Dennis Cahill obituary: Celebrated traditional musician who was a mentor to many

President Higgins says Cahill brought a ‘unique style to his guitar playing, while being deeply respectful of the essence of traditional Irish music’

Born: June 16th, 1954

Died: June 20th, 2022

One of the finest guitarists to play traditional music passed away last Monday, due to complications arising from a prolonged illness. Dennis Cahill was Chicago born and bred, and was unequivocal in declaring his identity as an American and not an Irish American. But with two parents from Ballydavid in west Kerry, it might have seemed inevitable that this cosmopolitan musician who had a passion for jazz and popular music would be lured to Irish traditional music eventually.

Cahill was born in Chicago and had one older sister, Mairéad. His father was also named Dennis and his mother was Anna, née Ashe, a relative of Thomas Ashe, a founding member of the Irish Volunteers. He grew up in Gresham and attended Little Flower Grade and High Schools on the south side of Chicago. He started learning the guitar at the age of nine and, after high school, enrolled in DePaul University, later transferring to Roosevelt University to study classical guitar. He did not complete his degree, as he was busy gigging and pursuing a career as a singer-songwriter during the folk revival, regularly gigging at the Earl of Old Town (along with John Prine and others). Cahill couldn’t understand why his professors were locked in a classroom talking theory and not performing. For some years he was a busy singer/musician in the Irish folk pub scene.


The most formative musical relationship of his life was with east Clare fiddle player Martin Hayes, with whom he forged a remarkable partnership. A jobbing musician when he first met Hayes in the 1980s in Chicago, Cahill invited him to join Midnight Well, a jazz/folk outfit. In 1992, Hayes moved to Seattle but the pair reunited in 1996 and released their seminal debut, The Lonesome Touch, the following year.

Cahill’s love of jazz, and of the music of Bill Evans and Bill Frisell, informed his musical philosophy. With Hayes, he embarked on an odyssey where the pair mined the melodic detail of every tune, stripping them bare to reveal their raw beauty. As Hayes put it in an interview with this paper in 2019, they sought “to sculpt a sound that is somewhat minimalist but based on revealing the latent expressive potential of the melody”. Cahill’s minimalism may occasionally have been perceived as simple, but it was never that. Beneath the bare bones of his guitar lines lay the most complex and carefully crafted arrangements. Cahill was never simply an accompanist.

He and Hayes were steadfast musical partners on a journey of discovery where every night’s performance heralded something new. Live in Seattle, released in 1999, captured the dervish-like energy of their legendary live performances and in 2008, they released Welcome Here Again, a finely sculpted collection of shorter tune sets, in contrast to the swooping and soaring extended sets of their live predecessor.

The duo’s approach to their music was the perfect fit to Cahill’s temperament, allowing him to shape his chosen chords with intense precision. Musically fulfilling, it was ideally suited to his gentle, kind and generous personality and for many years was his life’s passion and purpose.

Always musically curious, Cahill paid as close attention to the songs of Lyle Lovett as he did the guitar arrangements of Paul Simon. He had great admiration for musicians who had honed and rigorously mastered their craft. He was a member of the hugely successful The Gloaming and was also a member of the Martin Hayes Quartet with Doug Wieselman and Liz Knowles.

Having enjoyed a deep friendship with Hayes for more than three decades, Cahill was considered a member of the Hayes family, where a bedroom in their Feakle home was long known as Cahill’s room.

Hayes, in an online memorial to Cahill, said: “We came from different musical worlds, but together we made our own world of music and I think we made a difference.” President Michael D Higgins said that “Dennis brought a unique and innovative style to his guitar playing, while being deeply respectful of the essence of traditional Irish music.”

Cahill’s first wife, Gwen Sale, died in a car accident in 2002. He met Mary Joyce, a New Yorker, in Feakle in 2007 and it quickly became clear that they were soul mates. He also developed a close bond with Mary’s daughter, Clíodhna. Cahill and Joyce married on his birthday In 2012. He was an accomplished photographer who also loved to debate politics and was a very talented carpenter, cook, gardener, and a connoisseur of coffee and chocolate.

Cahill was quiet and reflective by nature, with a sharp wit. He was a mentor to many, and his wife Mary recalls him saying that “it’s up to us old guys to help the younger musicians”, a role he readily embraced with the same gusto he applied to all aspects of his professional life.

He is survived by his wife Mary, stepdaughter Clíodhna and his sister Mairéad.