The news of the sudden and unexpected passing of Seán Keane in his Rathcoole home in Dublin on May 7 reverberated rapidly around the traditional music realm as yet another great loss in a seemingly too frequent trend of such departures of the best and brightest influences.
Only 76 years old and with a 60-year span of professional work at the highest standard behind him, Sean Keane still showed great command and skill that had been his reputation since his earliest days, even if it meant only playing out with longtime friends and collaborators when it suited him.
Though he was still associated as an original cast member of the world-renowned Irish trad ensemble the Chieftains, for 55 years, he comfortably walked away from regular extended touring duty some years ago, tired of the rigors of such travel. He would still line up on special occasions like the recent Chieftains’ performance for President Biden in Ballina, Co. Mayo, a request that the very Irish American president wished fulfilled when pandemic travel restrictions denied the Chieftains the opportunity to play at his inauguration in January of 2021.
While Keane’s stature with the Chieftains stood tall as he did on stage all those years playing on the world’s greatest venues alongside the diminutive powerhouse leader of the band, Paddy Moloney, it didn’t define who he was or his standing in the wider trad scene.
No fear of that because Keane’s march through the wellspring of tradition was forged through the most fortunate of circumstances from his earliest years thanks to his parents Patrick and Molly Keane. Reared in a Dublin home in Drimnagh with his brother James, the parents were both fiddlers with Patrick from Clare and Molly from Longford who not only revered the music but fostered it in the home place as a veritable teach ceoil, welcoming many of the musicians who shared that respect for Ireland’s native music.
It dovetailed with a revival of interest in traditional music spurred on in part by Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann in the 1950s and the Pipers’ Club in Dublin. The Keane brothers' early education and grounding in the pure drop was enhanced by summer holidays gallivanting around Ireland for fleadhanna ceoil or “home” to Longford or Clare for regular doses alongside the best of sources.
The impact on the two brothers Sean and James was seismic as their respective skills on the fiddle and button accordion flourished alongside the massive mentoring among the giants of the traditional world. Linking up with another mad for the music Dubliner Mick O’Connor, a flute player, the teenagers set their own pace and reputation alight, successfully competing in fleadhanna which eventually led to an All-Ireland Senior Ceili Band Championship with the Castle Ceili Band.
Sean Keane was recruited to join Sean Ó Riada’s seminal Ceoltóirí Chualann which inspired Laois man Paddy Moloney to form the Chieftains as the pre-eminent trad music ensemble.
This article was originally published in Ireland of the Welcomes magazine. Subscribe now!
Meanwhile, James was readying his eventual departure for America playing with Paul Brady, Mick Moloney, and Drimnagh neighbor Michael “Jesse” Owens around Dublin. Sean’s success with the Chieftains and his steady fiddle playing and tasty collaboration with others brought in over the years helped the group garner six Grammy nominations along with their worldwide acclaim.
Keane’s own standing as one of Ireland’s most significant musicians developed on its own with his solo recording, "Gusty Frolics", in 1975 still the gold standard among traditional music recordings beyond just his fiddle-playing brethren.
Similarly, his further collaboration with fellow Chieftain Matt Molloy resulted in another classic recording, "Contentment Is Wealth", which is still recognized as one of the finest traditional music albums ever.
In January, I attended a concert at the Pepper Canister Church as part of the Temple Bar TradFest where Keane and Molloy gave ample evidence of their still formidable mutual dominance and grá for their native music.
Beyond his notoriety with the Chieftains, Keane never lost touch with the grassroots of the music he was weaned on by the parents and the host of musicians he played with over the years as he not only respected the Living Tradition as it was passed on but also was the embodiment of it.
His Clare roots through his father Patrick from Ballynacally and own connections with the iconic piper Willie Clancy ensured that the annual Willie Clancy Summer School in his memory would be an annual foray deep into the heart of the tradition. How fortunate that at last year’s 50th anniversary year of the festival, the ITMA produced and presented a marvelous documentary in his honor entitled A Portrait of the Artist: Sean Keane, which can be viewed on YouTube under that title. No doubt he will be well missed this year not only by his brother James but the entire community who took pride in his musicianship and legacy.
Keane will be buried this week with his wife, Marie, who pre-deceased him in 2020 alongside his parents, Molly and Patrick, in their family plot in Saggart, but his rich legacy will live on for generations to come.
*This column first appeared in the May 17 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.