The pattern was similar for the many people from all over the US and Ireland that had visited with Joe Shannon at his home over the years – a conversation first and then an invitation from Joe to hear you play. Any reluctance to play due to the visitor being a musician just starting out would soon dissipate when Joe would urge them on with “I’d like to hear you play because you might have a turn or a note or two that could catch my fancy”. After that, Joe would bring out his massive Taylor set of pipes and, when he started playing, the walls in the kitchen (his favorite room to play the pipes in) would reverberate with the sounds of a hundred years ago – maintaining a link to the music of Tom Ennis and James Morrison, Leo Rowsome, and Patsy Touhey. Finishing up with some tea and maybe a sandwich or biscuit, the visitor was sent off at the door, often late at night, with a bone-crushing handshake, and urged to call again to come over for another night. One could still hear the music from those pipes all the way home.
Sadly, Joe Shannon passed away at the age of 88 from skin cancer, on the 26th of December, 2004 in Batavia, IL (45 miles west of Chicago) at his daughter’s home surrounded by his family. Slowed down by a broken hip only 18 months before that (after which, Patty and Tim Finegan opened their home to Joe and took on his primary care), Joe never complained once about his health or his own situation and was ever optimistic for the day that he would be able to return to his own home.
Joe Shannon was born in the village of Treenabontry, near Kiltimaugh, Co Mayo on January 1, 1916. Joe grew up around music as his six brothers all played music.
Joe emigrated with his mother and brother Tony to join the other brothers already established in Chicago (one brother, Tom, had already died in Austin, Texas; his father, Patrick, had passed away shortly after Joe was born, returning to Ireland in 1915 after working in the copper mines of Butte, Montana) in 1930. In Ireland, Joe used to play a bit on the whistle. Joe’s mother, Ellen, remembers young Joe waking up in the middle of the night and then asking for his whistle because he ‘had a tune in his head’. After playing, he would go back to sleep and would awaken with no memory of all that occurring!
With help from his brother and at the urging of Eddie Mullaney, Joe started on the uilleann pipes with a practice set from Pat Hennelly. On his own, Joe figured out how to get to the second octave and, with his 78rpm machine, listened to and learned the music of Tom Ennis, Patsy Touhey, and Leo Rowsome (all deservedly favorites of Joe).
Joe played at the Irish Village in 1934 for the summer and was lucky to meet retired Chicago Police Chief, Captain Francis O’Neill (he was 87 at the time, passing away only 18 months after that in January, 1936) who came backstage and asked Joe to play some hornpipes for him. When Joe was through, O’Neill inscribed one of his books to Joe with “To Joe Shannon – The Youngest Left Handed Player Since Patsy Touhey”. The book was loaned out many years ago and, to Joe’s chagrin, never seen again.
Joe almost had a career in baseball but that was derailed by an injury to his throwing arm. From a 1940 Sheboygan, Wisconson newspaper, ‘During the 1938 season, Joe “Red” Shannon pitched for the (major league) White Sox batting practices during all of their home games, incidents which gave him his biggest thrill in baseball so far. The 1939 season saw him pitch (in the minors), winding up the season with a record of 11 victories out of 12 games, and included among his victories were a couple of on hit wins.’
Family responsibilities (Joe raised thirteen children) and the demands of his job (Joe was a Chicago fireman for 28 years, including 11 years driving an ambulance) reduced his playing opportunities. On occasion, Joe would play at the annual feis and various dances with his brother Pat and accordion player Joe Shanley. In the 1960s, box player Kevin Keegan asked Joe to play with him at a Comhaltas competition; they won. Clareman Paddy Looney would see Joe and tell him that Willie Clancy was asking for him in a letter (Paddy and his brother Tom helped Willie acquire two sets of pipes out of Chicago).
In the late 1960s, Eddie Mullaney presented Joe with the famous Taylor set of pipes that had been made for John Beatty at a cost of $500. The deluxe set of pipes, with its four-bore tenor and baritone regulators, was treasured by Eddie Mullaney and, in turn, by Joe. Joe never sought the limelight but would agree to a concert or an award in order to share those pipes (and his music) with the world. The presentation of the set reenergized Joe’s playing and his resolve in recreating the sound of Patsy Touhey.
Joe’s playing has been acknowledged over the years but none greater than being named a Patron of NPU, ‘an honor that I could never turn down’. Other highlights include his National Heritage Fellowship Award for master folk and traditional artists in 1983, a Heritage Award from the State of Illinois in 1989, invitations to perform and teach at the Willie Clancy Summer School in 1986 and 1988, Festival of American Folklife in Washington, D.C. in 1976, Cork Music Festival in 1991, National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap, Virginia in 1994, and the University of Chicago Folk Festival in 1985. Mick Moloney produced and recorded Joe Shannon and Johnny McGreevy, a lifelong friend, for the Green Linnet LP and cassette release THE NOONDAY FEAST.
Paddy Moloney invited Joe to join the Chieftains on stage and that led to over a half dozen appearances over the years. Liam O’Flynn also invited Joe to join him on the stage back in the early 1980s. Mick O’Brien organized some of his trips in order to spend some time over at Joe’s.
Pipemakers were very generous to Joe with their time and effort over the years. Joe was always grateful to Pat Hennelly, often arriving home after a late night visit (two buses and one streetcar) at 3am but delighted that his reeds were now working again. David Quinn, Michael MacHarg, and Alain Froment worked on his pipes and reeds, often accommodating a tight time scale to accomplish the work.
Many people of all musical backgrounds have been welcomed into Joe’s home over the years. In recent years, Sean Ryan, a student and protégé, organized some visits to Joe for some of the local musicians. Sean Folsom was the last out-of town musician to have that full visit with Joe.
More than one time, when one of his daughters would be coming home in the evening, they would be surprised to find their father quietly sitting in the living room. They would tell him that they swore that they could hear the pipes being played as they approached the house. Joe told them ‘that’s the way it is with pipers and that you’ll be hearing me playing the pipes even after I’m gone’. Definitely something to look forward to.
Jim McGuire, Chicago (An Píobaire 4.29)