‘When Séamus Ennis played, it stood your hair on end’

An extract from a new book on the history of Irish uilleann pipers paints a picture of the inimitable, self-assured Dubliner

Jean Ritchie recording Séamus Ennis playing the uilleann pipes in March 1952. Photograph: George Pickow Image Collection/James Hardiman Library

Jean Ritchie recording Séamus Ennis playing the uilleann pipes in March 1952. Photograph: George Pickow Image Collection/James Hardiman Library

 

‘Séamus Ennis was unique,” wrote Ciarán Mac Mathúna, about the singular piper, folklorist and broadcaster on his death in 1982. “Of course every person in the world is unique but some people are more unique than others. . . . Young musicians worshipped at his feet and followed him in the way medieval students followed their Abelard. And all this he enjoyed because there was no false humility in Séamus Ennis. He knew his own worth.”

One oft-repeated tale involves a man in a pub asking Ennis his view on the three best living pipers, to which he replies: “Felix Doran and Willie Clancy. ”

“But who is the third?” the man asks.

“You mean the first,” says Ennis.

“When he used to walk into the Bedford [in Camden Town in the 1950s],” says singer Bob Davenport, “it was like watching a cowboy film where the marshal walks in and everybody looks round. When he played, there was nobody ever comes close. It stood your hair on end. It was just absolutely devastating.”

“Of late they write and speak of him as the ard-rí or high king of Irish pipers,” Ennis’s mother purportedly wrote in the notes to his 1969 LP Masters of Irish Tradition. “Maybe he is. He grew a bit taller than any of our folks, on both sides.”

The notes – whimsical, eccentric and somewhat aggrandising – had most likely been written by Ennis himself. The album was the debut release on English producer Bill Leader’s label, Leader. Barring an appearance on a live album of various artists recorded at Newport Folk Festival in 1964, Ennis had mostly traversed the 1960s without enhancing his discography. It might have been otherwise.

In February 1968, H Rooney Pelletier, a former colleague from Ennis’s years at the BBC in the 1950s, wrote to the piper offering to release an album comprising a 1958 piping session for the corporation. His letter was sent to 3 Home Farm Park, Dublin 9, and returned by the current occupants with the news that Ennis had vacated the address in 1965. Pelletier then wrote care of O’Donoghue’s pub, but the opportunity went unanswered.

Leader went searching for a man who had once been a common sight around London but who had disappeared just as the folk revival he had done so much to foment was sweeping Britain. He was to have better luck: “I first met Séamus around 1957 or so, through Jean Jenkins, ethnomusicologist and political activist,” says Leader. “Topic was going to record an LP of Séamus and Jean, an Irish/American song swap. The venture eventually fizzled out. I next saw Séamus during a period when I made frequent trips to Dublin. It was in O’Donoghue’s. He was sitting at the bar explaining that his doctor had told him that he must drink milk, which was why he was adding it to his vodka.”

 

Soundproofed with egg boxes

An arrangement was made for Ennis to record at Leader’s flat in Camden Town in July 1969. Soundproofed with blankets and egg boxes, the place had a certain magic in its natural acoustics and had already birthed several great British folk records, Bert Jansch’s 1965 debut among them.

“He had a Revox set up in one room,” says Martin Carthy, another of Leader’s protegés, “and you went and stood in the other room, with the microphone, and he’d give you the signal, which was the light going on and off. It didn’t always work so you’d be standing there and the door would open and he’d say, ‘You can start now if you like,’ and the door would shut. I’m making a joke of it because it’s funny now, but at the time the opportunity for making decent recordings didn’t exist.”

Ennis’s one-afternoon session for Leader, never reissued on CD, remains his greatest single recording: a magical mix of piping, songs and stories.

“We were trying to get a fairly total picture of the man,” says Leader. “Interestingly, after the record’s release, we got an angry letter from Leeds demanding a refund on account of the fact that they didn’t buy folk records in order to get a load of talking.”

Ennis had tied his recording trip in with an appearance at Keele Folk Festival and a booking at Rod Stradling’s folk club at the King’s Head, Islington, on July 16th. As Stradling recalls: “That night there were more people in the club room than you would believe possible.”

Reg Hall, an English musician who had encountered Ennis several times in London-Irish pubs during the 1950s, was at the club that night. “The interesting thing about that was that Ennis came and did what appeared to be a totally spontaneous show – absolutely wonderful – and then he recorded the next day for Bill Leader, and did exactly the same spontaneous show.”

Leader had hired a man with a camera to capture Ennis at the session the following day, for the LP cover. “I hadn’t realised that this lad didn’t want to take posed pictures but wanted to capture Séamus candidly,” he says. “It was awkward because he was waiting for a candid moment while Séamus, for whom showbiz was not a strange occupation, was constantly moving into poses. He would actually interrupt his conversation at some point with his hands extended in such a way that most photographers would have given their eye teeth to have taken the snap, and this fellow ignored him. So we ended up with no pictures.”

In the event, one of Stradling’s imperfect but hugely atmospheric snaps from the previous night’s gig (Reg Hall visible behind with a pint in his hand) became the album cover.

 

Sheltered by the Fureys

If all this activity gave the impression that Ennis’s career was in some way back on track, it wasn’t reflected in his lifestyle. Somewhere between nomadic by choice and destitute, he spent some months around this time being looked after at Ted and Nora Furey’s house in Ballyfermot. “My mother looked after him,” says Finbar Furey. “He was very sick. He would have been there for six months or so because he had no place else to go. He was an awful man for the drink. I think he had TB, I’m not sure. But I remember when he was as thin as a rake – Jesus, you’d be afraid to touch him in case you’d break him.”

Paddy Glackin, a young fiddler who became close to Ennis from 1970 onwards, isn’t so sure that this seemingly chaotic lifestyle was down to alcohol. Despite being dressed invariably in a suit, Ennis was inherently more of an outsider than the generation then coming to prominence in Ireland, with their outwardly bohemian long hair and denims. “Séamus was different,” says Glackin, “that’s the only way I can put it. And people in the ‘establishment’ found that difference very, very difficult to deal with. And he found it, in turn, equally difficult to deal with.

“Séamus was a legend even in the 1950s and 1960s . . . I remember one night in the 1970s he did a gig without a note of music – just talk. I believe he was worse for wear, couldn’t get the pipes on him, so he got up on the stage and he spoke. And he got a standing ovation at the end of the night . . .

“It was a very hard life he had. But it was absolutely self-imposed. An absolute shame. He had that inability to be tied down, to compromise. He was an extraordinary man.’

  • Extracted and abridged from The Wheels of the World: 300 Years of Irish Uilleann Pipers (Jawbone Press, €20) by Colin Harper with John McSherry, to be published in September
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