Leo Brennan: Accordionist played key role in musical formation of Enya and Clannad
His musical children were not his only claim to fame: he was also landlord and host in Leo’s Tavern in the north-west Donegal Gaeltacht
Leo Brennan: September 24th, 1925-June 22nd, 2016. Photograph: Getty Images
Leo Brennan, who has died in his 91st year, was much more than father of singer Enya. He was central to the development of Clannad, who progressed from playing in his pub to international stardom. He did not just provide the band with a venue: four of the initial line-up were his children, and he had played a big part in their musical formation. Clannad was not his only claim to fame: he was also landlord and host in Leo’s Tavern at Mín na Leice in the Gaeltacht of north-west Donegal. This was a music venue, offering live performances seven nights a week. In summer, it has always attracted substantial numbers of tourists.
Until recent years, every night also featured Brennan himself on the accordion. On the instrument, he could switch from genre to genre. As well as being an excellent musician, he was a showman who could take an audience with him. He always said that the best way to entertain an audience was to let them entertain themselves. Clannad, while being grounded in their native Donegal Gaeltacht, absorbed that same ability to switch genres.
Brennan was a versatile performer from a young age.
He was born Leo Henry Brennan-Hardin in the autumn of 1925 in Cliffony, Co Sligo. For many years, he was Leo Hardin. It was only when he came to marry and had to find his birth certificate that he found that the family members who registered his birth had wrongly inserted Brennan. He was the eldest of four children, three boys and girl, to Harry Hardin, nicknamed ‘Happy Harry’, and his wife Minna (née Lenehan, and formerly Brennan), both of whom were English. Both were also entertainers, who led the touring Connacht Concert Company. They staged variety concerts, in the west of Ireland and the Border counties. Harry Hardin was a pianist, singer and comedian, and Minah Hardin played the drums and the mandolin.
The family had Omeath, Co Louth, for a base. There, Brennan was educated at Omeath National School.
From childhood, he sang with the Concert Company. Then he moved on to playing the accordion. The Connacht Concert Company’s accordionist used to leave his instrument behind him after performances, and go off with his girlfriend. The young Brennan picked up the instrument, and taught himself to play. One evening the accordionist didn’t turn up. He volunteered to play, and showed his worth.
The Slieve Foy Dance Band evolved from the Connacht Concert Company. It mostly played venues in Donegal. The band included one of Brennan’s brothers and his only sister. It showed, too, the breadth of his talents. He was accordionist, saxophonist, and vocalist – and able to well handle the business affairs of the Band. In 1948 he moved to Gweedore, basing the band there, a decision cemented by his marriage in 1952.
By the late 1960s dance bands were waning. He was also married with a family, and getting older. So, in 1968 he bought a pub in Mín na Leice and renamed it Leo’s Tavern. His older children were by then in their teens, and they helped behind the bar, at a time when they were also developing their own musical sound. Soon after the pub opened, what was to become Clannad began performing. That first line-up comprised four of his children, and two of his brothers-in-law. Over the next years, they developed a fame he never dreamed of: that fame also attracted visitors to Leo’s Tavern.
Until quite recently, he kept active. While he owned a pub, he never drank or smoked. For many years, he was organist in the small church at Mín Uí Bhaoill, only giving up about four years ago. However, his community in north-west Donegal did not primarily know him because of Clannad. They knew him as their kind and pleasant neighbour with a big heart.
He is survived by his wife, “Baba” (Máire); his daughters, Máire (Moya), Deirdre, Enya, Olive and Brídín; sons Ciarán, Pól, Leon, and Bartley; and brother Tony.