Traditional music is much the poorer following the unexpected death of Séamus Begley, the west Kerry box player and singer, on Monday at the age of 73.
Born into a large family of singers and accordion players, Séamus and his siblings were reared in Baile na bPoc, near Brandon Creek, Co Kerry. The dominance of music in their DNA was evident from the earliest days, when his father started a dance hall in Muiríoch, and from a very young age Séamus had a nightly gig playing polkas and slides for set dancers.
Although geographically his home was Corca Dhuibhne – the Dingle Peninsula – the music of Sliabh Luachra lodged deep within his bones. He farmed land near home and, later, hired out his farm machinery. Come the summer, he loved saving hay and cutting silage, often bringing his accordion with him on the tractor, playing tunes and singing songs to pass the long days when the sun didn’t set until after 10pm.
Begley’s accordion playing was instantly identifiable and gloriously boisterous. His passion for the rhythm of the dancers drove his playing so that it amplified their bouncing steps on the dance floor. He recorded his first album, An Ciarraíoch Mallaithe, with his sister Máire in 1973.
But it was his partnership with the Australian guitarist Steve Cooney that introduced him to the world stage. Their seminal album Meitheal, released in 1992, reshaped our understanding of what traditional music is and can be. Begley’s fiery rhythms found firm purchase alongside Cooney’s extraordinary driving guitar, yet at the same time both musicians were capable of the most heartbreaking tenderness and subtlety, as could be heard on Begley’s interpretation of Bruach na Carraige Báine.
The album’s launch was an all-night affair, living up to Begley’s billing that it would be “ó sé go sé in O’Shea’s” (”from six to six in O’Shea’s”).
[ Traditional musician Séamus Begley dies aged 73 ]
As a child, Séamus was told by a judge in a singing competition that his voice was too sweet. Those words, “Tá do guth ró bhinn,” haunted him for many years, and despite his widespread acclaim as a singer of extraordinary emotional depth, in possession of a glorious voice, it was decades before he recorded an album of songs, The Bold Kerryman, in 2015. Whenever Begley sang, his towering physique belied that tender voice, one that could eke fresh meaning out of everything from Táimse im’ Chodladh to Gordon Lightfoot’s In the Early Morning Rain.
Begley was central to the 2008 album Béal Tuinne, which saw a collective of west Kerry musicians come together under the guidance of Shaun Davey, who composed music to accompany the poetry of the late Caoimhín Ó Cinnéide, father of the singer Eilís Ní Chinnéide.
He also enjoyed fruitful partnerships with the guitarists Jim Murray and Tim Edey, the latter English musician having been inspired to take up the accordion after hearing Meitheal.
At the age of 62, Begley joined Téada, a Sligo-based band, and brought his characteristically uproarious wit to the party, joking that he hadn’t anticipated joining a boy band in his 60s. His impromptu witticisms, coloured by his bilingualism and love for puns of every shape and hue, resulted in some unforgettable comedic moments, with his audience torn between the pelvic-tilting, toe-tapping dance music and Begley’s fall-off-the-seat humour interspersed between the songs and tunes.
[ Séamus Begley: ‘I never thought at 62 I’d be joining a boyband’ ]
He was never without a project, and, ever the gracious host, he converted the outhouse behind his parents’ old home into what he called a síbín, where sessions were likely to last until sunrise, when bleary-eyed players and listeners emerged from the dark to see laid before them the iconic sight of the Three Sisters on Slea Head.
Begley saw his parents as his musical heroes, along with Nioclás Tóibín, Luke Kelly and many others. He grew up listening to as many songs in English as in Irish, with his mother, in particular, favouring the songs of Jim Reeves, Bing Crosby and Marty Robbins.
He shone a light on the music of west Kerry at a time when it was neither popular nor profitable to do so. His harmony singing with his siblings was inimitable, and his presence in An Droichead Beag and Curran’s Pub, both in Dingle, lured countless locals and visitors to hear him. His influence on both accordion players and singers has been immense. He gave lie to any notions of restraint when it came to playing his beloved polkas and slides, yet his singing could be characterised as exceptionally delicate and subtle.
He is survived by his wife, Mary, a beautiful dancer; his children, Breanndán, Eoin, Níall and Méabh; and his adored grandchild, Aibhín.