Pennyburn’s polymath piper
Tomás Ó Caininn
Tomás Ó Caininn
Known as the Pennyburn Piper, Tomás Ó Caininn, who has died aged 82, was a true polymath – a highly accomplished musician, singer, composer, linguist and writer, a former dean of the engineering faculty at UCC, and an internationally known ham radio operator.
He was born at Pennyburn on the outskirts of Derry, which doubtless explained his ready wit and twinkling sense of humour. Bearing the title of the uileann piper from that northern parish, he also played at many a Tuesday night session at O’Connell’s pub in leafy Glanmire, a few miles east of Cork city.
Schooled at St Columb’s College, he later studied electrical engineering at Queen’s University Belfast. But with his grandfather and mother both playing the fiddle, music was in his genes. It was while studying for a PhD in engineering at Liverpool University that he became deeply involved with Irish traditional music. A founder member of the Liverpool Ceilí Band, he played accordion with them for several years.
Having moved to Cork to lecture in UCC, he had already changed from accordion to uilleann pipes by the time Seán Ó Riada joined the staff of UCC’s Music Department and Ó Caininn attended his lectures and obtained a BMus degree. The author of several books on Irish music, including one on the life and work of Seán Ó Riada, he displayed his academic versatility by delivering lectures to students after the composer’s untimely death in 1971, no mean accomplishment for a specialist in electrical engineering.
A gifted lecturer, he was an accessible teacher and his door was always open to students at the university and at Cork School of Music, where he also taught. With fiddler Matt Cranitch and tin whistle player Tom Barry, he co-founded Na Filí, a group that toured extensively in America, Europe and Britain in the late 1960s and 1970s, gaining wide popularity and recording several albums.
He was a winner of the All-Ireland solo piping title land a much-travelled lecturer as well as an instructor in, and collector of, traditional Irish music. He was the music critic of the then Cork Examiner for 15 years and for The Irish Times on southern musical events. He adjudicated at the Oireachtas and at Fleadh Ceoil all over Ireland. His original compositions include choral music, orchestral pieces and three Masses.
Without the unstinting support of Helen, his Belfast-born wife, such a demanding schedule would be impossible. Their three daughters are musicians, playing the violin, viola and cello, and they joined him on his last solo release.
Besides his fluency in Irish, in recent years he learned Polish and Japanese and also spoke Spanish and Greek. When Peter Barry was minister for foreign affairs, Ó Caininn was a member of Ireland’s Cultural Relations Committee, travelling to places as far away as Baghdad.
On a visit to Boston, he made €50 one morning playing the pipes in the subway where his daughter Nuala regularly busked. He also played for president Reagan on St Patrick’s Day in Washington.
On another memorable occasion, he visited a fellow ham enthusiast at Inch in east Cork, seeking equipment for his radio set. When the donor declined any payment, he brought his uilleann pipes and a waiting young daughter in from the car, performing an impromptu concert in the sitting room.
Among the many tributes to his memory, the Cork Pipers’ Club described him as a man with “wit, time to chat to anybody and of course knowledge and grá of traditional music”. Numbering his many fine qualities, Galway fiddle player Rosina Joyce added that he was “a person who would always make you smile and lift your heart”.
He is survived by his wife, Helen, and daughters Nuala, Una and Niamh.