A Munster folktale relates how the young Cearúil Ó Dálaigh noticed that smoke arose from a clump of vegetation when it was poked at by a speckled cow in the herd he was minding. Describing this strange happening to his master the youth was ordered to bring the first milk from that cow to him the next morning so that he might drink it. Cearúil however tasted it in the field and thus became magically possessed of many gifts. He it was who made the first set of pipes ever played in Ireland, likewise the first violin, and he successfully met a challenge to make a cat with two tails. Had Seamus Ennis lived in those far off days there is little doubt he would have been the subject of such a story, invented to account for his many accomplishments, for Seamus Ennis was naturally gifted as a musician and singer, storyteller and versifier and much else besides. Nor can there be any doubt had he lived in those credulous times he would have delighted and gloried in the telling of his own story.

Seamus Ennis will be best known to most readers of Dal gCais as a piper but he could also play on the warpipes, the fiddle, the flute and of course on the tin whistle. Had he directed the attention to those instruments that he did to the pipes there is little doubt he would have become pre-eminent among performers on those instruments. Before describing his qualities as a piper and assessing his contribution to the music, it might be more convenient to treat other aspects of his musical life in which he gained distinction. Circles outside this country interested in folk music would recall his work with the B.B.C. and especially his association with that station’s programme As I Roved Out. His contribution to the Folk Songs of Britain recordings, first published in the United States and later re-issued in Britain by Topic Records added to his reputation as an expert in these fields. When only in his early twenties and before becoming involved in these activities he had compiled for the Folklore Commission the largest ever first hand collection of folk songs in Irish. We are indebted to Colm Ó Lochainn, editor of Irish Street Ballads and More Irish Street Ballads and proprietor of the famed Three Candles Press in Fleet Street, Dublin, for setting his steps in that direction.

When Seamus had finished his secondary schooling at Coláiste Mhuire, the all-Irish school run by the Irish Christian Brothers in Dublin (he had put in a short spell at the Jesuit Belvedere College where the pupils were expected to endure rugby football on the school half-day) he spent a year at a commercial college. He then started on his first job at the Three Candles Press. Ó Lochlainn was a family friend and a regular weekly visitor to the home at Jamestown, Finglas, where he came ostensibly to receive lessons on the pipes from the older Ennis, who in exchange practised his Irish on Ó Lochlainn. Ó Lochlainn, never a serious piping pupil, was deeply interested in song collecting in all its aspects. With Finán Mac Coluim, a man of similar tastes, he organised a weekly singing session of Irish songs, An Claisceadal, and preparing and putting a collection of the group’s songs through the press was Seamus’s first duty at the Three Candles. In this practical fashion he acquired, under Ó Lochlainn’s guidance, a theoretical knowledge of the music and developed his skills as a music notator.

When supplies of raw materials were drying up during the war and staff were being laid off Séamus decided to take himself off to London to join the British Air Force. Ó Lochlainn was horrified when Séamus told him of his decision and bestirred himself immediately to find a place for him at home. Within a few days an appointment had been arranged with Professor Delargy of the Irish Folklore Commission. Séamus was put through his paces by some of the music staff from the nearby University College and (they being satisfied with his skills) he was engaged on a temporary basis as a collector of traditional songs in Irish. Incidentally casualties among the trainees in the British Air Force at the time exceeded 6,000 men.

The collector of traditional songs and music

In 1942 when he was twenty-three years of age Ennis began working for the Commission, at first in Cois Fharraige and the Aran Islands and then further west in Connemara. He had no formal training in music but to the practical knowledge gained during his apprenticeship in the Three Candles he added an amazingly sure ear, a prodigious memory, and an ability to reproduce what he heard even to the last defect or blemish. He was, moreover, at ease in all dialects of Irish. He was qualified for the task he set out to perform as few before him were in the field of song collecting.
He had no mechanical recording equipment; with pen and music sheets and whistle in pocket he sallied forth on bicycle collecting songs and dance tunes. He quickly overcame the reticence of old singers and musicians and when he repeated on the whistle a song air or dance tune he had just jotted down from them they could scarcely believe that he had not already known the piece. Colm Ó Caoidheáin from Glinnsc in Connemara, his most prolific informant, confessed to Séamus that he had picked out his hardest songs on the first day they met in order to frighten Séamus away but he found it unavailing. In all Séamus wrote down 212 pieces from Colm. A piper friend realising the wealth of material Séamus was meeting advised him not to forget making a copy for himself. Séamus in a grave tone explained that since he was being paid to collect the material it would be wrong to do that but he added with a smile it would in any event be unnecessary since he could keep in his head anything he had written down.

One of the tunes offered by Colm on that first meeting was an old slip jig with the obscure title, “Tipsy Miller” (Colm had no English and Séamus afterwards surmised that the correct title was “The Dusty Miller”). It was a tune, Colm said, called for by Cearúil Ó Dálaigh but which the piper did not know. “Well, if you please, let me play it on your pipes” and Cearúil played it and danced it with Eileanóir na Rún, his lady love, at the same time. The “Tipsy Miller” through that encounter, now enjoys an international vogue among pipers.
Later Séamus collected extensively in the Donegal Gaeltacht, in West Cork and Kerry. He worked too for the Commission in the Western Isles in Scotland where his linguistic gifts stood him in good stead.

Collecting for Radio Éireann and the B.B.C.

When Séamus left the Commission in 1947 to join the staff or Radio Éireann he had notated over 2,000 pieces, song airs with texts and dance tunes, an achievement which in magnitude alone far surpassed the labours of any of his predecessors in this field and in quality equalled only by Liam de Noraidh who had preceded him in the Folklore Commission. With the declining fortunes of the Irish language it is certain that his work will never be equalled. The material was not exhausted when after five years he left to join Radio Éireann. An immense potential was left unrealised. Forty years after it had been set down from its final custodians this veritable treasury of Irish folk song lacks even an index. And in the meantime what a wilderness of reprints, reheats and translations we could have been spared for even a fragment of this collection.

Séamus continued with his outdoor collecting in Radio Éireann. He used relate with amusement how he journeyed up from Galway to Dublin to take up his new appointment only to be directed to take up duty in Galway. In Radio Éireann the material being collected was intended for broadcasting and this led to a greater emphasis on instrumental than on vocal music. Séamus was already on intimate terms with the great musicians of the countryside, Pádraig O’Keeffe and his pupils Denis and Julia Murphy of Sliabh Luachra, Co. Kerry, Willie Clancy of Clare, Frank Cassidy, the O’Doherty’s and the O’Beirnes from Donegal. In his meetings with these and other local players he gained an immense amount of lore about local personalities and tunes.

“Seán sa Cheo”, popularised by Frank O’Higgins, was obtained from Neilly Boyle, Donegal fiddle player, while on a visit to Dublin and was notated on the same occasion by the elder Ennis. “Atlantic Sands”, a hornpipe played with a slow irregular rhythm derives from Frank Cassidy, fiddle player from Teelin in South West Donegal, who was notoriously difficult to get to play. When collecting from Pádraig O’Keeffe, Seamus used meet him by appointment in Lyon’s public house, in Scartaglen. On one occasion when the ritual chat had been observed and Pádraig ready for his third pint he pulled out a sheaf of music piper containing a selection of music he had written the previous night. Séamus thanked him but told him he should not have gone to the bother since he himself was paid to do it. “Th’anam ’un deaibhail”, says Pádraig, “isn’t it better than wasting good drinking time while you’re writing them and ‘Scart’ is open”. One may add in respect of these two masters that when God made them he had matched them.

Séamus left Radio Éireann in 1951 to join the B.B.C., where as already mentioned he was associated with As I Roved Out, a programme which attracted immense audiences. He was seven years there when he became redundant on a staff reorganisation. Thereafter he had to rely solely on this music for a livelihood.Other activities may be mentioned briefly here. In 1958 he was engaged by the Clare County Board of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann to write a tutor for the pipes but the funds allocated by the Board were exhausted long before the project was completed. He reproduced in English in singable verses many of the well known Irish love songs. These were prepared as if for publication but what happened this work is unknown to the writer. He had selected and arranged for the violin a collection of slow airs which Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann had undertaken to publish but here again it proved impossible to bring the work to publication. Short dramatic essays in fantasy and verse after the fashion of Burns were other pursuits that occupied his attention at one time or another.

A piper of restraint and elegance

Séamus Ennis is best remembered as a piper. Some pipers prominent over the past forty years are praised for particular technique, for their mastery of the regulators, for the appeal their music has for the heart. Ennis yields to none in those qualities and for taste and technique he was unsurpassed. These two qualities resulted from the discipline imposed on his natural flair, for in piping Ennis did receive formal teaching from his own father, James or Jimmy Ennis. He was thirteen years old when he strapped on a set of pipes to receive his first lesson. He was of course imbibing the music from infancy and would have it that he owed much to his mother, a Monaghan woman who played the fiddle, and that a large part of his repertoire derived from the first Ennis, a grandfather, who had come over from Scotland and settled in the north county Dublin. Here Séamus displays a touch of the whimsicality which was a part of his nature.
Francis O’Neill in his characteristic florid style writes as follows about Séamus Mac Aonghusa – otherwise James Ennis – of the Dublin Piper’s Club who was awarded second prize for piping at the Oireachtas of 1912:

Accompanied by Mrs Kenny – “Queen of Irish Fiddlers” – this talented young man’s playing proved how well the Union pipes and fiddle play in union. As Union piper, Warpiper, and dancer, this native of the parish of Naul in his round of triumph exemplified the possibilities of intelligent effort sustained by
national sentiment.

The Dublin Warpipers’ Band of which he was leader had taken first prize in the band competition while he had won first prize in the solo playing and also the Bigger prize for the best all-round warpiper. The tutor of the Dublin Piper’s Club was Nicholas Markey, a Meathman, who had been a pupil of Billy Taylor of Drogheda and later of Philadelphia, and between Markey’s tuition, his friendship with Pat Ward, and his own study of the old professional pipers whom the Club used help attend the Oireachtas and Feis Ceoil, Jimmy Ennis acquired a repertoire of pipe music in settings unimpaired by being found in print. Séamus was heir to a rich heritage of music through his father which his quick ear and retentive memory augmented afterwards when he met the musicians of Ireland in the course of his official travels.

Ennis’s style of piping is best described as non-legato. While not open as a flute or whistle player’s is, his playing was not cluttered by an excess of close-fingering. His music had a firm forward thrust upon which melodic and rhythmical balances and contrasts were clearly imposed. The forms of ornamentation which he used had been developed for the chanter and he eschewed the gimmickry which seems to hold a fascination for some of the younger pipers. “My father would not have done that” was his comment on hearing a piper thumbing some of it at a summer school. Liam Ó Floinn summed up this aspect of his music: “His taste was impeccable. He never aimed to impress by showing off, restraint and elegance were the hallmark of his piping”.
Séamus was present at that memorable meeting of pipers at Bettystown in 1968 from which Na Píobairí Uilleann sprung. In fact it was he who proposed the name for the new society. With Leo Rowsome he was acclaimed patron of the society and he responded most generously to this recognition. An annual tionóil, having made a dramatic entry, he would play for hours on end. Waiting till recorders were rolling he would invite requests for particular tunes, and explain and demonstrate some intricate piece of fingering or technique. Séamus had no trade secrets or any reserved list of tunes to be guarded jealously against acquisition by others. He was totally untraditional in this aspect of his piping: his willingness ever to impart his knowledge and skills to aspiring pipers. While he never conducted a class in piping or gave systematic coaching to any pupil, in the excellence of his playing, in style and technique, he set a headline for the younger pipers and in that way may be justly credited for the very high standards many of these players have reached.

While his labours as a folk song collector must earn for Séamus Ennis a place of honour in the history of the music, it is in the transmission and strengthening of the living tradition of the music that he made his most important contribution to the cultural life of his country. He once described how his father declared he would play no more and then formally handed over his pipes to Séamus to continue the tradition. This set of Coyne pipes made in Dublin over 140 years ago has been in turn bequeathed by Séamus to his friend and fellow piper, Liam Ó Floinn, thus testifying in a solemn manner Séamus’s own concern for that tradition.

Breandán Breathnach (Dal gCais Vol 7 1984