Seán McAloon (1923-1998) became interested in Irish traditional music at an early age in his home place of Altawalk near Roslea in Co. Fermanagh. Indeed, music was to become his abiding passion throughout his life. Seán is best remembered as a piper but he was at least as keen on the fiddle as he was on the pipes and it is a tribute to his musicianship that he managed to play both instruments with equal aptitude for the duration of his musical career. He took up the fiddle in 1937, a year or two before he left school, and was self-taught, although he used to occasionally visit Owen Connolly, an elderly fiddle player who lived a mile or two across the border in Co. Monaghan. Like many another of his generation, Seán became enchanted with the recordings of the great Sligo fiddle player, Michael Coleman. He listened to these recordings all his life and, for Seán, Coleman was the musical genius par excellence. He collected every record Coleman made, studied them all in fine detail and modeled his own style of fiddle playing exclusively on that of Coleman. Such was his determination to learn a particular set of tunes from one of Coleman’s records that he spent a whole evening turning the turntable of a gramaphone with his finger as the spring had gone. I remember him telling me that he made a visit to Coleman’s home place in Knockgrania in 1946, approximately a year after Coleman’s death. He met with one of Coleman’s sisters on the same trip and he also met P. J. McDermott of Bunanadden, Co Sligo, who is commemorated in Coleman’s 1922 recording of McDermott’s Hornpipe.
The first piper Seán heard playing live was Tommy O’Rourke from Lisnaskea, Co. Fermanagh. He was a member of a céilí band called The King’s Band which used to play in a hall close to where Seán lived. It was after hearing another Fermanagh piper play in the early 1940s, Phil Martin from Ballagh near Kilturk, that Seán decided to learn to play the uilleann pipes. He was about eighteen years old at this time. Phil Martin was well known throughout the country, he regularly broadcast from Radio Éireann and he made a 78 rpm on the Regal Zonophone label in the 1930s. He also played a Stroh fiddle. Seán had heard Martin play on the radio and at concerts and dances although he did not get a chance to meet him personally. Eventually, James Doherty, a friend of Seán’s who played the fiddle, cycled one evening with him the twelve miles to Martin’s house. They were well received and Seán was greatly impressed with Martin’s piping. Seán recalled that Phil used to keep the pipes on a table as you entered the living room of the house. On another visit Martin gave Seán the address of the pipe-maker Tadhg Crowley in Cork from whom Seán acquired his practice set. When the pipes arrived he was immediately hooked, despite his frustration at the inadequacies of the particular chanter he got from Crowley. Seán duly learnt some tunes on the practice set and returned to visit Phil Martin again in the hope that he might be able to correct a fault with the reed. Shortly after he arrived, Phil’s brother Paddy handed Phil’s McCrone set, pitched in C, to Seán, and asked him to play them. It was a great experience for the young McAloon and one he often spoke about in later years. Unfortunately, Phil Martin died shortly after this visit and Seán was left without a teacher.
Nevertheless, Seán persevered on his own and made steady progress on the chanter. He listened regularly to the broadcasts of Leo Rowsome’s piping quartet on the radio and became spellbound by Leo’s bright and attractive style of playing. He also bought as many of Leo’s recordings as he could lay his hands on and he set about learning all that he could from them, just as he did with the recordings of Michael Coleman. Seán first met Leo in 1944 through the auspices of a Fermanagh man living in Dublin by the name of McManus who ran a public house on the quays. He knew Leo well and invited Seán to come to his home to meet Leo. Not surprisingly, Seán accepted the invitation and traveled to Dublin with a friend of his by the name of Murphy who played the fiddle and was a relative of Mr McManus. Leo played for about an hour or so and when he was invited to take a break for supper, he asked Seán to play his pipes. Needless to say, Seán was thrilled. Leo and Seán became firm friends, Seán bought a number of chanters and sets from him and he used to talk about how much he looked forward to getting a new reed from Leo through the post. Over the coming years, Seán was a frequent visitor to Leo’s house in Belton Park in Donnycarney. I understand that not many visitors to Leo’s house made it as far as the workshop, but Seán was among the chosen few. If I remember correctly, he was only in it once but he always spoke of this particular experience with awe, such was his admiration for Leo. Indeed, it appears that Leo held Seán in the same high regard and that he used to often speak of him in glowing terms.
In the 1940s and 50s Seán was in demand to play in house dances and concerts in his own area, often travelling many miles by bicycle as was the norm at the time. He particularly enjoyed playing in Clones, Co. Monaghan where there was great appreciation for traditional music in those days. He was a good friend of the Co. Dublin piper Jack Wade, a customs officer who was based in Clones from the early 1940s. In 1964 Seán moved to New York and stayed in lodgings in Brooklyn. He worked for American Machines, as did another Fermanagh piper, Tom Busby, and they met up on numerous occasions. Other musicians he got to know and played with during his year there were the great Co. Roscommon fiddle player Larry Redican, Louis Quinn from Co. Armagh, and Paddy Reynolds. Seán was also in contact with his old friend Mattie Connolly, from Scotstown, Co. Monaghan whom Seán had started on the pipes some years previously. One of the New York-based musicians Seán most admired, both as a person and as a player, was the legendary Sligo fiddle player Paddy Killoran. Seán had always held his recordings in high regard and he used to enjoy listening to his reminisces about Michael Coleman.
Following his time in New York Seán spent a year in Dublin where he worked in the building industry. He already knew the traditional music scene in Dublin as he was a frequent visitor there since the early 1940s. He regularly attended The Pipers’ Club in Thomas Street and he particularly enjoyed visiting John Kelly in his shop in Capel Street. It was there that he met Willie Clancy for the first time. John Kelly thought highly of Seán as a musician and they had a common interest in Coleman’s music. In September 1965 Seán moved to Belfast, living for a year with his sister before buying a house in St James’ Road. He played a lot of music at this stage at sessions and concerts and was a member of the Northern Province Céilí Band. One of his best friends in the city was Jack O’Rourke, a piper from Co. Leitrim who lived in Broadway. Seán did little playing in public after 1970, preferring to direct his energy to pipe-making and he approached this aspect of piping with the same dedication and commitment he displayed in his music making. He made a number of sets, mostly concert pitch, but he did make a small number of chanters and drones in C. He made wonderful reeds which were full of tone and richness. I was interested to learn that he learnt the basics of the art while he was living in Fermanagh from instructions he received through the post from a pipe-maker called Patsy Browne who lived in Boston. Seán’s friend Louis Quinn, who was living in the States, had asked Browne to send Seán the information.
Seán’s house in 95 St James’ Rd was a meeting-place, not only for pipers from Belfast and the surrounding area, but also for pipers from further afield who were passing through. It was always a pleasure to spend time in his company and he was very encouraging to younger players. Seán was totally selfless in sharing his time and his gifts with others. In his own quiet way he inspired and encouraged a generation of pipers in Belfast in the 1970s and 1980s through his great experience as a gifted musician and by his skill at maintaining, making and tuning pipes. His knowledge and appreciation of piping and fiddle playing was comprehensive and fastidious, and his instinct for a good tune was second to none. My father and I used to visit Seán at least once a week and I seldom left his home without having learnt something new about traditional music. It was an honour to have had him as a friend and a privilege to have benefited from his informed and astute insight into the world of Irish traditional music.
Robbie Hannan (From the sleevenotes to NPU CD 013 – Sean McAloon, Stór Píobaireachta 1)