Séamus Ennis

TrackAlbum
An Droighnean Donn /
The Garden Of Daisies
The Return From Fingal
The Rainy Day / The Merry Blacksmith /
The Silver Spear
Forty Years of Irish Piping
The Praties Are Dug
And The Frost Is All Over
Forty Years of Irish Piping
Gentle Philip FahyForty Years of Irish Piping
The Bonny Bunch Of RosesThe Bonny Bunch Of Roses
Salamanca / Diúc Goran /
Fáilte Shinéad Roimh Tharlach
Ceol, Scéalta Agus Amhrain
An Fáinne ÓirCeol, Scéalta Agus Amhrain
The Fox ChaseThe Best Of Irish Piping
The Frieze BritchesThe Return From Fingal
Easter SnowThe Return From Fingal

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Seamus Ennis photo

 

Contributor: Andrew Shields

“When he played, there was nobody ever comes close – it stood your hair on end, it was just absolutely devastating.” Bob Davenport

“I was just absolutely stunned. He played the pipes and it was absolutely beautiful, and then he sang a song and he played the whistle and he told stories – and I was completely mesmerised. What was his name? Séamus Ennis. And it stayed with me. I went away with this feeling I had in my head after that – it was just a fabulous evening. I went and bought that record he made for Tradition, The Bonny Bunch Of Roses. I still have it, I love that record. And I loved his whole approach, his whole attitude. He was such a beautiful player – a lovely, relaxed style. He could be very, very funny. And very, very informative – a very clever man, and highly opinionated, and very, very kind.” Martin Carthy

It would be very hard indeed to overstate the significance of the role that Séamus Ennis played in the history of folk music in both Ireland and in the rest of the British Isles in the period between the early 1940s and his death in 1982. If he had solely been a collector and folklorist, his achievements in both fields would have earned him a very high place among those who worked in that area in the twentieth century. If one adds to this his talents as a fine but underrated singer, a superb tin whistle player and an accomplished, if idiosyncratic, fiddler, it becomes easier to understand why he has such a unique stature in the world of Irish traditional music.

Ennis was also an accomplished storyteller (a skill best displayed perhaps on his classic 1977 album, Feidhlim Tonn Rí’s Castle, in which he mixed recounting a long folk tale with short musical interludes to brilliant effect) and a raconteur of rare skill. Above all this, however, Ennis was also one of the greatest uileann pipers that Ireland has ever produced. This combination of talents was a very rare one indeed, and it may perhaps account for the awe which he inspired among some of his contemporaries. An urbane man, who was at home in very different sorts of social situations, Ennis was also an extremely gifted communicator. This talent was to make him a natural choice as a radio show host in both Ireland and the United Kingdom. In this role, he played a hugely important part in popularising folk music in both countries in the 1950s and 1960s.

In many respects, Ennis was born to be a musician. For example, his father, James Ennis, was a fine musician himself who, as well being an excellent piper, was also proficient on the tin whistle, fiddle and flute. On occasion, he also composed his own pieces, including this one which Séamus himself was filmed playing late in his own life:

Ennis’ mother, Mary, was also a talented amateur musician whose main instrument was the fiddle. The Ennis family’s home was also a meeting point for the other traditional musicians who lived in their local area. The small town in which they lived (Jamestown in County Dublin) was, at that point, still a rather sleepy one with much more of a rural than an urban ambience. Throughout his life, that part of the country remained of immense significance to Ennis. Indeed, he eventually returned to live in the near-by village of The Naul (where his grandparents had once lived) in the final decade of his life.

From a very early age, he evinced a keen interest in music and in the pipes in particular. Noting this interest, his father began teaching how to play them at a very young age, passing on the techniques that he had learned from the older pipers who had taught him in his younger days. In this way, Ennis began to build up a store of knowledge about the instrument which he, in turn, was to pass on to those he mentored in later years.

As he grew up, much of Ennis’ schooling was also done through the medium of the Irish language. This gave him a facility and ease in speaking it, which proved a major advantage in his later career. In a similar way, his work as an assistant at the printing company, At The Sign Of The Three Candles, in the late 1930s/early 1940s sharpened his skills both at musical notation and at producing legible and well-presented texts. That company’s specialism was in producing both Irish-language books and collected editions of traditional songs and dance music. As a result of this, its owner, Colm Ó Lochlainn, had developed a very good working relationship with a number of the leading figures in the Irish Folklore Commission.

In early 1942 Ó Lochlainn was advised by them that they were looking for a music collector to go and do field work in the more remote parts of the country. He immediately realised that Ennis would be an ideal person to fill the position. After completing a six week trial, Séamus was appointed to the job on a permanent basis. His work in it over the following five years was to be of incalculable cultural significance in relation to both Irish folk music and to the preservation of aspects of traditional culture and folklore there that might not otherwise have been recorded. At that time, the old customs in such areas were being steadily undermined by the ongoing mass emigration which was occurring there. At the same time, the Irish language itself was in a seemingly inexorable decline. Along with this decline there was a corresponding steady decrease in the prevalence of traditional folk practices in such areas.

It would have been immensely difficult to have found anybody else who could have had the same combination of qualities which Ennis brought to the role. His own musical prowess, for example, gave him a credibility with those singers and instrumentalists he visited which few other collectors could have matched. At the same time, he had a singular gift for making life-long friendships with those people from whom he collected songs and stories. A very well-spoken man, who was always impeccably dressed, Ennis was also something of an exotic figure in those parts of rural Ireland where he worked. This was especially the case given the widespread poverty that existed in such areas at that time. However, none of this seems to have affected the widespread popularity he enjoyed in those localities he visited.

Two other factors also played a large part in his remarkable success as a collector: the first was his remarkable ear and memory for music and the second was the exceptional rapidity with which he could transcribe what he heard. On occasion, for example, he was able to sing or whistle back a tune to the person he had heard it from immediately after he had finished noting it down. Indeed, most of the work which Ennis did with the IFC was done without any tape recording equipment at all, a remarkable feat which few other collectors could have equalled. He also did a great deal of his travelling around the country on a bicycle.

“He was the tallest piper, physically and musically, and he has not been replaced. People would unapologetically try and do what he did, there’s no doubt about that. But I would draw a comparison between the great pipers and [the] great painters. The style would be as singular and distinctive as that. And it was down to personality and outlook.” Dónal Lunny

“He made me realise music is magic and a spiritual experience. It cannot be taught in any university. It is beyond that.” Tony MacMahon

Ennis’ early collecting work was mainly done in the more-remote Irish speaking areas of Counties Galway and Donegal but he also made forays into other areas. These included Cork and Kerry in the province of Munster and Waterford and Wexford in Leinster. In the course of this work it has been estimated that he collected some 2,000 individual pieces of music, including both songs and dance tunes. This, however, did not represent all that Ennis collected. As the editor of his diaries for this period, Ríonach Uí Ógáin has pointed out, he also compiled notes about the “folktales, lore, folk belief[s], calendar custom[s] … and much more besides” of those places to which he travelled. The cultural significance of this material is immense, while the tunes and songs which he transcribed are now an essential component of the folk music repertoire in Ireland.

In the next phase of his career, Ennis moved from being a collector to being one of the most effective popularisers there has ever been of the folk music of the British Isles as a whole. He did so as a radio broadcaster, first with the Irish station, Radio Eireann, and subsequently with its English counterpart, the BBC. In both cases, this work continued his previous role as a collector. In both instances he travelled with an early and sometimes very rough and ready outside broadcast unit and he frequently presented programmes direct from an individual singer/storyteller’s home. That individual would often suggest other local musicians who might also appear on the programme and in this way the usual 30 minutes-slot would be filled. During this time, Ennis also made several trips to the Scottish Highlands, where he collected a good deal of material and where the locals were very impressed by his facility in speaking Scots-Gaelic.

He also made contact at this time with a number of like-minded individuals, including Alan Lomax and Ewan MacColl, who both played important roles in his later musical career. Lomax was later to credit Ennis with doing most of the preparatory work and providing him with access to most of the musicians who appeared on his 1951 LP, World Library Of Folk & Primitive Music, Vol. 2: Ireland. Ennis himself also appeared solo on several of the tracks, either singing or playing the pipes.

Ennis’ best known programme in this period, however, was As I Roved Out which ran on the BBC between 1953 and 1958. The series played a crucial role in the folk revival by giving a forum to Irish and Scottish singers and musicians who might not otherwise have had access to such a wide audience. At the same time, it was also of critical importance in allowing native English folksingers, notably that great singing family, the Coppers of Rottingdean in Sussex, to establish a wider public profile. The programme’s remarkable success also owed a great deal to Ennis’ natural gift as a communicator and to his deep knowledge of and enthusiasm for folk music of all kinds. In 1958, however, the authorities in the BBC decided to axe the programme and to wind up the outside broadcasting unit which had been responsible for recording it. In the following year, Ennis decided to relocate back to Ireland. Following that move he spent most of the remainder of his life pursuing a career as a freelance musician and as occasional broadcaster and presenter.

It was in the years after 1959, then, that Ennis began his recording career as more or less a full-time professional musician. He had made recordings prior to that point, but these had by and large been for broadcasting purposes rather than for commercial release. As we shall see, some of these early performances rank among his very best and display a level of virtuosity on the pipes which was remarkable for such a comparatively young man. Before going on to discuss this, however, it might be useful here to first say something about the nature of the uileann pipes themselves as an instrument. The uileann pipes (it is sometimes claimed the name derives from ‘uilin’ or ‘uile’, the Irish words for ‘elbow’) come from the same family as the Scottish bagpipes, but there are significant differences between them. The most immediately noticeable of these is the fact that, with the uileann pipes, the supply of air comes through an under-arm bellows rather than as with the bagpipes by blowing through the mouth.

When playing them, the elbow controls the bellows and this, it is believed, is how the uileann pipes got their name. They are also significantly more complex than the other types of pipe instrument. For example, there are seven parts to the instrument: one chanter (on which the melody is played) and three drones and three regulators. The drones provide a solid base on which the wilder flights of the instrument can take place, while the regulators allow the piper to add harmonies and different rhythms to a tune. Generally speaking, the complexity of the pipes gives them a range and versatility with which the other forms of the instrument simply cannot compete. Also, in the words of Colin Harper, the music journalist, “in the hands of a master” the instrument can convey “an extraordinary emotional impact”.

The complex nature of the pipes also means, however, that they are an extremely difficult instrument to play. In consequence, the numbers of specialist pipers in Ireland has always been a comparatively small one and the ranks of the genuine masters of the instrument are even smaller still. In his own lifetime, for example, only Leo Rowsome from the older generation and the great Willie Clancy of his own, came close to challenging Ennis’ widely acknowledged position as the ‘Ard-r í’ (or ‘high king’ to give the English translation) of the uileann pipes.

“In addition to being an expert performer Séamus was also a renowned folklorist and Gaelic scholar. These latter accomplishments give him an undoubted advantage in the interpretation of our native music. This was particularly evident in the perfection and beauty of his slow air playing. One never tires of his music. The more often it is heard the more one appreciates the finer points of his piping.” Liam Óg O’Flynn

“I can only describe Séamus as a giant of Irish music, song, language and folklore … when he was in his prime, he was a true master of his instrument.” Christy Moore

In this respect, the selections here are designed to give an idea of the uileann pipes extraordinary range from the wildness and exuberance which Ennis could convey when he played fast tunes to the exquisite melancholy of his playing on slow airs. My first selections come from very early in Ennis’ life. The extraordinary feature about these recordings is the blazing virtuosity which he displayed from the very earliest days of his career. Indeed, the only comparisons that I can think of in relation to his playing at that time are to people like Davey Graham, Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane. Those artists also had the same kind of extraordinary mastery over their instruments which allowed them to take risks which lesser performers simply would not have thought of taking.

For example, on some of these early recordings, Ennis plays at a breakneck – not to say, almost a bewildering – speed. However, his technique at that point was so assured that he manages to combine this risk-taking with interpretative skills of the very highest standard. This much later filmed performance of the famous reel The Bucks Of Oranmore gives a clear demonstration of the mastery which Ennis demonstrated on such numbers:

His supreme skills are also clearly displayed in the fine version of the slow air, An Droighnean Donn, which dates from 1940 and is my opening selection. A translation of the song from which this air is derived is available here. As a piper who was also a singer, Ennis was always finely attuned to the shifts in mood of those songs which he played.

A characteristic feature of the uileann pipers’ repertoire was that they often tended to combine pieces in a way which brought out their contrasts or similarities. Here, for example, Ennis goes straight from the slow air into a well-known set dance, The Garden Of Daisies, which he plays with his customary dexterity and consummate skill.

The next selections, The Rainy Day / The Merry Blacksmith / The Silver Spear also come from the early part of Ennis’ career. The superb playing on this set of reels is another demonstration of the remarkable mastery he had achieved as a piper at a comparatively young age. The order in which these pieces are played is incorrectly listed on the CD on which they appear and has been corrected here.

As mentioned previously, Ennis was relatively unusual in being both a piper and a singer. In the next selection, generally known in Ireland as The Frost Is All Over, but given the longer title used above on the American compilation on which it was released, he combines these two skills to brilliant effect. The next selection, Gentle Philip Fahy, is one of Ennis’ most beautiful and haunting renditions of a slow air. There is an otherworldly quality to his playing here which fits with the ghostly theme of the song from which the tune is derived. Although Ennis may not have been the greatest singer technically, certain songs did suit his voice far more than others. This is very definitely the case with the next choice – the fine Napoleonic wars period ballad, The Bonny Bunch Of Roses (aka The Bonnie Bunch of Roses-O) – which in my opinion, ranks among his very best vocal performances.

The Salamanca was a reel which Séamus recorded on several occasions and was among those which he claimed to have first learned from his father. In the recording which I have included he combines it with two other reels, Diúc Goran (or ‘Duke Gordon’s’ as it would be in English) and Fáilte Shinéad Roimh Tharlach (or ‘Jenny’s Welcome To Charlie’). This performance does not have quite the white-hot intensity which Ennis brought to his earliest performances, but, to compensate for this, it has a mature and mellow edge which is equally compelling. For comparison purposes, an earlier performance of a very similar set of reels (which also includes Salamanca can be viewed here:

An Fáinne Óir or ‘The Gold Ring’, to give it its English title, is a piece almost indelibly associated with Ennis. He recorded it many times and always enjoyed recounting the folk-story about its origins which features on the recording I have included. A translation of Séamus’ introduction to the song can be found on this site at about half-way down the page. The great folk guitarist, Davey Graham, who was a keen admirer of Ennis’ playing, later recorded a fine cover version of the piece. It appeared on his excellent album The Complete Guitarist which was first released in 1978.

In his later years, Ennis suffered a good deal from ill-health (including a bout with TB and a near fatal heart attack along with the after-effects of a serious car accident) and from various personal problems. As a result, some of his later recordings do not quite have the same assured technical mastery that his early ones did. Despite this, however, he still remained capable of producing outstanding performances on the pipes and he played a vital role as a mentor to a number of talented younger musicians, most notably perhaps to the piper, Liam Óg O’Flynn of Planxty and the fiddler, Paddy Glackin, who went on to join The Bothy Band. As O’Flynn has pointed out, Ennis was not only interested in passing on his knowledge of the pipes but was also keen that the younger man should develop a wider respect for and knowledge of the culture and milieu from which Irish traditional music had emerged.

The final selections here all come from the latter part of Ennis’ career. The first, The Fox Chase, is a long descriptive piece which tells the story of a hunt from the very beginning of the day up to the death of the fox. The latter event is commemorated in the remarkable Lament Of The Fox which was one of Ennis’ favourite slow airs in all of Irish music. Indeed, he was to play it as a standalone piece at the funeral of his friend and fellow piper, Willie Clancy. Given its length, The Fox Chase itself represents a major technical challenge for any piper, even for one as accomplished as Ennis. On the other hand, however, it also provides the piper who takes it on with an opportunity to show off almost every facet of their craft. In this instance, Ennis manages to avoid the pitfalls posed by the first challenge while skilfully fulfilling all of the requirements posed by the second.

In contrast to The Fox Chase, the next choice, The Frieze Britches, is an essentially carefree piece. Indeed, it is the instrumental version of the well-known song, Cúnla, which was closely associated with the great sean-nós singer, Joe Heaney. It tells the story of an attempted and, perhaps successful, seduction on the part of its title character. The lyric of the song in both English and Irish can be found here. Ennis’ version nicely captures the light-hearted quality of this piece. It also displays his continued mastery on the pipes.

The last choice, Easter Snow, is a beautiful slow air which had a particular significance for Ennis himself. For example, he named the final home in which he lived in The Naul in County Dublin after it and he frequently described it as one of his personal favourites. His playing on this version has a haunting air of sadness and melancholy to it which gives it even more emotional power than his earlier versions of the tune had possessed. The lyrics to the song from which the tune derives can be found here.

The recording itself was one of the last that Ennis made for the Irish television and radio service, RTÉ, before his death in October 1982. His passing brought an end to the career of one of the greatest figures in modern Irish folk music. Indeed, his contribution to the genre is, in many respects, immeasurable – as a collector, for example, he was responsible for the preservation of a large cross-section of traditional Irish music which would otherwise have probably been lost, as an instrumentalist he ranks high among the very best pipers in Irish history and as a folklorist and storyteller, he belongs in the very first rank worldwide. He was also a larger than life character who himself has begun to be a source of new folk stories and increasingly tall tales. Along with this, of course, there is the invaluable legacy of his recorded work, which is a treasure house and store of Irish folk music in its own right.

Will finish up with two tributes, the first from Christy Moore:

And the second from Séamus Ennis’ daughter, Catherine, and Liam O’Flynn:

 

FOOTNOTES

For anyone interested in exploring Séamus Ennis’ career further, the superb book by Colin Harper and John McSherry, “The Wheels Of The World: 300 Years Of Irish Uilleann Pipers” is indispensable. Ríonach Uí Ógáin’s edition of Ennis’ diaries during his collecting years, “Going To The Well for Water: The Séamus Ennis Field Diary 1942-1946” is also invaluable.

There are also three documentaries which appeared on RTÉ that are well worth watching/hearing: the 1975 documentary “Miles & Miles of Music” (although the sound quality is poor); the first of a 3-part series made in 2010 “Ó Bhéal go Béal” (which is in Irish but has English subtitles); and the 1988 radio documentary, “Our Father, Séamus Ennis”.

The best choices for those beginning to explore his work as a piper are the two compilations, The Return From Fingal and Forty Years Of Irish Piping. The first of these gathers together almost all of his work which was recorded by the Irish national broadcaster, RTÉ. The second was compiled by Ennis’ American disciple, Patrick Sky, and is available as a CD on the American Green Linnet label. While invaluable, it is also, however, rather problematic as it provides only minimal information about when or where the tracks on it were recorded. The compiler, Patrick Sky, now acknowledges that this was an oversight on his part but it remains an extremely frustrating blot on an otherwise excellent release. There are some minor errors in the track listing on the album which is also regrettable.

 

Séamus Ennis (1919-1982)

 

The Séamus Ennis Arts Centre, Naul, Fingal, Co. Dublin

“Going To The Well For Water: The Séamus Ennis Field Diary 1942-1946”

“The Wheels Of The World: 300 Years Of Irish Uilleann Pipers”

The Return From Fingal Séamus Ennis CD

Forty Years Of Irish Piping Séamus Ennis CD

RTÉ Archives: excerpt from “Hand Me Down”, documentary series featuring Séamus Ennis (1981)

Séamus Ennis biography (iTunes)

Andrew Shields is a freelance historian, who grew up in the West of Ireland and currently lives in Sydney, Australia. Along with an interest in history, politics and literature, his other principal occupations are listening to and reading about the music of Bob Dylan and, in more recent years, immersing himself in the often brilliant and unduly neglected music of Phil Ochs …

Some of Andrew’s other toppermosts include:
The Dubliners; Planxty; Johnny Duhan; Joe Heaney; Davey Graham; Martin Carthy; Lal Waterson; Bert Jansch; John Renbourn

TopperPost #603

3 Comments

  1. David Lewis
    Feb 23, 2017

    What a stunning instrumentalist. Like all great musicians he transcends style and genre

  2. Dave Stephens
    Feb 24, 2017

    Many thanks for a stupendous Toppermost Andrew. The love came through along with a terrific amount of information. I’d never really listened to the uileann pipes before but must say that I really enjoyed the selections. Really loved Easter Snow.

  3. Andrew Shields
    Feb 25, 2017

    David & Dave – Thanks for these very kind comments.
    Of course, Séamus had an advantage over all other uileann pipers with the extraordinary size of his hands and those long spindly fingers. Almost as if he had been born to play the instrument…
    And, Dave, agree with you that even by the standards of Irish slow airs, “Easter Snow’ is hauntingly beautiful

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