inherited from his father. Seamus was very close to his father and they were enormously proud of one another. Seamus still plays his father’s own set of pipes. These were made by the renowned Coyne of Thomas Street, Dublin, something over 150 years ago. Sometime around 1912 Seamus’s father travelled to London to play in a flute competition. While there he bought, from a pawnbroker for £3, a sack containing the bits and pieces of that set of Coyne pipes. They were reconstructed by John Brogan, a pipes artisan of Harold’s Cross, Dublin, who, incidentally, was the father of the Abbey Theatre actor Harry Brogan. As it happened, Mr. Ennis won the flute competition and a prize of an ebony and silver concert flute with a mahogany and ivory case: a profitable trip one way and another. Having at one time been a tuner for another Dublin pipe maker – McCrone of Phibsborough – Seamus reckons to have played over 75 sets of pipes in his life and he regards his own as the best of his experience. On the other hand, some pipers have told me that they have tried playing Seamus’s pipes with little success.
Although he has directly or indirectly influenced every Irish piper of the last 20 years, Seamus has not made any startling technical innovations on the instrument. He uses some very individual keys for some tunes and he recently discovered that with a good reed and certain set of harmonics he can produce a tone and a half above the two full octaves traditionally attributed to the pipes. The general view is that his pre-eminence is a result of his classicist’s attitude, coupled with his mastery of the instrument as whole. There are fine chanter players: none better than Seamus but some comparable. There are interesting users of the regulators: again none better than Seamus and not including any of those who commit what he regards as the cardinal transgression of traditional discipline, the use of the regulators for constant percussion. This trick is initially exciting but essentially vulgar. However, there are no pipers who have his comprehensive command of the entire instrument, its lore and music. Seamus regards the pipes as a science unto itself, unlike any other instrument. He sees them as an unmatched vehicle for individual expression but insists that unless the player gives himself up to those great traditional disciplines he will have little to express and meagre means of expressing it. In short, he regards his instrument as every serious musician does. The old people used to say that it took 21 years to become a piper: seven to learn; seven to practice; and seven to play. Seamus regards this dictum as almost literally true.
Since 1958 Seamus has worked as a freelance performer, translator and broadcaster in Ireland, Britain and America. The life of a performer, and equally that of a collector, is proverbially a hard one. Along with the normal rigors, over the last few years Seamus has fought through a bout of tuberculosis, two heart attacks and the effects of a near-fatal car accident. He has also been heard to say that years of country kitchen fry-ups, boiled tea and poteen have not done his insides any favours. I last heard him play a few months ago in a Dublin club. He looks slightly older than his years, and he is more deliberate and less puckish than he once was. Seldom does his face contort into that characteristically benign leer as he tells you about “The Domiciliary Edifice That Jonathan Erected”, or any one of a thousand other tales and anecdotes. But he did, as he always does, telling the tale of the tune and then playing it. The room was crowded as it usually is for Seamus. His fine strong fingers move with the grave speed all good musicians have when they are in complete control. His head swings down until the long chin nearly meets the high shoulders, as they heave with the emotional rhythm of the air. His dance tunes, still perfectly and sensitively played, have not the same frivolity that perhaps they once did. But in the slow airs all the maturity of technique, philosophy and personality merges to render these harrowingly beautiful melodies: the prime achievement of Irish tradition – music so totally evocative of one human being that it must say something to and about everyone that lives.
NOTE: As will be gathered, the above was written some forty-odd years ago. The piece appeared originally in Folk Review magazine and was subsequently re-printed in the American periodical Sing Out. For the few years before and after its publication, and prior to my moving to London, Seamus and I met often. No matter the weather he would almost invariably be dressed in a three-piece suit, white shirt and tie, overcoat and a broad-brimmed fedora. Although always thus well-turned-out and fastidious in both his person and deportment he maintained that to take a full-immersion bath between the months of September to May inclusive was to court pneumonia. For a time there was a regular session in O’Donoghue’s when, after the pub re-opened at 3:30pm following the Holy Hour, Seamus and Ted Furey – father of the Furey brothers – would play fiddle duets. Seamus had no particular fiddle technique but the well of tunes was bottomless. For a brief period when he was homeless he would sleep on the sofa in my flat in Dublin. We had one or two collaborations when he set lyrics of mine. The very last time I saw him was an occasion I recall with some sadness. It was in the mid-‘70s at the London Singers’ Club, then based at the Union Tavern in Kings Cross Road. Over the years Seamus had had a difficult relationship with drink and on this evening he was fairly well gone on. To the visible discomfort of the presiding Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger, Seamus, during his first 45 minute set could manage to play only three tunes and filled in with anecdotes and stories that became increasingly garbled and incoherent. I left after the first half of the evening, doubly saddened by the sight of some young relations of Seamus’s – who should have known better – encouraging him to take more drink.
I prefer to have that memory over-shadowed by the recollection of the first time I ever saw Seamus. It was at Newport Folk Festival in 1964. There were Saturday afternoon workshops in progress at the corners of a broad field. Crossing the field I passed a tall man who, despite the July heat, was wearing an overcoat and hat. I didn’t know who he was but I observed that as they walked he was was deep in conversion with a much shorter elderly black man, also wearing a hat – a rather battered one in his case – whom I did recognize as Mississippi John Hurt.