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Séamus Ennis in the 1950s

Séamus Ennis (5 May 1919 – 5 October 1982) was an Irish piper, singer and folk-song collector.


Early years

In 1908 James Ennis, Séamus's father, was in a pawn-shop in London. Ennis bought a bag of small pieces of Uilleann pipes. They were made in the early nineteenth century by Coyne of Thomas Street in Dublin. James worked as a civil servant in Naul, Co Dublin. In 1912 he came first at the Oireachtas competition for warpipes, second at Uilleann pipes. He was also a prize-winning dancer. He married Mary McCabe in 1916. They had six children, including Séamus, who was born on May 5 1919 in Jamestown in Finglas, North County Dublin. James Ennis was a member of the Fingal trio, which included Frank O'Higgins (fiddle) and John Cawley (flute). They performed on the radio. At the age of thirteen, Séamus started receiving lessons on the pipes from his father. He attended the all-Irish schools at Scoil Cholm Cille and Colaiste Mhuire, which gave him a knowledge of the Irish language as well as English. He sat an exam to become Employment Exchange clerk but was too far down the list to be offered a job. He was twenty and unemployed.

Three Candles Press

Colm Ó Lochlainn was editor of "Irish Street Ballads" and a friend of the Ennis family. In 1938 Séamus confided in Colm that he intended to move to England to join the British Army. Colm immediately offered him a job at The Three Candles Press. There Séamus learned all aspects of the printing trade. This included writing down slow airs for printed scores - a skill which later proved important. Colm was director of an Irish language choir, An Claisceadal, which Séamus joined. In 1942, during The Emergency, shortages and rationing meant that things became difficult in the printing trade. Professor Seamus O Duilearge of the Irish Folklore Commission hired the 23-year old to collect songs. He was given "pen, paper and pushbike" and a salary of three pounds per week. Off he went to Connemara.

The song collector

From 1942 to 1947, working for the Irish Folklore Commission, Séamus collected songs in West Munster, Galway, Cavan, Mayo, Donegal, Kerry, the Aran Islands and the Scottish Hebrides. His knowledge of Scots Gaelic enabled him to transcribe much of the John Lorne Campbell collection of songs. Elizabeth Cronin of Baile Mhuirne, County Cork was so keen to chat to Séamus on his visits that she wrote down her own songs and handed them over as he arrived, and then got down to conversation. He had a natural empathy with the musicians and singers he met. In August 1947 he started work as an outside broadcast officer with Radio Eireann. He was a presenter and recorded Willie Clancy, Sean Reid and Micho Russell for the first time. There was an air of authority in his voice. In 1951 Alan Lomax and Jean Ritchie arrived from America to record Irish songs and tunes. The tables were turned as Séamus became the subject of someone else's collection. There is a photograph from 1952/53 showing Jean huddled over the tape recorder while Séamus plays Uilleann pipes.

As I Roved Out

Late in 1951 he joined the BBC. He moved to London to work with producer Brian George. In 1952 he married Margaret Glynn. They had two children, Catherine and Christopher. His job was to record the traditional music of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and to present it on the BBC Home Service. The programme was called "As I Roved Out" and ran until 1958. The poet Dylan Thomas managed to wangle his way onto this project. For him it was a pub-crawl around Britain. Meeting up with Alan Lomax again, Séamus was largely responsible for the album Folk and Primitive Music (volume on Ireland) on the Columbia label.

Full time musician

In 1958, after his contract with the BBC was not renewed, he starting doing freelance work, first in England then back in Ireland, with the new TV station Teilifis Éireann. Soon he was relying totally on his musical ability to make a living. About this time his marriage broke down and he returned to Ireland. He suffered from tuberculosis and was ill for some time. In 1964 he performed at the Newport Folk Festival. His father gave him the pipes he had bought in 1908. Although most pipers can be classed as playing in a tight style or an open style, Séamus was in between. He disapproved of the flashy style adopted by Leo Rowsome. Séamus was a master of the slow air, knowing how to decorate long notes with taste and discreet variation.

Two legendary sessions

Two events will live in legend among pipers. The first was in Bettystown in 1968, when the society of Irish pipers, Na Piobairi Uilleann, was formed. Brendan Breathnach was playing a tape of his own piping. Séamus asked "What year?" Brendan replied "1948". Séamus said "So I thought". For a couple of hours the younger players performed while Séamus sat in silence. Eventually he was asked to play. Slowly he took off his coat and rolled up his sleeves. He spent 20 minutes tuning up his 130-year-old pipes. He then asked the gathering whether all the tape recorders were ready and proceeded to play for over an hour. To everyone's astonishment he then offered his precious pipes to Willie Clancy to play a set. Willie demurred but eventually gave in. Next Liam O'Flynn (Liam Og Ó Floinn) was asked to play them, and so on, round the room. The second unforgettable session was in Dowlings' pub in Prosperous in County Kildare. Christy Moore was there, as well as most of the future members of Planxty.

Séamus never ran any school of piping but his enthusiasm infused everyone he met. In the early seventies he shared a house with Liam O'Flynn for almost three years. Finally he bought a piece of land in Naul and lived in a mobile home there. One of his last performances was at the Willie Clancy Summer School in 1982. He died on October 5, 1982. His pipes were bequeathed to Liam O'Flynn. Radio producer Peter Browne produced a compilation of his performances, called "The Return from Fingal" spanning 40 years.


  • Ennis is the subject of Christy Moore's song 'The Easter Snow.' This is also the title of a slow air Ennis used to play.


  • The Bonny Bunch of Roses (1959)
  • Forty Years of Irish Piping (1974)
  • The Pure Drop (1974)
  • The Fox Chase (1974)
  • The Best of Irish Piping (1974) (this is The Pure Drop plus The Fox Chase)
  • Irish Pipe and Tin Whistle Songs (1976)(USA release of "The Bonny Bunch of Roses) (Not identical to anthology of same name of 1994)
  • Feidlim Toon Ri's Castle (1977)
  • The Ace and Deuce of Piping
  • The Wandering Minstrel (1977)
  • The Return from Fingal (1997)
  • Two Centuries of Celtic Music (2001)
  • Séamus Ennis - Ceol, Scealta agus Amhráin (2006, remastered from recording first issued in 1961)

Anthologies (various artists)

  • Irish Pipe and Tin Whistle Songs (1994) (not identical to same title LP (1976) above)
  • Green Linnet 20th Anniversary Collection (1996)
  • Alan Lomax Sampler (1997)
  • Traditional Dance Music of Ireland (1997)

See also

External links

  • Tribute by Brendan Breathnach [1]
  • Seamus Ennis Plays "The Morning Thrush", a reel composed by his father. [2]
  • Seamus Ennis, Master of the Uilleann Pipes [3]
  • Going to the Well for Water The Seamus Ennis Field Diary 1942-1946 [4]


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