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The term ildánach - multi talented or, skilled in many arts – has been used on many occasions to describe Seamus Ennis.
He was a gifted musician, and played music on the flute, whistle, fiddle and pipes. He also sang songs and told stories. He was an Irish language scholar and translator, a collector of folk music and song, and also a brilliant presenter and broadcaster.
Seamus Ennis was born on 5th May 1919 in Fingal North Co Dublin. Both of his parents were musical, and Seamus took an interest in the pipes from a young age. In 1932, at the age of 13, Seamus began playing on a “full set” (as opposed to a “practice set” that beginners usually learn on). He assimilated the style and skill of his father, whilst also absorbing the influences coming from his fathers commercial recordings.
Seamus attended primary school in Holy Faith Convent Glasnevin, and continued his education in Belvedere College Dublin, Scoil Choilm Cille Marlborough Street, and Christian Brothers school Colaiste Muire.
Seamus is quoted as saying that it takes 21 years to learn to play the pipes.
After secondary school Ennis spent 4 years working for the publishing firm “The Three Candles Press” specialising in Irish song and text. All musical notation was handwritten before transfer to plates for printing. Seamus copied all the notes from O neills book of 1001 tunes by hand to gain experience for the job!
During the war years shortage of paper caused the termination of employment for workers of the printing firm. Seamus had to seek other employment.
1n 1942 the National Folklore Commission were looking for a full time collector of music and song. They needed someone who was equally at ease in an Irish speaking or an English speaking community.
Over 5 years working with them, Seamus collected over 2000 items. On the job, Ennis was well liked by those who met him. In most cases, an aspiration to collect, record, broadcast, archive, photograph, or film had not impinged on the lives of Ennis’s tradition bearers before his arrival. The singers and musicians welcomed him into their world. They not only allowed him to document their traditions but also included him in every aspect of their daily lives.
1n 1947 Ennis began work for RTE, collecting and archiving music and song from around the country- despite opposition from his employers!
Between his time with the Folklore Commission and with RTE he visited every country in Ireland - except Fermanagh!
Between 1951 and 1957 Ennis worked for the BBC, not only collecting music and folklore to preserve the material, but also to present it to a wider public audience on a radio program. He was based in London during this time and would travel to a specific district i.e. Hebredies, Galloway, Sussex, or Norfolk, staying one to two months in the area, and collect material. This material was then broadcast as “As I Roved Out”, and proved to be quite popular.
Ennis returned to Ireland in 1958 and worked as a professional musician and freelance broadcaster until his untimely death in 1982. Programes he presented included Seamus Ennis Sa Cathaoir and An Ceolteoir Sidhe. During this time he also completed a translation of Peig Sayers Machtnamh Seannamhna – An Old Womans Reflections., and was a founding member of Na Píobairí Uileann in 1968.
A performance by Ennis usually included song, story, nonsense verse, narrative and whistle playing as well as piping. He played a tight piping style with staccato stiplets, but also made use of legato passages. He is credited with introducing the “ghost D” into piping practice in Ireland. (The ghost D is a pitch that lies between D and D#. It is usually played in the upper octave, the effect against the drones is striking.)
Ennis made use of the regulators for tasteful harmonic and rhythmic accompaniment on his pipes, playing these in syncopation under the melody line. They had a lively feel, and added excitement to the music.
Ennis’s pipes were made in 1840 by Maurice Coyne. They were discovered in a pawn shop by his father James Ennis while in England at a Flute competition.
For pipers Ennis was unfailingly generous. He freely shared his music and techniques with all. We are forever in his debt!