Tony MacMahon obituary: Musician, broadcaster and man of many passions

His playing was deeply soulful in tone and boisterous in spirit, as the tunes demanded

Tony MacMahon’s passing sent ripples across the traditional music community, with many musicians paying rich tribute to his contribution to our traditional music and arts

Tony MacMahon Born: April 18th, 1939 Died: October 8th, 2021

Musician, broadcaster, producer and man of many passions, Tony MacMahon died on October 8th. His passing sent ripples across the traditional music community, with many musicians paying rich tribute to his central contribution to the state of health of our traditional music and arts.

MacMahon was born in Ennis in 1939. He was one of five children, and his father, PJ, was a volunteer for the Irish Republican Army in Co Clare, from 1917 to 1921. PJ died when Tony was 14. He had three brothers and one sister and is survived by one sibling, Dermot.

He found great joy in gatherings of family and friends and hosted many evenings of music or cúirt caidreamh in his Liberties home

Growing up in Ennis was no passport to being steeped in tradition. Instead the young MacMahon had to venture to its hinterlands of Kilmayley and Crusheen, to more closely acquaint himself with this music that had captured his imagination from the earliest age. The late Galway accordion player, Joe Cooley transfixed MacMahon, and it was Cooley who gave him his first accordion.

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He moved to Dublin at the age of 18 to train as a teacher, and it was during these early years when he met two musicians who had a formative influence on him: box player, Sonny Brogan and fiddle player, John Kelly. In 1963 he travelled to Canada and the US and spent time sharing an apartment in New York with the piper, Séamus Ennis. It was here that Ennis schooled the young MacMahon in the playing of slow airs, and he later described the experience as “one of the most enriching months of my life”.

He met Kantha Naidoo in 1965 and they were married in 1967. They had two sons, Anan and Oisín. As a father, he taught his sons to have a deep suspicion of social convention and to be true to themselves, as he himself was, to his dying breath.

In 1972 he released his solo debut album and also appeared on the classic compilation, Paddy in the Smoke. Later, he recorded the stellar I gCnoc na Graí/In Knocknagree, with concertina player, Noel Hill, and Aislingí Ceoil with Iarla Ó Lionáird.

MacMahon was awarded a TG4 gradam ceoil lifetime achievement award in 2004

MacMahon possessed a keen musical intelligence and a sharp eye and ear for what made for great broadcasting content, on both television and radio. He began as a freelance TV presenter with RTÉ in 1969 and later joined the staff as a radio producer in 1974. So many classic programmes bore his hallmark, from The Long Note to The Pure Drop and Come West Along The Road. He filmed The Green Linnet with Barney McKenna of The Chieftains in 1979, the pair documenting their picaresque travels across eastern Europe in a Citroen 2CV.

As a musician, his playing was iconic: deeply soulful in tone and boisterous in spirit, as the tunes demanded. He made the Blasket island slow air, Port na bPúcaí his own, mining the depths of the tune and unearthing its essential universal qualities of mournfulness shot through with resilience. Although MacMahon frequently called out what he perceived to be artifice among commentators of traditional music, he was never less than welcoming of fresh thinking and new perspectives. One example was his bold collaboration with the Kronos Quartet in a new reading of Port na bPúcaí in 2004. He was awarded a TG4 gradam ceoil lifetime achievement award that year too.

For MacMahon, the past had to be reconciled with the present. His love of the music of Tommie Potts, of Joe Bane, Joe Cooley and Mrs Ellen Galvin permeated his own playing. He found great joy in gatherings of family and friends and hosted many evenings of music or cúirt caidreamh in his Liberties home, where the geantraí, goltraí and suantraí (happy, sad and hushabye tunes) of the tradition found safe harbour.

MacMahon was also a man of many troubles and many passions, who expressed his opinions with vim and vigour. He could be moody and dour, yet hearty and convivial, and always willing to impart a sharp truth. He led the way in his insistence on rigorous reflection and debate on all things related to our traditional music, which is all the stronger for his robust interrogations.

MacMahon had been in declining health for some time, and passed away in St James’s Hospital. He donated his body to medical science. A fitting remembrance service was held in the Unitarian Church on St Stephen’s Green where many musicians gathered for a final, glorious cúirt caidreamh in celebration of a life well lived on Sunday, October 17th.

He is survived by his two sons, Anan and Oisín, by his wife, Kantha, his grandchildren, Oisín, Ana, Elise and Emil, his daughters in law, Noelia and Siobhán and by his brother, Dermot.