The news coming out of our nation’s capital doesn’t always make us jump for joy, but when a news release arrived a couple of weeks ago from the National Endowment for the Arts announcing that the Irish traditional musician Seamus Connolly would be one of its nine honorees receiving a National Heritage Award in September, it restored my faith in at least one institution down there.
Of course, I wasn’t surprised that Connolly’s candidacy was successful because I was one of many who advocated it by submitting a testimonial acknowledging the wonderful work he has performed since arriving permanently on American soil in 1976 from his native Killaloe in East Clare.
With faith that the cream does rise to the top, and belief that his bona fides qualified him unequivocally as a folk artist of the highest merit who has shared and advanced his traditional art form with great distinction here in the U.S., I felt -- and hoped -- that it was a matter of time.
And it couldn’t have come at a better time for a variety of reasons for the highly respected fiddle player who has been endowed in the Sullivan Chair for Irish Music at Boston College for nine years.
From an early age, Connolly showed a reverence for traditional Irish music. The fiddle was his chosen instrument and he relished the opportunities to go to the local, regional and provincial flea Hanna, where he made the acquaintance of many older Irish music legends who encouraged his playing and dedication.
Connolly would go onto to win 10 All-Ireland fiddle championships at Fleadh Ceol na Eireann -- the most ever by one person -- and also the Fiddler of Dooley competition held in Sligo.
His powerful playing was recognized all over Ireland; even the North Clare-based Kilfenora Ceili Band under the guiding hand of Kitty Linnane reached across the county for their East Clare neighbor as he played with that ensemble for 16 years.
But Connolly was still partial to the East Clare stalwarts like Paddy Canny, Martin Richford and P. Joe Hayes (of Tulla Ceili Band fame), the latter who would give his seat at the front to the young Connolly to signal both respect and encouragement for the musician who would bring more future fame to that part of Clare.
Connolly got his first taste of America in 1972 when he was part of the very first Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann Concert tour of North America that would feature many of the best traditional musicians in Ireland for a number of years before there was a commercial market for it. The sights and sounds of America excited him like many an Irish Immigrant looking for more opportunity, and over he came for good in 1976.
The Boston Comhaltas club formed in 1975 was on the lookout for a music teacher to help develop their branch and help shape the traditional Irish music scene. The chairman, the late Larry Reynolds from Ahascragh, Co. Galway, aggressively recruited him for Beantown.
Reynolds and Connolly became a formidable duo for CCE as they built a vibrant branch into one of the largest in the cultural movement with their mix of Irish music and social dancing, and a weekly radio show featuring more and more traditional music of a high caliber being recorded and released for a growing audience.
Connolly’s precise and emotional fiddle playing garnered wider attention beyond New England as he was invited to many Irish music festivals around the country, establishing a well-earned reputation as one of Ireland’s finest fiddlers and exports to America.
And the D.C. community through folklorist Joe Wilson of the National Council for the Traditional Arts also recognized the tradition bearing impact of Connolly’s stylish approach to Irish music as performance art, and he made three tours of the Masters of Folk Violin and numerous appearances at their National Folk festivals.
If Connolly was recognized as one of the foremost performers of Irish traditional music in the U.S., his prowess as a teacher and transmitter of his native culture is perhaps one of his more important legacies for Irish music in America.
His personal training of talented American fiddlers like Laurel Martin (now an East Clare fiddle devotee like Connolly), Sheila Falls Keohane (Childsplay), Grainne Murphy (Cherish the Ladies) and Brendan Bulger, who won an All-Ireland championship under Connolly’s tutelage among others, would be significant all on its own, but his educational achievements would not stop there.