Seán Corcoran obituary: Lifelong devotee of Irish song

With a huge passion for music, he was an inspiration to many

Seán Corcoran (right) was forever on the hunt for song material either forgotten or neglected. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Seán Corcoran (right) was forever on the hunt for song material either forgotten or neglected. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

Seán Corcoran Born: December 7th,1946 Died: May 3rd, 2021

Irish traditional music is a poorer place following the passing, after a brief illness, of Seán Corcoran. A man of great warmth and sharp wit, he possessed an indefatigable appetite for mining the history of our unaccompanied song tradition. Seán’s breadth of interests were best summarised by himself in his Twitter account: “Irish Singer, Vernacular Musicologist (Ceol na nDaoine), Audio and Film Documentary Maker, Fieldworker, Composer, Lecturer, Socialist, Unrecognised Genius”.

Seán was born in Clogherhead, Co Louth in 1946 and grew up there and later, in Drogheda. His father, Terry, was from Crossakiel, Kells and his mother, Moira (née Quigley) was from Drogheda. His grandfather on his mother’s side was a singer, and his paternal grandmother played both concertina and fiddle. While he would have heard his grandfather sing sea shanties, it was his upbringing in a seaport town that introduced him to a rich store of songs that shaped his lifelong love of songs and song traditions. His interests beyond music were no less eclectic. His mother was a lifelong Labour activist, and Seán inherited her passion for defending workers’ rights, becoming a member of the League for a Workers’ Republic in the 1970s. He was also a keen footballer in his day.

The eldest of four, Seán attended St Joseph’s CBS, Sunday’s Gate Drogheda and from there, pursued Celtic studies in UCD and later, ethnomusicology in Queens University, Belfast.

The nascent ethnomusicologist was evident from his early teens, and in 1964 he co-founded the Old Drogheda Society with Caitlín Bean Uí Chairbre, searching out old songs across his home county, and dismissing jaded assumptions that the music could only be found in rural areas. It was, he noted, every bit as alive in urban areas as it was in the country. He recorded, among others, the Drogheda singer Mary Ann Carolan, who had a gargantuan song store, and wrote the liner notes for her album when she eventually recorded an album in 1982.

The eclectic nature of Seán’s many pursuits were reflective of a man who was, at heart, a born communicator and a catalyst for countless richly textured projects that magnified the rich song tradition of his native Louth, as well as the wealth of our wider heritage nationally.

Seán was a member of The Rakish Paddies group in the 1960s, with Paul Brady and Mick Molony. He founded the Tradition Club on Capel Street in the 1970s with Tom Crean, and both were members of the acapella group, The Press Gang. Seán later formed Cran with piper Neil Martin and flute player Desi Wilkinson, playing a mean bouzouki as well as occupying a pivotal role as singer with the group. Later, Ronan Browne replaced Martin on pipes and the band released five critically acclaimed albums, and enjoyed considerable success, particularly in the Netherlands.

Seán’s first solo recording was made in the US in 1977 on the Green Linnet label. Titled Sailing into Walpole’s Marsh, he managed to complete this work while performing at the Festival of American Folklife in Washington’s Smithsonian Institute. He appeared in many other recordings, and in 2012 recorded the pithily titled album Louth Mouths with Dónal Maguire and The Voice Squad’s Gerry Cullen.

There was nothing he relished more than the discovery of songs long forgotten, or indeed singers, whom he recorded for posterity with great skill and care, collecting first for Breandán Breathnach in his native Louth in the early 1970s, and subsequently for the Irish Traditional Music Archive, for which he was the main collector of field recordings from Northern Ireland. Nothing pleased him more than rescuing material from obscurity, and sharing it with listeners at home and abroad. He delighted in discovering a vast collection of ballad sheets collected by Sam Henry, in Northern Ireland in the early 20th century, which had lain dormant in the National Library, but it was quickly tempered by the unexpected arrival of one Andy Irvine at his shoulder, curiously enquiring as to the contents of his newly discovered collection. Henry’s collection yielded The Lakes of Pontchartrain and Bonny Light Horseman, among many other gems. He was a contributor to Ceol, a journal founded by Breandán Breathnach in the 1960s, and spent many fruitful years collecting for the Arts Council of Northern Ireland in the mid-1980s and 1990s.

Aside from his song collecting, singing and recording, Seán was festival director of Féile na Bóinne in 1976/77. He contributed to the University of Limerick’s 1995 Conference, Blas: The Local Accent, and made three memorable TG4 programmes in 2009 on the collectors Edward Bunting, George Petrie and Francis O’Neill. In 2012/13 made four widely admired radio documentaries.

Seán was a part-time lecturer in Irish traditional music in Mary Immaculate College from 2007 to 2020, where he inspired many students with his deep knowledge and live performances delivered with passion and a great sense of fun.

Seán’s friend, Basil Miller, considered him to be an Irish Alan Lomax, forever on the hunt for material either forgotten or neglected. His vast achievements were many and varied and his rich legacy will reverberate across this and future generations.

Seán is survived by his wife, Vera; by his children Rósa and Fiachra and their mother Helen; and by his daughter Jess. He is also survived by his sister, Claire, brothers Colin and Terry, daughter in law, Veritia, and his grandchild, Sadhbh.