Seán Keane obituary: Late Chieftain excavated music in a way few people could

A musician’s musician, fiddler understood the emotional, spiritual and lonely quality, the darkness as well as the light, in Irish traditional music

Born: July 12th, 1946

Died: May 7th, 2023

The widely renowned and highly talented fiddle player and long time member of The Chieftains, Seán Keane, has died unexpectedly at his home in Rathcoole, Co Dublin. His last public performance was for US president Joe Biden when The Chieftains came together for the special concert in his honour in Ballina, Co Mayo, in April.

Keane won six Grammy Awards with The Chieftains, which, over five decades, brought traditional Irish music to new audiences in the United States and across the world. Their many acclaimed performances included being the first Irish group to visit China and the first ever Western group to play on the Great Wall of China in 1983. They played at Glastonbury in 1982 and took part in Roger Water’s The Wall performance in Berlin in 1990, eight months after the wall came down. They were also the first group to perform a concert in the Capitol Building in Washington D.C.

READ MORE

In 2004, Seán Keane won Traditional Musician of the Year at the TG4 Gradam Ceoil/Traditional Musician of the Year Awards. His three solo albums – Gusty’s Frolics (1975), Seán Keane (1981) and Jig It in Style (1990) – are seen as seminal recordings in traditional music circles. The duet album, Contentment is Wealth (1985), recorded with his fellow Chieftain, flute player Matt Molloy, is also highly regarded. So too are his many recordings with the late uilleann piper, Liam O’Flynn. A significant body of outstanding non-commercial recordings of Keane are housed in the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA).

Among several celebrated collaborations with other musical genres was the 1982 single recorded with singer Kate Bush, Night of the Swallow. Keane also recorded with Van Morrison and Mark Knopfler.

Keane attended the Dublin School of Music for classical music training from the ages of 12 to 18. He later acknowledged that playing classical violin helped strengthen his technique

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was a member of traditional groups The Castle Céilí Band and later, Ceoltóiri Chualann, led by traditional composer, Seán Ó Riada. It included many of the founding members of The Chieftains, and in 1968, Keane himself joined The Chieftains.

Full of music

Born in the Dublin suburb of Drimnagh, he began playing the fiddle at a young age. Both of his parents were fiddlers; his mother, Molly, was from Longford and his father, Patrick (Paddy), from Clare. Keane soaked up the regional variations of traditional Irish music right from the start. His father worked in the Clondalkin Paper Mills while his mother stayed home with Seán and his brother, James – both of whom attended Drimnagh Castle Christian Brothers secondary school.

The house was full of music. The Keane family regularly hosted visiting traditional Irish musicians travelling from all over Ireland. His brother, James, a New York-based accordion player, also discovered his passion in childhood.

By then deeply steeped in the world of traditional Irish music, Keane attended the Dublin School of Music for classical music training from the ages of 12 to 18. He later acknowledged that playing classical violin helped strengthen his technique and enabled him to realise his musical ambition as a traditional artist.

During his teenage years, Keane emerged as one of Ireland’s most talented young fiddlers, as his performances in the famous Church Street Club and Pipers Club on Thomas Street, as well as the burgeoning folk club scene in Dublin, began to attract serious attention. He said later: “My sole interest in life was to play the fiddle. I was obsessed with playing the fiddle.”

Keane gained a strong reputation both for his technical virtuosity and his insightful and sensitive understanding of Irish traditional music.

He understood the bleakness that people in music can have sometimes, and not many people understood that bleakness

—  Paddy Glackin, fiddle player, on Keane

In the 2022 documentary, Seán Keane: The Portrait of an Artist, produced by Seán Potts of Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA), fiddler Paddy Glackin said that Keane “excavated music in a way few people did”. “He uncovered different tonal colours from dark to brightness. He understood that there were particular tonalities associated with traditional music that set it apart and set him apart and satisfied the sense of adventure in him.”

Glackin went on to say that Keane understood the emotional, spiritual and lonely quality in Irish traditional music. “He understood the bleakness that people in music can have sometimes, and not many people understood that bleakness.”

On that same documentary, Keane spoke about his enjoyment of playing sessions and sharing tunes at the Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay in Co Clare. He had a particular love of the uilleann pipes as played by Willie Clancy and Séamus Ennis.

Great love

As a player he absorbed and assimilated the Sliabh Luachra music of Patrick O’Keeffe and Denis Murphy, the music of Patrick Kelly, Joe Ryan and John Kelly in west Clare, Donegal’s John Doherty and the Scottish fiddle music of James Scott Skinner.

He met his future wife Marie – who was from Ennistymon in west Clare – at a set-dancing club in Dublin. The couple, who went on to have three children, were married for 56 years. They had a very close bond and he missed her dearly following her death during the Covid pandemic. Keane passed on his great love for traditional Irish music to the next generations: his son, Páraic is a fiddle player and another son, Darach plays the pipes. Many of his grandchildren also play instruments.

The ITMA film includes a heart-achingly beautiful rendition of the great Irish song air, Bean Dubh an Ghleanna, that he performed with Liam O’Flynn and organist Catherine Ennis on The High Reel programme on RTÉ in 1997.

Beyond his enormous talents, he is remembered as a quiet, modest man who shunned pretension and deeply appreciated being able to play music for a living

“His virtuosity and skill was unique and has influenced so many musicians across the traditional arts. Indeed, Sean has been described as the ‘musician’s musician’,” said President Michael D Higgins.

Beyond his enormous talents, he is remembered as a quiet, modest man who shunned pretension and deeply appreciated being able to play music for a living. Reflecting on his career, Keane said that the most important thing for any musician is to listen. “It’s a matter of keeping your mind open. The three most important things in music are to listen, listen and listen.”

He also gave credit to The Chieftains founder, Paddy Moloney for his leadership of the band. “Paddy was such an influence on my life. He gave me an income and outlet for my music. It was wonderful to be on stage with these guys. I enjoyed every minute of The Chieftains.”

Seán Keane is survived by his children, Deirdre, Páraic and Darach, his grandchildren, and his brother, James. He is predeceased by his wife, Marie.