Considering the family surroundings in which he grew up it was inevitable that traditional music should have become an important and enduring part of Seán Potts’ life. He was born in the Liberties of Dublin, not far from the family of Breandán Breathnach with whom he was to form a close friendship.
His grandfather was John Potts from Kiltra in the south of the county Wexford, who had come to Dublin around 1891 to take up a job with Guinness’s. He had played the flute in Wexford but took to the pipes when he lived in Dublin, taking lessons from the Dublin Pipers’ Club tutor Nicholas Markey, who had learned from the Taylors in Drogheda. John Potts lived at different times in The Coombe and the nearby Ardee Street, and his home became a place of resort for musicians visiting Dublin. There was a regular musical session on Friday nights, and Seán recalls encountering there people like Andy Conroy, Brother Gildas, John Kelly, Sonny Brogan, Tommy Reck and Breandán Breathnach, the latter two being pupils of his grandfather.
When he was around seven years of age Seán’s musical life started when his grandmother gave him a present of a practice set of pipes. Around the same time he got a tin whistle in his Christmas stocking. His father John, who was a box player, gave him his first music lessons. His family was at that time unusual for its interest in traditional music, and Seán did not have any friends of his own age that were interested in music. Perhaps because of this, the whistle being a more discreet instrument, it received more of his attention. Although he also devoted some attention to the pipes, the difficulty, then as now, of getting a reliable reed for his chanter worked against his becoming as proficient on the pipes as he became on the whistle.
During his twenties he took to the flute and developed a close relationship with Vincent Broderick, from whom he learned many tunes. He also he met and became fascinated by the playing of the young Paddy Moloney, and started to play regularly with him. Around this time Seán’s own family home in Drimnagh was also a venue for traditional music, with Willie Clancy, Tommy Reck, Bobby Casey and others calling on Sundays to play music together.
After the war Seán became a regular attender at the Pipers’ Club in Thomas Street and the Fiddlers’ Club in Church Street with John Egan. He became a member of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann upon its foundation in the 1950s and adjudicated at their fleadhanna cheoil. He played for a time with the Kincora Céilí Band at the time that Dublin piper Sean Seery was with them.
He started playing seriously with Paddy Moloney after the 1959 Fleadh Cheoil in co. Clare. Paddy was headed for Conamara after the Fleadh, so Seán returned to Dublin, borrowed a motorbike from his girlfriend Bernie’s brother and he and Bernie joined Paddy in Spiddal for a fortnight’s music. There he met such performers as Charlie Tindall, Paddy Bán Ó Broin and Feistí Conlon. Seán married Bernie in 1960, and they had four children – Cora, Seán (who has become an accomplished piper), Sorcha and Ultan.
This period saw the outbreak of the ‘ballad boom’, where the success of the Clancy Brothers in the USA led to their popularity in Ireland, and the consequent resurgence of interest here in ‘ballads’ or folk songs. An idea was floated of getting together a group which would include Seán, Paddy Moloney and a talented young banjo player named Barney McKenna. As things turned out McKenna became a member of the song-oriented Dubliners group and Paddy and Seán were recruited by Seán Ó Riada into his innovative traditional music group Ceoltóirí Chualann. This group was responsible for making traditional music accessible to a wide range of Irish people who had never bothered with it before, or, perhaps, had never even heard it before. They made several ground-breaking recordings, and performed in the historic concert at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre – “Ó Riada sa Gaiety – an event which is credited with finally making traditional music palatable to Ireland’s elite.
During the 1960s Seán was also performing with the Gael Linn Cabaret in various venues in Dublin, such as the Chariot in Ranelagh, Raheny’s Old Sheiling and the Grafton Cinema, the venue for the famous late-night concerts. On these occasions he played in such company as Martin Fay, Breandán Ó Dúill and Paddy Moloney.
With Ó Riada’s move to West Cork in 1963 Ceoltóirí Chualann folded and Paddy Moloney started up a new, and equally influential group, The Chieftains, with a membership based on that of Ó Riada’s group.
Seán’s fulltime job was with the Department of Posts & Telegraphs, and around this time he was made inspector of motor transport (he was a qualified motor mechanic), and official duties required him to tour the country, providing him with additional opportunities to meet musicians in all parts, and also to indulge his other passion of fly-fishing.
In 1970 he joined Na Píobairí Uilleann and met with an open welcome from Breandán Breathnach. Somewhat uneasy about the level of proficiency he had reached as a piper, he was reassured by Breandán that his efforts to play and love of the pipes were what mattered, and were sufficient for membership of a pipers association.
He took leave of absence from work in 1973 to play full time with The Chieftains, who by this time were touring and playing almost constantly. During his time with them he recorded on eight records, and also made the great “Tin Whistles” album with Paddy Moloney. He resigned from the group in 1979, not willing to accept the increasing absences from home.
Freed of the commitments to The Chieftains, he devoted his spare time to work in the field of traditional music, teaching classes in Dublin and at the Willie Clancy Summer School. He was also elected to the Board of Na Píobairí Uilleann and undertook several fund-raising tours for NPU in the United States. The group that he assembled for these tours became known as Bakerswell and recorded a fine album in 1987, recently re-released on CD.
He finally retired from the ‘P & T’ in 1985 but continued to devote an enormous amount to Na Píobairí Uilleann, serving first as Honorary Secretary, and then, for fourteen years from 1988, as Chairman. On his retiring from that position in 2002 NPU took the unprecedented step of making him Honorary President in recognition of his record of service and of his continued commitment to the promotion of the pipes.
Terry Moylan & Seán Óg Potts