While ChimneySinging has been busy making a film about the New Wave of New Wave I’ve been busy writing a book about the Oldest of Old Waves – 18th century blues: Irish uilleann piping.
‘The Wheels Of The World: 300 Years Of Irish Uilleann Pipers’ is published internationally in September by Jawbone Press. Tomorrow, Monday June 13, I press ‘go’ on the print run. The book is a quarter of a million words and it’s been an adventure. I would never have thought to tackle it, nor thought I had the knowledge to do so (correction: the knowledge as to how to acquire the knowledge), had my friend and co-author, and piping pro, John McSherry not encouraged me.
I believe limited copies will be available, signed, from John and I via the website in the month before general publication. The website is: www.thewheelsoftheworld.com
Your friend and mine, Hannah, was a big help in doing three days of very detailed and rewarding research for me in the larger of the two main British Isles (I live in the smaller one, and plane fares/accommodation expenses are a drag).
The book is written for the interested general reader, by no means just the Irish trad cognoscenti.
The Wheels Of The World contains over 50,000 words on Seamus Ennis (1919-82), a legendary piper and storyteller, an authority on Irish folklore and one of the greatest characters in the history of Irish traditional music and broadcasting. Séamus was a full-time collector of traditional music for three institutions in his early life: The Irish Folklore Commission (1942-47); Radio Éireann (1947-51); and the BBC (1952-57). After this, he was a freelance broadcaster and musician, not well-adapted to a conventional lifestyle but a larger than life figure who became increasingly iconic in the Irish cultural world. He died in 1982, having become, as Andy Irvine noted, ‘almost like a god’.
Here’s a short extract on Mr Ennis:
A concert at O’Connor’s pub in Doolin, County Clare, on August 3 1959 was Séamus’ first appearance in Ireland for many years and featured him on a bill with Leo Rowsome and the London-Irish fiddler Martin Byrnes amongst others. Séamus had something to prove – and, luckily, Radio Éireann recorded it. Nearly an hour into the show, after a superb textbook set of five pieces from Leo Rowsome early in the proceedings and a mixed bag of other acts – including a man with an appallingly out-of-tune melodeon and a priest singing in the drawing-room style of John McCormack – Séamus came onstage and unleashed three pieces of magical playing. Two of these, including ‘The Silver Spear/The Dublin Reel’, played at atypically blistering speed, were later released on The Return From Fingal (RTÉ, 1997).
If the Doolin ‘comeback’ was important for Séamus’ soon-coming permanent return to Ireland, a Saturday night performance at the Troubadour, pillar of London folk clubs, on February 28 1959 was to have far-reaching consequences for the British folk revival.
Jenny Barton, running the folk nights for Troubadour owner Mike van Blumen, had created a thriving scene largely through a 1958 residency by Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.
Jenny Barton: I was still fairly new to folk music. I hit it about ’58, [the] year of my 21st birthday. Most of the time, then, if there was a folk thing going, I tried to be at [it] – and you could be at every one [of them] then [in London]. I’d heard it first on the As I Roved Out programmes, and I’d heard Séamus a year earlier on a programme called Sons Of The Sea. I have the script that Séamus wrote for himself. When I [later] told [him] that that’s where I’d first heard him, he rummaged in his pipe box and said, ‘Jenny, I think you’d better have this …’
In the audience on February 28 1959 was Martin Carthy, a 17-year-old who would be galvanised by the performance into a career as one of the most pivotal artists in English traditional music for the next 50 years and counting:
Martin Carthy: Our local hero was Robin Hall, when I was 16 [or] 17. I got talking to him. He was a funny bugger, but basically he said, ‘If you want to hear proper folk music, you’ve got to go down to the Troubadour in Earl’s Court. And I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll go to the Troubadour.’ I didn’t go down straightaway; it was sort of in the back of my mind until one Saturday, for absolutely no reason, I walked into the tube station and got the train down to Earl’s Court. The ceiling and the walls of the Troubadour were all hung with old instruments. It was fashionably gloomy. The whole place was low lighting, lots of candles. I thought this place was absolutely wonderful. And as I walked down the stairs – the club was downstairs – I heard these pipes playing, and I thought, ‘Oh, bagpipes, I know what bagpipes are.’ I walked in and there was this bloke – and he wasn’t playing the bagpipes properly! I knew about the Scots bagpipes – you stood up – and I’d heard about the Northumbrian pipes, but there he was, this man sitting down in this gloomy light, and I always say he looked like he was wrestling an octopus. 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. I met him later on, when he was staying with Jenny Barton. I went round when I thought I could play a bit and played a couple of tunes, and he was very patient and he sat there, and he played a couple of tunes. We didn’t play together because, frankly, I didn’t know what to do. I was completely unable, I had no technique – I just wanted to hear him talk. And he talked. He talked about music, and he was fascinating.
Séamus’ encyclopaedic memory for matters of folklore was not matched by similar skills in personal organisation:
Jenny Barton: When we organised for him to come down, I made sure his wife knew where he was meant to be going. [But] when we had to get him home, he couldn’t remember what bloody street he lived in! He was not noticeably drunk, but very absent-minded.
Three months later, on May 29, Jenny and Martin heard Séamus again, this time headlining a concert compèred by singer/guitarist Steve Benbow:
Jenny Barton: I can remember Martin taking what I thought was a school bag – and he says no, it wasn’t, it was a bag of music stuff – and balancing it against a chair leg. And I remarked to whichever girl was sitting beside me, ‘Who on earth is this kid? Is he old enough to be here?’ Séamus, shall we say, had drink taken. Steve Benbow seemed to be compèring the thing. As he was playing, Séamus started to keel over [in slow motion]. And Steve Benbow fielded him, very gently pushed him back up. And he never stopped playing!
Reg Hall: He was a big romantic. I always found him entertaining, any of his concerts I went to. I saw him at one or two things, and he had a huge charm in his presentation. There was a point where the pipes would go wrong and he wouldn’t be piping much – there was a time in London when his pipes didn’t work – and then he had this notion that he was the only tin whistle player in the world. I actually heard him say, ‘I introduced the tin whistle to London.’ ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ I thought. Everybody could play the tin whistle!
On one occasion he went on in an Irish concert at Hammersmith Town Hall with [fiddler] Jimmy Power. They worked out what tunes they were going to play in duet, and they go up on the stage to play, and then Ennis said, ‘Now, Power, when we do those reels, when we go into the second reel, you lay off – don’t you play, I’ll break into it, I’ll play it through once, then you come in.’ So they’re on the stage, and 10 minutes later they go into this routine, they come to the second tune and Jimmy stops playing, Ennis goes on a little and then says, ‘Power! God, I would have thought you knew that tune!’ And Jimmy Power was absolutely livid, furious – would never play with him again.
Early in 1960, Séamus took part in loose ensemble sessions at Cecil Sharp House, recorded by his former colleague Peter Kennedy for a series of three themed albums of skiffle-ish folk songs – A Jug Of Punch, A Pinch Of Salt and Rocket Along – for HMV. Among the cast were Steve Benbow, Shirley Collins, Jimmie Macgregor, Bob and Ron Copper, Cyril Tawney and Isabel Sutherland. It was a fair snapshot of that part of the nascent British folk revival which would have been vaguely apparent to people from radio and TV, several of the artists being already known from broadcasts. Séamus was present on the first two albums, singing two songs on each and playing whistle on songs by others, but A Jug Of Punch is especially interesting in being the only occasion when Séamus released commercial recordings backed by a band: his ‘Football Crazy’ and ‘Brian O’Lynn’ feature combinations of guitar, mandolin, banjo and bass along with his own vocals and whistle.
Séamus’ luck with BBC commissions, however, was beginning to run out: ‘It was a complete change after affluence. I’ve known what it is to be hungry.’[i]
One of his projects involved a performance ‘not passed for broadcast’. At times he took work as an electrician’s assistant, with a friend from Limerick, at four shillings an hour. Bob Davenport, who feels that Ewan MacColl and Alan Lomax had also frozen him out of their circles, was a witness to the decline:
Bob Davenport: I was passing by this pub on the way up to the tube at Swiss Cottage and I heard this voice, ‘Bob!’ and it was Séamus. It was a lovely day, and he said, ‘What are you doing?’ I was going down the West End for something. He said, ‘Come with me, I’m going down to the George’ – this BBC pub. There was a man called Francis Dillon who was producing Irish things. … I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go down the George, it’s lunchtime,’ you know. ‘Oh, come on, come on, come on …’ So I got in a taxi with him, which he couldn’t afford, and Francis Dillon was at the bar, talking to three or four cronies, and Séamus says, ‘The usual, Francis!’ He looks at him and sends a whisky over to him, and then Francis just continued to talk to these people and blanked Séamus. And Séamus tried to buy himself in. Somebody else there in the same circumstances said to me, ‘He’s drinking at the wrong producer.’ The BBC then, I’ll tell you, if you thought Florence was a place where you had to guard yourself from a knife in the back, the BBC in the 1950s made Florence look like a bunch of amateurs. It was sad. He was drinking more and more. … Séamus was too innocent, in a way. He fell out of favour, and they stabbed him.
Séamus: One day a senior producer in the BBC said to me – you know, I used to drop into the local at lunchtime, looking for work – he said, ‘Do you know, Séamus, this is the British Broadcasting Corporation, not the Irish Broadcasting Corporation.’ So I said, ‘Thanks for the hint,’ and I came home.[ii]
Séamus returned to Dublin. He had no correspondence with anyone at the BBC for six years. He had separated from Margaret and the children before the end of the 50s, perhaps being simply unsuited for family life. He would have no contact with his children for 10 years.
‘His wife had thrown him out, I think,’ says Jenny Barton. ‘She was making a living as a schoolteacher, coping with two children, and Séamus was just no help. He may have been charming and exciting and all that but, God, you wouldn’t want to be married to him.’
The final BBC radio appearance in this phase of his life was in June 1960, telling the story of ‘The Bold Fisherman’ on Monday Night At Home. And where his home was, at this stage, had become a moot point.
 The full 80 minutes of the RÉ recording can be heard at the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA), Dublin.
[i] Unpublished part of an interview by Mícheál Ó hAlmhain, 16/12/72, source: ITMA, Dublin
[ii] The Séamus Ennis Story (RTÉ, 1988), Prod: Peter Browne