The world of traditional music was shaken by the news of the fiddle player Seán Keane’s unexpected death on Sunday, at the age of 76.
He was a giant of Irish music, a virtuoso player who wore his musical talents lightly. Long known as a member of The Chieftains, whom he joined in 1968, Keane had cut his musical teeth with Ceoltóirí Chualann and the Castle Céilí Band in the early 1960s.
Never a man to seek out the spotlight, he tended to look for quiet spaces where he could immerse himself in the “old music” that was a hallmark of his growing up in a richly musical family in Drimnagh, in Dublin. His parents were from Co Clare and Co Longford, and they imbued in him and in his brother, the New York-based accordion player James Keane, a deep appreciation for the tradition.
Seán Keane played with a deftness, delicacy and subtlety that let the music speak for itself. His sensitivity as a man and a musician was palpable in everything he played, and he never stinted in mining the emotional depths of a tune.
Liam O’Connor, director of the Irish Traditional Music Archive, described Keane as “a beacon for our traditional art”.
He loved playing with The Chieftains and was vocal in his gratitude to the late Paddy Moloney for his leadership of the band, which repeatedly broke new ground internationally over the course of five decades.
Keane’s 1975 solo recording Gusty’s Frolics, recorded the day after The Chieftains made their debut at the Royal Albert Hall in London, is still considered to be a classic of the tradition. He recorded two other solo albums, Seán Keane and Jig It in Style, both of which are rated as seminal recordings in traditional circles.
He enjoyed a close musical and personal bond with his fellow Chieftain Matt Molloy, the flute player, and the pair memorably collaborated on an album released in 1985 titled Contentment Is Wealth.
The Irish Traditional Music Archive holds a vast collection of Keane’s noncommercial recordings also, and last year it made a documentary with him titled Seán Keane: The Portrait of an Artist, which premiered at the Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay last July. Keane held a very special place in his heart for the music of Clare, and he was a regular visitor to the summer school, valuing the opportunities he got to play sessions and share tunes generously with students and professional musicians alike.
The fiddle player Martin Hayes said that Keane “was one of the finest traditional musicians to ever play this music”, describing him as “a completely unique and virtuoso fiddle player” whose death is a huge loss for traditional Irish music.
He was a musician who held the source of the music in the highest regard, and had a particular affinity for the iconic piper Liam O’Flynn, as well as for Seán Potts and Michael Tubridy, Sonny Brogan and John Kelly.
Keane’s style of playing was shot through with influences absorbed from a range of regional styles. He loved the Sliabh Luachra music of Patrick O’Keeffe, as well as that of John Kelly and Joe Ryan in west Clare, and the music of Donegal’s John Doherty.
Growing up in Drimnagh, he cut his teeth in the Pipers Club in Dublin and relished learning from renowned players such as Seamus Ennis and Willie Clancy and the sean-nós singer Joe Heaney.
Seán was predeceased by his wife, Marie, in 2020. He is survived by his three children, Páraic, Deirdre and Darach, and by his grandchildren.