Former Chieftain and legendary whistle player
Seán Potts: October 5th, 1930 – February 11th, 2014
Seán Potts, whose whistle playing with The Chieftains and Ceoltóirí Chualann elevated the instrument to a higher plain, died on February 11th at the age of 83. He was born in the Coombe in Dublin and grew up in Drimnagh. His father John played the melodeon, but it was his grandfather, “Old John” Potts, a piper who moved to Dublin from Bannow, Co Wexford, in the late 19th century, whose deep artistic understanding of music had a profound influence on young Seán, an influence he frequently referenced throughout his life.
Seán’s uncle, Tommy Potts, was a revered fiddler and improvisational composer whose inventive exploration of traditional tunes challenged conservative expectations of what the music was about.
In Seán’s youth, there were very few places in Dublin in which traditional music could be heard, and his grandfather’s home at No 6, The Coombe, was a Mecca for musicians from both inside and outside of the Pale. Music was at the centre of the Potts’ family life, and it was there that Breandán Breathnach, the founder of Na Píobairí Uilleann, was taught the pipes by Seán’s grandfather.
Seán Potts was born on October 5th, 1930. He never took to playing the pipes as a youngster, finding them temperamental, but instead concentrated on the whistle, and through his playing, revealed a depth and breadth of expression in the instrument that was peerless. He had a particular fondness for slow airs, and his lifelong love of listening to the pipes greatly influenced his own whistle style.
Seán played with the Kincora Céilí Band as a young man. He first encountered Paddy Moloney in the 1950s, when the pair established a lifelong friendship. In 1960, Seán Ó Riada, then
artistic director at the Abbey, was arranging incidental music for Bryan MacMahon’s play, The Honey Spike , and recruited Seán Potts along with Michael Tubridy, Seán Keane and Martin Fay. The ensemble went on to become Ceoltóirí Chualann and they were instrumental in bringing a music which had heretofore been subterranean to play a pivotal role in Irish cultural life and discourse.
Their recording of Ó Riada Sa Gaiety was a high water mark in the group’s decade-long lifespan. Seán went on to become a member of The Chieftains, touring and recording extensively with them from 1962 to 1979, when he made the decision to leave, finding the demands of the road to be incompatible with family life.
Genial and witty
Potts was a genial and witty man with matchless powers of persuasion. He was also a passionate GAA fan and Dublin supporter. He didn’t like (music) competition, but focused instead on the rich art form that defined traditional music.
He hated to see the music being hijacked by a parochialism that cheapened it: images of green cummerbunds and thatched cottages were anathema to him. He was born and bred in the city, and was a product of his urban environment, but he was never bound by it, and was hugely respectful of his Wexford roots.
Having taken a leave of absence from the P & T, he returned to what was then Telecom Éireann when he left The Chieftains, but took early retirement in 1985. Seán’s lifelong passion for piping was channelled into a commitment to supporting the work of Na Píobairí Uilleann, founded on what he believed to be very sound principles, namely, the promotion of the pipes, the manufacture and servicing of the instrument and the nurturing of a listening audience for this most complex of instruments.
Seán knew that without listeners with a deep appreciation for the pipes and of traditional music, even the most inspired musical expression would be lost. He himself had an exceptional, intuitive capacity for music, which some described as a vibration, which allowed him to divine the finest threads in a tune, and in particular, in slow airs. He was never prescriptive or culturally myopic in any way. He loved jazz, and embraced musicians from all walks of life.
Seán tirelessly fundraised for Na Píobairí Uilleann (an organisation in which he was secretary, then chair, patron and finally, president). He founded the group, Bakerswell, with that primary purpose, and played extensively in the US. In 2010 he recorded his final album, Number 6 , in Na Píobairí Uilleann, donating all sales proceeds to the organisation which he loved. He was still learning tunes right up to the time of his death. The last tune he learned with Gay McKeon in Na Píobairí Uilleann was Lament for Eoghan Rua O’Neill .
Seán is survived by his wife, Bernie (née Sanfey), his four children, Cora, Seán Óg, Sorcha and Ultan, his brothers, Eamonn and Terry, sisters, Dorrie Roche and Nóirín Kelly, his son in law, Pádraig, daughters in law, Cora and Paula and his seven grandchildren.