Eddie Stack: musician and folklorist who aided Irish emigrants to US

Obituary: Man of many talents who participated in the burgeoning Irish folk movement

Eddie Stack: November 5th, 1950-July 4th, 2016.

Eddie Stack: November 5th, 1950-July 4th, 2016.

 

Eddie Stack was a writer, musician, folklorist and co-founder of a seminal US west coast arts movement that provided a vital cultural link for thousands of young Irish emigrants.

The Co Clare native, who died recently after a short battle with cancer at the age of 65, trained as a civil engineer but is better known for his writing and for his work on documenting and promoting Irish culture and heritage.

The New York Times described Stack’s writing as “variously fantastic, comic, elegiac and nostalgic”, chronicling life “in a vivid, compassionate, authentic voice, thereby securing a place in the celebrated tradition of his country’s storytelling”.

The eldest son of Ennistymon publicans Jimmy and Monsie Stack, Eddie was taught to play music by his grandmother, Lahinch fiddle player Susan O’Sullivan. Musicians and storytellers often gathered at O’Sullivan’s guesthouse, among them the collector Seamus Ennis, and it proved to be a formative environment.

After primary school, Stack won a scholarship to Coláiste Éinde in Galway’s Salthill. He studied civil engineering at NUI Galway and UCG. At NUI he met medical student Nivés O’Dowd, whom he married in 1975.

After graduating, he held positions with the Sisk construction company and Clare and Galway county councils. It was while working on installing water systems on the Aran Islands that Stack became fully immersed in language and music. The southernmost island of Inis Oírr, in particular, left a lasting impression on him.

Stack participated in the burgeoning folk movement of the 1970s, playing bouzouki with Tommy Peoples, Johnny Moynihan and Paddy Keenan. Together they formed the group Last Night’s Fun, and toured the US.

Musical recordings

He also began to record culturally significant musicians from the Doolin area, including Micho and Pakie Russell, Paddy Killoughery, Paddy Pharaic Mhichil and other storytellers. This work would culminate many years later in Stack’s final book.

In 1988 he settled in San Francisco, where he established a literary journal, The Island. He also co-founded the Irish Arts Foundation, which became a vital part of city life for thousands of young Irish, many of them illegal.

In 1992, the foundation staged the first Celtic music and arts festival in San Francisco, which ran for 10 years. During this time, Stack introduced many Irish artists to the Bay area, including Dolores Keane, Maura O’Connell, Sharon Shannon, Martin Hayes, The Sawdoctors and The Stunning.

The IAF also established Finnegan’s Awake, a festival of Irish literature, the San Francisco Film Fleadh and an outdoor music event, Cruinniú.

It was while living in California that Stack produced his first book, a collection called The West: Stories from Ireland (1989). He developed a style of writing that blended the storytelling of his childhood with the magic realism of writers like Gabriel García Márquez to create a unique yet distinctly Irish voice.

Despite his fondness for tradition, Stack remained ahead of the curve when it came to technology and was an early member of the so-called desktop revolution. The West, for example, was self-published first and later picked up by Bloomsbury.

He returned to Ireland in 2000 and self-published two further collections of short stories, Out of the Blue and Quare Hawks. He also wrote a novel, Heads, and two collections of novellas, The Irish and Borderlines.

A spoken-word album of four of Stack’s stories from The West, accompanied by the music of Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, both now of The Gloaming, has proved to be an enduring favourite.

In 2011, Stack was offered a position in the Celtic studies department at the University of California, Berkeley, where he brought an engaged and dynamic approach to the subject. He also initiated links between Berkeley and NUI Galway, which developed into a thriving exchange programme.

Rewarding awards

Stack received many awards, including American Small Press publisher of the year; the Caomhnú Short Fiction award; and certificates of appreciation from the San Francisco mayor’s office and the California state senate.

Stack was an avid and adventurous food lover and travelled frequently.

He was a regular at Electric Picnic, where he would often read. His appreciation for music and in particular Bob Dylan, The Pogues and The Grateful Dead, never waned.

His final book, Doolin – People, Place and Culture was published in 2015.

Eddie Stack is survived by his two sisters, Pauline and Marie, and his four children: Aindrias, Eamon, Róisín and Jamie.