There’s genuine sadness that we’ll never again hear a fresh round of tunes and songs delivered in Séamus Ó Beaglaoich’s inimitable style, but he leaves behind a musical legacy that will be listened back to many generations from now.
Séamus – a native of Baile na bPoc, in the heart of the Corca Dhuibhne Gaeltacht – died on Monday aged 73. He was an accordionist and singer of the highest calibre, and his fluency in both long marked him out as one of the mightiest figures in traditional music.
He was the fifth of nine Ó Beaglaoich children, and his formative, public musical days saw him play to dance halls shortly after hitting his teenage years.
Over a long career which ran from there to now, he collaborated with many stars: Mary Black, Sharon Shannon, Jim Murray, Steve Cooney among them, as well as his siblings, coming as he did from a family steeped in music and song, a tradition handed down to them by their parents.
It’s 50 years since he combined with sister Máire on ‘An Ciarraíoch Mallaithe’. They paired up again on ‘Planxtaí Bhaile na bPoc’ in 1989, and he worked on many more productions thereafter, including Ragairne with guitarist Jim Murray, named the best traditional album of 2001 by more than one publication.
His talent brought him to venues throughout Ireland and beyond, and he named playing at the Glastonbury Festival in 1989 with Steve Cooney among his career highlights. In 2013, he scooped the prestigious ‘Amhránaí na Bliana’ at Gradam Cheoil TG4.
He was also a highly regarded story-teller, as well as being a farmer, and he worked for a time as a silage contractor.
His brother, Breanndán, told The Kerryman that Séamus’s death has left the family “devastated” but he reflected on a musical legacy that stretches back decades.
“He would have played at céilís from maybe about age 12, but there was no starting point as such. He would have started playing at home, we [the family] all played. Our parents had a dance hall in Muiríoch and that would always have been a motivation for us.
“All he ever wanted to do was play music and drive tractors...he continued to play music right to the end. He would have joined a group called Téada about seven or eight years ago, and he featured quite recently in the programme ‘Sé Mo Laoch’ on TG4. I’m sure that will probably be shown again.”
Friend Máire ‘Danny’ Breathnach formerly managed a pub famed for its traditional music, Dingle’s An Droichead Beag, and she affords him enormous credit for the musical reputation the venue built.
“I didn’t have much of a love for traditional music until I got to know James and his music partner, Steve Cooney, they were dynamite, they’d rock the house,” she told The Kerryman. “He brought everyone from Dolores Keane, Mary Black, Sharon Shannon, the cream of musicians, the nights we used to have.
“I’d have known him from when I was a young girl growing up, he’d have been a dozen or so years older than me, and I can remember him at the céilís back in Muiríoch long ago and he blowing music out of a box, everything was lively, ‘just get the music going and get people out on the floor’.
“I grew up, got married, and we bought a pub in Dingle, ‘An Droichead Beag’, and James Begley was the first musician to play in that pub. The night we opened he was there, there was a big roaring fire, I’ll never forget it, and he nearly dropped with the heat and the crowd. From that point on, An Droichead Beag is what it is today from a traditional music point of view. I managed the Droichead, but he made it, because there wasn’t a musician that came to West Kerry that James didn’t bring to the door of the Droichead.
“All I’m doing all morning is listening to his music. He was a big, tall man, and then you’d hear him singing in the corner and you’d never think it was him. Sweet, like a blackbird. Pure magic.”
Máire also recalled his sharp wit, and an uncanny knack of getting away with even the most audacious pranks.
“He was a rógaire but you could never fall out with him. His character, he was capable of anything, oh Lord God Almighty. And got away with it – ‘it’s only James Begley, that’s all right’,” she said. “But he was a gentleman at the same time and didn’t like praise. He only looked at himself as a common accordion player.”
Steve Cooney has also looked back on the life of a man some would consider to be his musical soul mate, though Séamus’s generosity away from music also left a lasting impression.
“We played together from 1985 to ‘98, and our tenure together coincided with the boom in set dancing,” he told The Kerryman. “We had met before that and I’d played with his brother, Breanndán, but we played together continuously, releasing the record ‘Meitheal’ in that time…I left Kerry then and it was impractical to play together for about 15 years. We continued doing gigs but they were more intermittent.
“I saw him only a couple of weeks ago and played a half-dozen tunes together in An Droichead Beag, where it all kicked off for us, really. We had a few lovely tunes and a good, friendly goodbye.
“He was very generous. I was living in Dublin at the time and couldn’t make a living from music, doing one gig a week, and he gave me a site to put a caravan on top of a hill, or a clifftop even. He said he’d sell me the site for a shilling!”
He said performing with Ó Beaglaoich at Glastonbury stands out as one of two twin musical highlights.
“Hilariously we were introduced on stage as the Waterboys, who had us as special guests at the Pyramid Stage…we won a National Entertainment Award in 1997, which I’d also pick as a highlight,” he said.
“That was the biggest thing we did, to bring the music of West Kerry and Sliabh Luachra to a national audience.”
Musician Donal Lunny appeared on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland today to pay his respects to his good friend Seamus, saying that he was a “mighty figure”.
“Seamus was larger than life and I think everybody I know is devastated by his passing, in fact it leaves a huge void on the traditional scene, he occupied a great space,” he said.
“He was a beloved man, he was always up for the craic, as well as being a musician, a native speaker and being a beautiful singer as well as player, he was almost like a court jester, like a joker, he was full of fun and satire.
“He would subvert many a solemn occasion with some ridiculous joke which would bring the house down, he was a mighty figure.”
Speaking about his talent, Lunny explained how Seamus was a natural and that he was central to the heritage of Irish music.
“He was a natural entertainer, and there was no real difference between his daily life and being on a stage, he performed all the time but in the most natural way. He never missed a bit of craic and he was beloved for that,” he said.
“I remember the first time I heard the album he made with Steve Cooney called Meitheall, and hearing him sing in this beautiful angelic voice, a really beautiful voice Seamus had, and that was an amazing album that kind of, I think, put him on the scene in a more general way.
“With regard to the heritage, he was central to that as well, I think everyone is suddenly aware of how much space Seamus occupied in the soul of the country.”
Sharon Shannon described him as a second father to her and told how she absolutely adored him.
“I have known him since I was 17, when I ended up in the Gaeltacht when I was studying Irish in UCC,” she said.
“I somehow ended up at his house playing tunes and he was so welcoming, always so welcoming to young musicians, and encouraging. We have been friends ever since.
“My God I just can’t believe it, he was like a second father to me, I absolutely adored him, I idolised him.
She described his music as having an “amazing power”.
His music had amazing power, he could lift the roof off any house or pub session, and made just a dynamite atmosphere anywhere he went,” she said.
Then when he would sing, it was the most beautiful, effortless singing that was really calm, you would hear a pin drop in even the most noisy pubs when he would start singing.
“As well as all that, he was absolutely brilliant craic, really hilarious, incredibly quick witted, he would make you cry laughing, you would belly laugh for hours when you were in his company.
“The most enjoyable times in my life that I could think of was always in his company, he was funnier than any comedian.”
Séamus Ó Beaglaoich is survived by his wife, Mary; daughter, Méabh; sons, Eoin, Niall, and Breandán; siblings; extended family; neighbours; and many friends.