Séamus Connolly

2013 NEA National Heritage Fellow
Headshot of a man.

Photo by Lee Pellegrini, Boston College

Music Credits:

"I Remember Leo/Queen Of May/In Memory Of Leo Rowsome/The Colliers' Reel", "Face The Music/Fleadh At Tulla/Ballinakill Polka/I'm The Boy For Bewitching Them/Ciaran's Ceolta Tire" from the album Notes from My Mind performed by Seamus Connolly. Kincord Records. 2006

"Remembering Curly/ The Twins/ Mordaunt's Fantasy" from the album, The Boston Edge performed by Joe Derrane, Seamus Connolly, John McGann. Mapleshade  2004

"The Corner House". by Paddy Kelly, performed live by Seamus Connolly 2013.


Jo Reed:  That was 2013 National Heritage Fellow Seamus Connolly playing a reel composed by Paddy Kelly and this is Art Works, the weekly program produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed.

Seamus Connolly is a teacher, scholar, and, as you heard, a remarkable Irish fiddler.  By his mid-twenties, Connolly had won the Irish National Fiddle Championship ten times, a feat that's still unequalled. Since emigrating to the United States in the 1970's, Seamus has performed at numerous festivals throughout the country, including the National Folk Festival, Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and with three of the extraordinarily successful Masters of the Folk Violin tours organized by the National Council for the Traditional Arts. Connolly recordings including two solo CDs, Notes from my Mind and Here and There, as well as The Boston Edge with John McGann and 2004 NEA National Heritage Fellow Joe Derrane. Since 2004, Connolly has been the Sullivan Artist in Residence at Boston College's Center for Irish Programs where he had previously directed the  highly acclaimed Gaelic Roots Summer School and Festival. Not surprisingly he is the recipient of many awards--and now he's added a national heritage fellowship--a lifetime honor presented to master folk and traditional artists by the National Endowment for the Arts.

I traveled to Maine to visit with Seamus when he was awarded the heritage fellowship. I began by asking him to explain what makes Irish fiddling, Irish Fiddling?

Seamus Connolly: Well it's different from other traditions. Irish music can be very simple and beautiful and the simplicity is where the beauty is. But there are elements of the music that define some of the style as well, you know? You have ornaments, particular ornaments. You can do ornaments with the bow but there are finger ornaments as well such as-- and it would be the same kind of an ornament that would be in classical music, a roll- five finger, five-note roll. There are bow triplets which is done with the bow. The same note done three times but done in such a way that the bow doesn't move separately three times. You know it's done like clicking the bow to the string. Cross-bowing, crossing from the strings. There is an ornament called weaving bow <hums> which would be a whole series of notes done on one bow. So elements like that would define probably the musician like myself that I probably would do those because I was much attracted to them and the playing of some of the old masters that came to this country back at the turn of the last century. It's important to keep in mind that when you play this music that you don't overdo it, but you also maybe incorporate some of these elements.

Jo Reed: Well that seems like that would be a tension between for example in competition I would imagine that you would want to really show your stuff.

Seamus Connolly: Exactly, that you can do these things.

Jo Reed: Exactly.

Seamus Connolly: You can do these things, yeah. Competition never interested me.

Jo Reed: Even though you won so many.

Seamus Connolly: Yes, it never interested me.

Jo Reed: That's so interesting.

Seamus Connolly: Yeah. The reason that my mother used to take me to these competitions was I didn't have a teacher. I had nobody to teach me and at that time one was allowed to record the competitions and so with the advent of the reel-to-reel tape recorder, I brought that with me everywhere so that I could get to hear the great players and learn all the tunes and "songs" they call them in this country. But I could take those home and study them and then I was able to slow it down and I could hear what was going on. And I did the same thing with the old seventy-eight recordings. I would slow it down <slow hum> and try and tune the fiddle down to that and try and match that and emulate what was going on. So competition for me, it had its place because I got to go to these things and meet the great fiddle players that were in these competitions, but most of all I got to meet people like the judges and the old musicians from whom I learned most of my tunes. And I was young at the time in these competitions but I was always made to feel very welcome by the older people who would invite me to join them and sit with them and they allowed me to record what they were doing and I would watch them and then they would make tapes for me as well always very generous and very gracious. And I'll never forget that. And for me it's from whence the music came and where it came from that I tried to carry on that tradition. I think it's important. You know there is an old cliché and people say oh, it's a living tradition and it changes. And it does up to a point but it should change in such a way that we have respect for the music from whence it came.

Jo Reed: Yeah, that's another tension of wanting to honor the tradition.

Seamus Connolly: That's exactly right.

Jo Reed: And but at the same time not pickle it.

Seamus Connolly: Yes, exactly. And you know there were times in my career when, you know, I experimented with incorporating different styles into my playing and it was fun and I enjoyed it. I wasn't playing, if you like, within the box. But as I get older I am inclined to go back to the older tradition and I am very pleased with listening to some of the young musicians now playing and recording. We had a concert here a few weeks ago. Two young Irish musicians and it was some of the nicest music I've ever heard. They were technically great, played in a great style, but they honored, as you said the musicians from where they get the music from and it was just a joy to hear them. So I'm very hopeful that the tradition carries on in such a way. You know the music changes but it's important that we try and remember that we keep it as close as we can. Otherwise it just, the whole thing becomes distorted and it becomes homogenized if you like, you know. 

Jo Reed: It's so interesting that with traditional arts I'm finding and I wonder if you find this as well. I think maybe 35 years ago or so there was real danger of those traditions being lost.

Seamus Connolly: Yes.

Jo Reed: And there has been such a switch so that more and more younger people are more invested in it, really interested in learning it and audiences too, I think.

Seamus Connolly: Are you talking about Irish music?

Jo Reed: I'm talking about not just Irish music.

Seamus Connolly: Right, yeah.

Jo Reed: But old time music.

Seamus Connolly: Right.

Jo Reed: Just folk and traditional arts in general I think there is such an embrace of them and Irish music most certainly.

Seamus Connolly: Yeah. I would agree with that. Irish music when I was a kid growing up was at a very low ebb. It was almost gone. And when I played music I was sort of laughed at and frowned at and I would put my--

Jo Reed: By your peers?

Seamus Connolly: By my peers and the people in the town. Say "What's he doing this old diddley-diddley stuff for?" you know? And I used to put the fiddle inside my topcoat in my overcoat, you know, I'd be trying to practice and play at home and she'd say "Why don't you go over to Grannie's and play? She has a great big bedroom up there and it's empty," and I used to do that. But I would only do it at night. I didn't have a fiddle case. I had a brown paper bag. And so I didn't advertise that I was playing this music because I was laughed at. I wasn't out kicking football or playing hurling like the rest of the people that I went to school with. 


Seamus Connolly: But now looking back on it I can, you know, with my school mates sometimes I hear from them and they say "God I have wonderful memories of you. We'd stand outside the window listening to your practicing." But yet back then they were laughing at me and they say "I wish that I had done that," you know? You know after the war I was born in '44. People didn't have money to do much. They were trying to build their lives and the musicians that were playing it were immigrating to England and I remember families and men going off to work in England and they'd come back once a year at Christmas. And looking back at that that was kind of sad. So there was no money for music lessons, no money for concerts, no money for anything. So there was an organization that had great vision. Was a group of four or five musicians got together at a weekend in the middle of the country and decided we need to do something to preserve the music, the singing and the dancing and the language. So they formed an organization, gave it an Irish title, Comhaltas Ceoltórirí Éireann, which is the Association of Irish Traditional Musicians. That was in 1950,'51. 


Seamus Connolly: And then they decided to create an interest they would form these competitions.

Jo Reed: Ah.

Seamus Connolly: Yeah out of that then they had the national competitions which they called the All Ireland Championships and you'd compete in your own area and then try and get to the finals. There was no music being taught in the schools. I learned tin whistle from teacher Mrs. Lynch. That's as much as we ever got, a few marches or something. So they had the vision and the foresight to approach the government and this is only within the last 30 years, approach the government to look for funding where they could bring teachers into the technical schools at nighttime and then it went from there. It evolved into the national schools. Now they have classes in the national schools. So there are classes all over the place. So the kids today have that opportunity to learn whereas I didn't. I had to figure it all out on my own.

Jo Reed: Was your family musical?

Seamus Connolly: Yes they were, yeah. Both my parents played. My mother played. She used to scrape a few tunes on the fiddle but she played piano and played the accordion. My father played the flute and whistle and he was a sean nos style dancer. Different in that he made his own steps up. And I remember he danced on television one night and just amazing to see him and people were fascinated with his style of playing because they hadn't seen that before. Just tapped out his own dancing. He was a great dancer, you know? So we had music in our home pretty much all the nights of the winter anyway when our homework was done, another brother who played piano and a younger brother, he plays the accordion. He won the national championship a few times too on the accordion and now he makes accordions. Yeah, so we had music in our home all the time.

Jo Reed: Now how did you become a fiddle player? Why the fiddle?

Seamus Connolly: My uncle played the fiddle and in 1954 there was a big series of immigration again to America this time and my uncle left for America, he and his family for New York. And they had at that time what they called an American wake, a going away party. Strange kind of a title, an American wake. But it was the notion at the time that the people who left for America that they'd never been seen again. And it was almost like a death in the family. But my uncle went to America. He went back every year, back to Ireland. So they had this big party. There was all the local musicians were there and my uncle was playing the fiddle and then during the evening he put the fiddle on the chair and was down talking to people. I went up and sat in the chair and picked up the fiddle and pretended to play and in fact some people thought I was playing. That will tell you what they thought about music or know about music, you know. But I went home I said to my parents "I'd love to get a fiddle to try it out." So my father found me a fiddle, and somebody, somebody put strings on it and then they didn't know how to tune it up or anything so I tuned it up as what I thought it should be tuned. I tuned it in fourths, do, me, so, do. And that would be different from tuning in fifths. So I was playing away for about maybe six months and I'd play and getting all the sounds out of it the tune, but I didn't use my little finger. I'd slide my third finger up which was strange. So anyway I was playing for six months and the tunes were coming out and so my uncle was the local barber. And he was cutting a man's hair one day and he didn't know who the person was so my uncle asked him "Where do you live?" And he said "I just moved to the town." So they got talking. And he said "I play the fiddle." "Oh, my nephew plays the fiddle." And the guy said "I'd love to hear him." And he was from like a famous place in County Clare that was had a lot of music in it. So my uncle said "I'll bring him to meet you." So I went to meet him and I played for the man and he's looking at me fascinated and then he said "Well give me the fiddle." And he went to go play and he couldn't play. So he tuned it into I suppose you would call it international standard tuning. And then he played away. He was a great player. And then he gave it back to me and I couldn't play it anymore. So I went home. My mother was in bed. I went up to say goodnight to her. She says "How did you make out with the man?" I said "I was doing it wrong. I have to start all over again." She said "Don't listen to him." She says "You're doing fine." <laughs>

Jo Reed: There's a mother for you.

Seamus Connolly: Yeah, yeah. "Don't listen to him," she says, you know. 


Seamus Connolly: So I went on from there. Then I went on to compete. And like I said to you, competitions were great. Don't get me wrong. The reason I went was because I wanted to meet the other great musicians. I remember one of my rivals in the competitions was a great fiddle player who lives in London, Brendan Midlinche. And the year that Brendan Midlinche beat me in the competition was the year that I enjoyed most of all from all these competitions because I got to play in the street. I wasn't worried about the final being that night and all geared up for a final. So I was beaten in the morning so I was able to get a chance to play on the street, meet all those people and record them and everything. That was kind of that gave you some idea of what the competition is meant to be.

Jo Reed: Very much yeah.

Seamus Connolly: Yeah.

Jo Reed: And did you play out in sessions with other musicians a lot?

Jo Reed: I did, I did. We did that. Sessions weren't the thing. The only sessions that would be would be at the féile ceoil. Féile being festival, ceoil being music. So that was the only time that we would kind of get to play. Music was mostly in the homes at the time. It wasn't until the last 30 or 35 years that you had sessions in pubs and everything. I didn't go to a pub to play growing up. I went to people's homes and the sessions were different then. Sometimes musicians would come to your house. They wouldn't even take out the instruments. They'd sit and talk maybe all night and talk about ways of doing things or someone would say "What's that tune?" And they might take out his accordion or fiddle and then somebody would say "I have a different version of that. I heard that." So all of this would be all documented and all recorded. And so I have edited a lot of that stuff so but I still do have the tapes. So that's how we played our music. It wasn't going out to the pubs. It was people coming to their homes.

Jo Reed: When was the first time you played publically other than a competition, not in somebody's home? Do you remember that?

Seamus Connolly: The first time I ever played publically was in 1956 when with the Hungarian revolution, you know the uprising?

Jo Reed: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.

Seamus Connolly: In Hungary. So there were thousands of refugees came to Ireland and they came close. There was an army barracks, an army camp close to where I lived. I think I was about 12 at the time. So they invited me to play for them and that was my first public broadcast of public outing to playing a group of a few thousand people so I always remember that for the refugees.

Jo Reed: What was that like for you?

Seamus Connolly: I remember it well. I felt like I was inviting these people to my country and wanted to make them feel welcome. 

Jo Reed: You began recording and there's an early recording you did "Rambles of-"

Seamus Connolly: "Kitty".

Jo Reed: "Kitty".

Seamus Connolly: Yes.

Jo Reed: What was recording like as opposed to performing in front of people?

Seamus Connolly: I recorded in my home the local priest had a tape recorder and we recorded a night of music and song and dance in our home that we sent to New York to my uncle so that was fun. But to get back to "The Rambles of Kitty", that was done in 1966 I think. Something like that. In Dublin. We just recorded it and we were done with it. We only got to do it once and that was it. But it came out. It was a nice album that came out. The other album I did was called The Banks of the Shannon.

Jo Reed: I was going to ask you about that. That was huge.

Seamus Connolly: That was huge, big, big success. However many copies they printed, a few thousand, but they were all sold before the record ever came out.

Jo Reed: And I heard, tell me if this is true, you were in the studio for like an hour and fifty minutes?

Seamus Connolly: An hour and fifty minutes, yeah. We did the whole thing in an hour and fifty minutes. We spent all day recording for an American tour, singing and group playing and everything. We only had two hours to record. We have 4:00 to 6:00 to do this whole album. It wasn't an album. It was a mini LP I think there were six sides. So we did six sides. We didn't even get to hear it. We recorded it once. I didn't even hear the balance of it. Somebody else was doing that, and they said "Okay, that's it, we're done." And both Paddy O'Brian and I hated it when we heard it. It seemed like we were playing too fast and we probably were because our adrenaline was, you know.

Jo Reed: Pumping.

Seamus Connolly: We said we got to be out of here in two hours. We got to get this done. We got to travel back down the country. We're not going to get a chance to do this again, you know?

Jo Reed: And who was the third musician?

Seamus Connolly: Dr. Charlie Lennon, piano player, whose playing I love. So that was a great success. It set standards, well according to the media and people that has not been surpassed yet, but that I don't believe. But it was a fine recording except Paddy O'Brian and I didn't like what we heard. 

Jo Reed: When did you start composing?

Seamus Connolly: Probably when I came to this country. I was on the Masters of the Folk Violin Tour.

Jo Reed: Organized by N.C.T.A.

Seamus Connolly: N.C.T.A. We did two tours in '88; '89 was a different-- my mother had passed away. I had gone to see her the week before. I went back home. We put her to rest. And then one morning I was in bed about four o'clock in the morning. Something was coming into my head. And I got the fiddle out. Started to diddle in tunes and all of a sudden the tune came from nowhere to me. And it was the first tune I had ever made up and I named it for my mom "I'll Always Remember You". I got so many tunes from her and she used to jig her little tunes for me and play them and I feel like it's the last tune that she ever gave to me. 

Jo Reed: Yeah. When did you come to America to move here?

Seamus Connolly: I came in '72 on the first Comhaltas tour, and then I came in '76, immigrated.

Jo Reed: And what made you decide to immigrate here?

Seamus Connolly: I loved America so much when I came on the Comhaltas tour and that was in '72. And in '72 in New York they had the Irish Music Association of America here in New York and in Chicago. But they became affiliated with Comhaltas Ceoltórirí Éireann. So I came back in '74 so I'd stay on for a few weeks and maybe do some playing and do a little bit of traveling. And I made more money like in three weeks than I was making for a whole year in Ireland. So things then were bad in Ireland at the time and I thought America would be a great place to come to which it was and is and so I'm here since.


Jo Reed: You've worked at Boston College for many years. How did you begin your association there?

Seamus Connolly: Michael O'Sullivan from Cork University I think he was at the time in Ireland. He was a visiting scholar at Boston College and he was there I think for a whole semester. So he had this idea of as part of the Irish Studies program at the university to it's not complete without the music and the dancing and the singing and how right he was. So Mick got this idea and he phoned me up. He said "Would you help me put together a fiddle festival?" I said "Sure." And we did. There's that famous Boston College Fiddle Festival. It was 16 at the top Irish and Irish-American fiddle players. That went on. That was a great success. Before he left he went to the administration and said "You need to hire Seamus Connolly" and so they did but I wasn't interested in them being full time. So I said I'd do it part time because I kind of was into the music then after coming off the Masters of the folk Violin tour. I though this is what I want to do.

Jo Reed: Well that tour was also remarkable.

Seamus Connolly: It was.

Jo Reed: The people that Joe Wilson and N.C.T.A. brought together. There was you, bluegrass, jazz. I mean it was-

Seamus Connolly: Allison Krauss, Kenny Baker, you know.

Jo Reed: And she was 16.

Seamus Connolly: She was, unbelievable, yeah. And so I thought this is great. And so I was making a living and working part time at Boston College but then I said there's no future in this. So in 1991 I organized it was 200 years after the commemoration of the Belfast Harp Festival was 1791. So I ran a harping festival that weekend and brought in different people and a weekend of classes and lectures and then I was still part time there and then 1992 I ran a singing festival. The old traditional sean nos styles of singing. And then I ran the first of the Gaelic Roots weekends in '93. So then my boss Adele Dalsimer, she was a wonderful lady. She had formed the Irish Studies program. And Adele says to me "You can't do this forever. You're going to kill yourself." I said "I could, Adele, if I was full time."  And I was hired full time. So I continued them with the Week of Gaelic Roots and there was really nothing like that as a music camp singing anywhere. It was all housed on campus and we did nighttime events in Boston. We had the musicians play National Anthem live on television before the baseball game. We went on boat cruises. We had dinners and full time job. Full time job but not enough help. But after 9/11 it became very difficult trying to get teachers from European countries over. And so it became very difficult getting visas for them. So we had to disband the whole- the program as it was but now I tried to continue it as best I can by having the monthly concert and lecture series and all of that.

Jo Reed: Sort of transformed it.

Seamus Connolly: Yeah. 

Jo Reed: Do you actively teach students as well?

Seamus Connolly: I do and that's where I'm going now today to start, my first class is today.

Jo Reed: Do you have a particular approach to teaching?

Seamus Connolly: I like to teach them orally. For those who are able to read music I allow them to do it because they say "We can't learn orally." I say "You can." So when they have the piece learned I say "Okay, turn the music upside down. How much of it can you memorize?" "I can't memorize any of it." "Try again. Try to get a little bit of it." So they play maybe half a line. "Now see can you play it without looking at the music?" So I keep that process going and eventually over a period of a few weeks they come back and say "I like this. This is better than reading. Because we can retain it.

Jo Reed: They can hear it.

Seamus Connolly: Yeah. And so that's what I do and so at the end of the year then we have a little presentation. There's a folk arts festival on campus and they all play without their music.


Jo Reed: And you were named one of the teachers who made a difference in people's lives in what, 2003?

Seamus Connolly: It was in fact a few years running. Yeah so that was very special for me. My motto is to try and encourage people. Make them feel good about what they do. Criticize should I need to do it constructively. And make them feel that they are worthwhile. I think that's what life should be about for all of us. Not just in music, you know.

Jo Reed: It's so interesting. You just never know the impact you have on somebody.

Seamus Connolly: You don’t, no, we never know, we never know. And you can say one thing and you can turn people off or you can make them feel good. So that's my motto in life, do good. Do good to people, do good for people. Do to them what you would like to be done to yourself.

Jo Reed: That simple old rule.

Seamus Connolly: Yeah it is, isn't it? And that's most important.


Jo Reed: That was 2013 National Heritage Fellow, Seamus Connolly. Irish folk art is also represented in the 2014 class with dancer Kevin Doyle. To find out about the other newly named Heritage Fellows and the 2014 NEA Jazz Masters, go to arts.gov.

You’ve been listening to Art Works produced by National Endowment for the Arts. 

The Art Works podcast is posted each Thursday at arts.gov. You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U; just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.

Next week,  we celebrate the 4th of July with that most American of art forms, jazz.

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

It's a tuneful podcast as we go to the heart of Irish music with Seamus Connolly.