Sunday 18 August 2019

A maverick genius with a whiff of sulphur, master piper Ennis was truly inspirational

'An amazing presence': Seamus Ennis, born 100 years ago tomorrow, died aged just 63
'An amazing presence': Seamus Ennis, born 100 years ago tomorrow, died aged just 63

Dermot Bolger

A London pawnbroker in 1908 didn't know what to make of a curious musical instrument displayed in fragments in his shop window.

But James Ennis - a traditional musician from Finglas in Dublin - recognised them as a set of uilleann pipes, skilfully crafted a century before.

James Ennis restored the pipes and brought them back to Jamestown House in Finglas.

One hundred years ago, on May 5, 1919, his son Seamus was born into that house where music was constantly played.

Seamus's mother remembered Finglas as "a place of large farms and widely spaced houses. We had no other transport but the pony and trap for Mass."

Seamus Ennis grew up to become one of Ireland's most iconic musicians who did so much to collect a vanishing legacy of tunes, first for the Irish Folklore Commission and then the BBC.

He inherited his father's pipes and - after playing them until his death in 1982 - passed them on to Liam Óg Ó Flynn, another maestro no longer with us.

Although only 63 when he died, he looked far older and indeed, at times, already seemed like a ghost from another era: a maverick who never suffered fools gladly.

Paddy Glackin remembers how "when Seamus Ennis entered a room, the room stopped. He had an amazing presence. You knew you were in the presence of someone from another world."

Ennis started out as an energetic young man criss-crossing Ireland by bicycle to record forgotten musicians.

While working for the BBC in London he was well paid and led a conventional life with a wife and two children. Sadly, this fell apart.

For long spells, he had little interest in putting together a successful career because his only addresses were c/o certain pubs or friends who tried to provide some structure in his life.

Finbar Furey's mother spent months nursing him back to health and Liam Óg Ó Flynn cared for him in his flat after Ennis came out of hospital.

Ó Flynn remembered how "any time I took out the pipes… a door would open very quietly and this vision would appear in the form of Seamus. And he'd just sit and listen and offer advice."

In his final years, Ennis lived in a mobile home in the village of the Naul in north Dublin.

When a doctor friend nursed him back to health after a heavy drinking bout, Ennis complained: "It's not me you're trying to save, it's the tunes in my head."

While some purists rejected Planxty's innovative approach to Irish music, the band remember him as a wellspring of inspiration and encouragement.

In his final years, he was treated like royalty when he made public appearances - "a be-suited figure in a sea of hippies" - but increasingly he was so ill that fellow musicians would visit his caravan to talk and play until dawn.

But in 1980 he brought his pipes back to the city where his father once found them, to make his last UK appearance in the Royal Albert Hall.

Paddy Glackin remembers Ennis arriving in "an absolutely elegant coat with a white silk scarf. He went out on stage and stormed the place. He was on his own, the place was full to the rafters and they were standing for him."

Artists of my generation growing up in Finglas had few local figures to look to for inspiration. This has changed with bands such as Aslan and poets like Paula Meehan proud of their Finglas roots. We only had the inspiration of Ennis - a master uilleann piper with a whiff of sulphur.

We may have explored other genres, but his influence filtered into the consciousness.

One U2 band member recalls how "Brian Eno (our producer) was very quick to spot… when we run ourselves dry… during 'The Unforgettable Fire' sessions… and he would suggest that we take a walk or listen to some Seamus Ennis."

Ennis would not recognise Finglas today but I think he would like how a street has been named in his honour and how, in the coming days and weeks, his centenary will be celebrated with events in Finglas and in the Seamus Ennis Centre in the Naul that honours his musical legacy.

The cottage parlour there resembles the remote cottages where Ennis once recorded old musicians.

Before every event there, a lamp is lit in the window as dusk settles over the square outside where, beneath an old tree, a life-size sculpture of Ennis sits playing his pipes.

Tomorrow, May 5, many a toast will be raised in his honour in Finglas, in the Naul and across the globe, as music lovers play those tunes that he snatched before they disappeared from memory, and which this unique man uniquely made his own.

Happy birthday, Mr Ennis.

Dermot Bolger's latest novel is 'An Ark of Light' (New Island)

Irish Independent

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