Charlie Lennon.

Charlie Lennon, trad titan, 85

The legendary fiddle and piano player Charlie Lennon died Saturday at University Hospital Galway. The long-time resident of Spiddal, Co. Galway, was 85. Word spread quickly through the traditional music community mourning the loss of a man who was as well-known for his musicianship as he was for his skill as a composer.  For those readers who might have a diffuse sense of the traditional music world, it is the loss of a real titan.

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Ireland’s President Higgins said in a statement of tribute. “With the passing of Charlie Lennon, Irish music has lost one of its most talented and generous artists. Charlie Lennon was an outstanding musician and composer who leaves behind a rich catalogue of compositions.”

In his summary of a remarkable career, the president referred to the extraordinary fact that Lennon had a PhD in Nuclear Physics.

 Higgins said, “May I extend my deepest sympathies to Charlie's wife Síle Tim Ní Fhlaithearta, his children Seán, Éilís and Donal, and to all his family, friends and fellow musicians.” 

 Lennon was born into a musical home in Kiltyclogher, a musical place in County Leitrim, in 1938.  When he was 7, he took up the fiddle and the piano.  For tuition on the former, he turned to his brother, the equally legendary Ben Lennon (who passed away in 2020), as well as John Quinn, a septuagenarian who was the best known fiddler in his area, and John Joe Gordon, a young local who he once described as “the finest player you could ever hear.”  By the age of 10, he was immersing himself in the music of Michael Coleman, James Morrison and others, extending his ear and range of musical influences.

 He took piano lessons from a local instructor who taught him classical music and her efforts led him to a strong interest in understanding harmony and music theory over the years which helped him to develop his distinctive style

 He got his first gig when he was 12, when he was fourteen he joined the Seán McDermott Céilí Band and when he was 17 he toured for five years, first with the Richard Fitzgerald Band and later with the Assaroe Band.

 In 1960, he went to study at the University of Liverpool, where he went on to earn a PhD in Nuclear Physics in 1968.  During that time, he was a member of twice All-Ireland winning Liverpool Céilí Band (Mullingar, 1963 & Clones, ’64).  The band’s two records, “Champions Twice” and “Off to Dublin With…” are classics of the genre.

 Lennon was a prolific recording artist.  He made a few solo albums over the decades, including “Time for a Tune,” “Turning the Tune,” and “Musical Memories” (which featured 30

of his compositions).  “Duchas Ceoil – Dance Of The Honey Bees” was a recording that included Charlie and the extended Lennon family.

 However, these only tell a very small part of the story.  Lennon was also part of dozens of utterly classic albums, including “The Banks of the Shannon” (with Paddy O’Brien and Seamus Connolly), “Traditional Music of Ireland” (with Joe Burke), “Lucky in Love” (with Mick O’Connor), “Ómós Do Joe Cooley” (with Frankie Gavin and Paul Brock) and “Croch Suas É” (with Frankie Gavin).  Because his playing was so beloved by so many and because he was a first call type of player, there are many other titles that could be included here as well.

 In addition to his extraordinary musicianship, Lennon is widely considered one of the greatest composers in the history of traditional Irish music.  His TG4 Gradam Cheoil’s Composer of the Year award in 2006 was evidence of this.  Among his works include several larger scale suites, many performed with orchestral support, including “The Emigrant Suite” (1984), “Island Wedding” (1991), “The Famine Suite” (1996), “Aifreann Chaomháin” (2001) and “Áille Na hÁille” (2016).  

 However, Lennon was probably best known for his tunes, many of which are very, very popular session standards and can be found on dozens and dozens of albums.  Tunes like “Master Seamus,” “Kilty Town,” “The Flying Wheelchair,” “The Twelve Pins,” “Smiling Bride/Handsome Young Maiden,” “The Road To Cashel” and “Round The House And Mind The Dresser” are among the many you’re likely to hear played out and about on any given night.

 These tunes and others have been recorded over and over again over the years by groups and individuals such as Dé Danann, Stockton’s Wing (in which his nephew Maurice played), Boys of the Lough, Altan, Solas, Dervish, Téada, Cherish The Ladies, The Céilí Bandits, his brother Ben Lennon, Matt Molloy, Kevin Burke, Frankie Gavin, Tommy Peoples, Kevin Crawford, Lúnasa, Danu, At The Racket, Liam O Flynn, Antóin Mac Gabhann, James Keane, Bobby Gardiner, Cathal Hayden, Kathleen Collins, Angelina Carberry, Bríd Harper, Enda Scahill, Johnny Connolly, Johnny Og Connolly, Edel Fox & Neill Byrne, PJ & Marcus Hernon, Carlos Sweeney McCartin, and many, many others.

 It’s important that folks understand why this loss matters as much as it does.  Lennon was a brilliant musician, had a keen musical mind and was a gentleman.  While he was a link to the past and represented an older way of doing things, he also had a very forward looking sensibility that kept traditional music in the good graces of whichever “today” happened to need it.  Sincerest condolences to Lennon’s family and friends in this difficult time.