Séamus Ennis, Uilleann Piper, Folklore and Music Collector, was born on May 5th 1919 in Jamestown, Finglas, which at the time was a rural part of North County Dublin. One of the main streets in Finglas has by popular acclaim been re-named ‘Séamus Ennis Road’. His father, James Ennis, was a prize-winning musician on several instruments including the Flute and Uilleann Pipes, which he had learned from Nicholas Markey from Co. Meath, and was also a champion Irish dancer. Séamus’ mother, Mary Josephine Ennis (née McCabe) was an accomplished fiddle player, originally from Farney in Co. Monaghan.
Introducing him to music at a very early age, Séamus’ father would play the pipes to him in his cradle. There were many musical visitors to the Ennis family home including Uilleann Pipers Liam Andrews of Dublin and Pat Ward of Drogheda, James McCrone (a reed maker), Fiddle player Frank O'Higgins and Flautist John Cawley. Having heard his son humming tunes at the age of two, Séamus’ father was prompted to carve him an imitation set of pipes. He knew the names of some of the tunes when he was only three years old.
Séamus’ education began at the Holy Faith Convent in Glasnevin and Belvedere College and he went on to attend the all-Irish schools at Scoil Cholm Cille and Colaiste Mhuire. This gave him a good grounding in the Irish language, which he later developed to the full during his travels around Ireland collecting songs, tunes and stories.
When Séamus left school he was employed by Colm O'Lochlainn at the Three Candles Press and learned all the skills associated with the printing trade as well as developing his ability to transcribe music notation by listening attentively to the singers of traditional slow airs. Along with the ability that his father had taught him to write down dance music, this gift would prove invaluable to him when in the early 1940’s he would go on to travel the country as music archivist. Colm O'Lochlainn was a major cause of his love for the Irish language. It was Colm who introduced Séamus to Professor Séamus O'Duilearge of the Irish Folklore Commission.
The first of his travels for the Irish Folklore Commission was a trip to Connemara where he met a man named Pat Cannin. He asked Séamus did he know a reel that he then proceeded to whistle to him. Séamus wrote the reel on a piece of paper by the side of the road and named it The Mist on the Mountain. During the war years Séamus’ travels were mostly by bicycle and he collected all his tunes by pen and paper.
Séamus found the greatest repository of songs and tunes and their background in fact and fame in a little pocket of North Connemara in a place called ‘Glinnsce’ which translates as ‘Clear Water’ in the English language. He recorded two hundred and twelve items straight from the memory of Colm O'Caoidheain who lived in this area.
The Irish Folklore Commission asked Séamus to focus his attention on the musical heritage Ireland shared with Scotland. This involved him travelling to Scotland in 1946. A bitterly cold winter didn't stop Séamus from swimming every day and he became known locally as the mad Irishman. Séamus said that during his stay on one island, as the weather became colder and colder, more and more people turned out to watch Séamus and his companion from Dublin take their dip. Finally, on the morning they had to break the ice at the water’s edge to bathe, the whole village had turned out to watch whether they’d do it or not. Their clear duty was to uphold the pride of Ireland and take the plunge, but the pub was opened early as a result for all to recuperate.
In 1946 he successfully applied for a job in Radio Eireann as an Outside Broadcast Officer. Commencing this job in August 1947, it wasn’t long before Séamus proved himself to be a skilled presenter. On a renowned visit to Clare in 1949, he recorded the playing of the legendary Willie Clancy, Bobby Casey, Sean Reid, Martin Talty and Micho Russell.
In 1951 Séamus moved to London to work with the BBC on a scheme aimed at recording extensively the surviving folk culture of England, Scotland and Wales. With an uncanny ability to converse in the regional Gaelic dialects with people in Connemara, Donegal, Kerry and even Scotland, he travelled the length and breadth of Ireland and Britain collecting material and was one of the presenters of the radio program "As I Roved Out". He married Margaret Glynn in 1952 and the couple had two children. Daughter Catherine (1955-2020) was an eminent Organist and his son Christopher plays the Fiddle and sings some of his father’s old songs. In 1958 Séamus’ marriage ended and he returned to Ireland where he worked for Radio Eireann as a freelance presenter on programmes such as ‘An Ceoltoir Sidhe’ and ‘Séamus Ennis san Chathaoir’.
Séamus continued to perform around Ireland during the 1960s and played at the first meeting of ‘Na Piobairi Uileann’ in Bettystown, Co. Meath in 1968. In the early 1970s he shared accommodation with Uilleann Piper Liam O'Floinn in Dublin. During that time they formed The Halfpenny Bridge Quartet, with Liam on the pipes, Tommy Grogan on accordion and Sean Keane on Fiddle. Séamus had a lasting impression on Liam O'Floinn who was in awe of his knowledge and expertise. Séamus bequeathed his Uilleann Pipes to Liam. Made by Morris Coyne in the 1830’s, the Pipes were originally purchased by Séamus’ father in a second hand shop in London.
In 1975, Séamus moved to Naul to live out his remaining years on the land which had once belonged to his grandparents, by now owned by the MacNally family, of whom Séamus became very fond. He felt very much at home here and loved the area, noting that he never cared much for any city and that he was a countryman at heart. He was an able cook who could deal expertly with game, although sadly as illness developed he ate less and lost interest in food. What he never tired of was the tradition which was at the centre of his life, nor did he tire of the company of friends. An intensely private man, close friends from the world of music, his son and daughter and those more locally will attest to late nights (and early mornings) spent with Séamus at Easter Snow, the name he gave (after the air of that name) to the plot of land on which he lived, exchanging stories and limericks (all hilarious but often of dubious taste!), playing cards, and listening to and playing songs and tunes. The Séamus Ennis Arts Centre is situated adjacent to this site.
Séamus continued playing around Ireland and overseas right up to the time he lost his battle with cancer in October 1982 aged 63. Some of his last performances included the Willie Clancy Summer School and the Lisdoonvarna Folk Festival.
A CD of Séamus’ music entitled ‘The Return from Fingal’ was compiled by Piper and Radio Producer, Peter Browne. Sourced from 40 years of acetate and tapes in the Radio Eireann and later RTE archives and released in 1997, the CD is available from The Séamus Ennis Arts Centre.
During the course of his lifetime, Séamus Ennis’ work in collecting songs, tunes and folklore has resulted in a wealth of music that would otherwise have been lost forever. His work can and should never be underestimated.