Séamus Connolly will add this year’s TG4 award to his important stateside recognitions, most notably the Ellis Island Medal of Honor and the National Heritage Fellowship.
By Daniel Neely
A very hearty congratulations to fiddle legend Séamus Connolly, who this past weekend became a recipient of the Gradam Ceoil TG4 Lifetime Achievement Award. Connolly has long been one of the bright lights in traditional music and this recognition is richly and truly deserved.
Raised in Killaloe, Co. Clare, Connolly came from a musical family; his father Michael played whistle, his mother Helena played melodeon, his brother Martin, who was an All-Ireland accordionist, builds boxes of great repute, and his brother Michael was a well-known dancer. However, it wasn’t until he was 12 that he took up the fiddle. Inspired by the music played his fiddle-playing uncle’s “American wake,” he convinced his parents to buy him one and a year and a half later in 1957 he’d won the All-Ireland Under-14 competition in Dungarvan. (Legend is he was encouraged by the great Dinny O’Brien.) It would be the first of his 10 All-Ireland solo fiddle championships.
His friends and influences along the way are legion. Paul Brock was an early partner of his, as was accordion master Paddy O’Brien, who he met in Boyle in 1960 and who would become an important influence and a frequent partner until 1976, when Connolly moved to the U.S. “I was influenced in his style of playing,” he reported in a 1969 interview for Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, “because I had confidence in him.” Charlie and Ben Lennon are also said to have been particularly influential as well, as they were the ones who introduced him to the playing of Michael Coleman.
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Connolly was astonishingly active in those early days, as a member of both the Kilfenora (with whom he won an All-Ireland in 1962) and Leitrim Céilí Bands, as well as with Inis Cealtra, a band that boasted a line-up of immortals, including Paddy Canny, Paddy O’Brien, Peadar O’Loughlin and George Byrt. In 1967 he won the “Fiddler of Dooney” competition. In those years, he was a noted adjudicator who respected all styles of playing, even going so far as to travel to fleadhanna with a reel-to-reel recorder so he could capture the finest musicians of the day for later study.
He was one of the musicians on the first Comhaltas tour of America in 1972, which consisted of over 20 musicians and dancers, including the likes of Paddy Glackin, Joe Burke, Tommy McCarthy Sr., John Joe Gardner, Celine Hession, Donncha O Muineachain and others. It was on this tour he first met Irish-American legends, like Andy McGann, Paddy Reynolds, Jerry Lynch, Martin Mulhaire, Louis Quinn, Ed Reavy, and Johnny McGreevy, making it a particularly memorable visit.
This 1972 CCÉ tour in fact gave Comhaltas its foothold in America, and Connolly not only adjudicated many of the early US fleadhanna, but in 1975 he helped found the Hanafin-Cooley CCÉ branch in Boston with a group that included the great Larry Reynolds, Billy Caples, John Curran and Pat & Mary Barry. He immigrated to the United States in 1976, and landed in the Boston area. There, in addition to teaching, he co-founded Boston’s first pub session at Brookline’s Village Coach House, with Reynolds and Richard Wire.
In the 1980s, Connolly was an in-demand artist. He performed at the National Folk Festival, the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, Glen Echo & Wolf Trap and on multiple Masters of the Folk Violin tours. In these days, he was playing with the likes of Paddy Cronin, Joe Burke, Mick Moloney and James Keane and teaching a number of talented students, including Brendan Bulger (1991 All-Ireland winner) and Sheila Falls Keohane (the current director of BC’s Gaelic Roots Program), who would go on to great heights.
One of the most impactful chapters in Connolly’s life, however, was his tenure at Boston College. Connolly first arrived at BC in 1990 at the behest of composer and visiting scholar Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin to coordinate its first “Irish Fiddle Festival.” Its impression was so significant that when Ó Súilleabháin returned to Ireland, after having founded the Irish Music Archive at BC’s Burns Library, Adele Dalsimer and Kevin O’Neill, the co-chairs of the school’s Irish Studies Program, invited Connolly to become the director of its Irish Music, Song, and Dance Program. In this capacity, he taught and mentored innumerable students (including Grainne Murphy, a longtime member of Cherish the Ladies) and directed the school’s Gaelic Roots Summer School and Festival, which presented all Irish music’s top names and came to an end in 2003. For his efforts, the Echo named him the “Traditional Musician of the Year” in 2002, the same year he was inducted into the CCÉ’s Northeast Region Hall of Fame. In 2004, Connolly became the “Sullivan Artist in Residence” at Boston College’s Center for Irish Programs and continued his important work at the school.
Connolly retired from Boston College in 2015, but not before being recognized with two significant awards in 2013, the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, given to naturalized or native-born American citizens “who preserve and celebrate the history, traditions and values of their [ethnic heritage] while exemplifying the values of the American way of life,” and a National Heritage Fellowship. Administered by the National Endowment for the Arts, it is considered the highest honor our government gives a traditional or folk artist.
Connolly’s crowning achievement at Boston College is “The Séamus Connolly Collection of Irish Music” (connollymusiccollection.bc.edu), a staggering online collection of 330 audio recordings that feature more than 130 musicians. Each recording includes an accompanying stories/essay and a transcription, and is freely available to all via the World Wide Web. It is an incredible resource for musicians and should be on the radar of anyone at all interested in traditional Irish music.
Connolly’s discography includes “Rambles Of Kitty” (a Comhaltas LP from 1967 that included Sean Keane & Liam O’Flynn, among many others), “Banks of the Shannon” (with Paddy O’Brien and Charlie Lennon), “Warming Up” (with Martin Mulhaire, Jack Coen, and Felix Dolan), “Boston Edge” (with Joe Derrane and John McGann), and the solo albums “Notes from My Mind” and “Here and There.” They are all incredible, important recordings. In addition, he published “Forget Me Not: A Collection of 50 Memorable Traditional Irish Tunes,” a notable tune book with fiddler Laurel Martin (fiddle) and remains an invaluable resource for learners.
Congratulations once again to Séamus Connolly on the 2020 Gradam Ceoil TG4 Lifetime Achievement Award! And to all the other distinguished honorees at Sunday’s ceremony, including Laoise Kelly, Sharon Howley, Lillis Ó Laoire, Ned Kelly, and Josephine Marsh. Your achievement is massive and most deserved!