Ben Lennon (1928–2020) : The Grand Gentleman of Irish Traditional Music

Earlier this year Ben Lennon, the renowned fiddle player from Co. Leitrim, passed away at the age of 91. This blog by Alan Woods looks back over the life and music of a much loved member of the Irish traditional music community.

Ben Lennon  Nutan Donation 01
Ben Lennon (courtesy of Nutan Jacques Piraprez)

The respect that Ben was held in by his fellow musicians was encapsulated by Charlie Piggott, who in 2008 stated:1

If ever there was a grand gentleman of Irish traditional music, the honour should be his.
Vallely & Piggott, 2008, p. 113
From Leitrim to Leitrim

The eldest of fours sons, Ben Lennon was born in the village of Kiltyclogher, Co. Leitrim in 1928. There was music on both sides of the family. His father, Jim Lennon, played the fiddle and his mother Sally Lennon (née McGriskin) played piano and sang. A second cousin of Sally’s, Willie Ferguson, a fiddler, would later have a strong influence on Ben’s learning of music. 

The Lennon household was a well known céilí house in the locality and Ben’s early musical impressions were informed by visitors such as Francis John McGovern, Brian Maguire and John Quinn, who, in Ben’s young days, was regarded as the “best fiddler in Leitrim.”2 At about the age of 10, Ben took his first lessons on the fiddle from Sean O’Donoghue, a dancing master, who cycled from Ballyshannon to Kiltyclogher each week during the winter months to teach dance and fiddle. John Gordon, a contemporary of Ben’s, from Fermanagh, also attended O’Donoghue’s fiddle class and Ben remembered that: “He was a very able player even at that time, and I was very much influenced by his music."3 Ben regularly cited the influence on his own playing by Fermanagh musicians such as John Gordon, John Timoney, Brian Maguire and Francis John McGovern.

In the early 1940s, Ben first heard recordings of Michael Coleman and they, along with recordings of James Morrison and Paddy Killoran made a lasting impact on him musically. Ben began playing at house dances in the mid-1940s and for a time even was the drummer in a group called The Blue Haven Band, of which John Gordon was also a member.

Ben also followed in another family tradition, after his father and grandfather, by becoming a tailor. The pursuit of his trade saw him emigrate to London in 1949. The move to London brought about a period of musical inactivity for Ben. Although Ben’s musical life was quiet in London, his family life began to prosper with his marriage in 1953 to Patsy Eames, a native of Rossinver, Co. Leitrim.

L-R: Patsy Lennon (née Eames), Ben Lennon, Thomas Feely (courtesy of Jim Connolly & Eugene Meehan)


Following the birth of their eldest son John, the Lennon family returned to Ireland in 1954. Ben strongly considered emigrating to Canada before a job offer with the Danus company in Limerick saw him and his family move there in 1955. During their time in Limerick, the Lennon family welcomed another three sons, Maurice, Brian and David. 

Meeting Séamus Connolly, around 1960, proved a pivotal point in Ben’s return to playing music. He and Séamus became steadfast friends and enjoyed many evenings and nights playing tunes, discussing the music and listening to recordings of the old masters such as Michael Coleman. Throughout his time in Limerick Ben visited Co. Clare on a regular basis playing with musicians such as Paddy Canny, P.J. Hayes and Paddy Murphy.

In 1966, to further develop his career in the tailoring industry, Ben and his family moved to Cork. There he met and played sessions with musicians such as Charlie Piggott, Mick Milne, Dick Nangle, Dick Tobin and Lena Bean Uí Shé. Arising from these sessions, a group called The Shaskeen was formed consisting of Ben, Charlie Piggott, Jackie Daly and Gary Cronin. The group appeared on television and also performed a number of broadcasts on Raidió Éireann.  

A job opportunity with the Magee company in Donegal town, saw Ben and Patsy, with their children return to the northwest in 1972. Initially they lived in Donegal town, before settling in Rossinver after Patsy became Postmistress of the family Post Office in 1973.

Ben Lennon outside the post office in Rossinver (courtesy of Nutan Jacques Piraprez)

After retiring from his position with Magee in 1988, Ben was able to commit more time to playing and teaching music. He began tutoring at the Joe Mooney Summer School in 1989, followed by Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy (SSWC). He would go on to become a long standing and popular tutor at both summer schools.

Ben spoke at the official opening of Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy 2009, launching that year's edition of the summer school with the following words:4

When I come into Miltown, time stands still. I don’t look at the watch, I don’t look at the newspaper, I don’t listen to the radio [...] a standstill week. And when I leave on the Saturday, my head is just full of music. Tunes bubbling in my head, I get into the car and I drive out the Ennis Road, and I might stop to get petrol in Ennis and I get out and go into the supermarket and then ‘oh my God’ back to reality, what an awful thought.
Ben Lennon, SSWC 2009

Ben’s birthday, 8 July, coincided each year with Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy and over time a tradition evolved of Ben celebrating his birthday in Mullagh with many of his musical friends and peers. Ben was also a regular guest in Máire O’Keeffe’s fiddle class at SSWC, The House of Lords, in which he was affectionately referred to as Lord Leitrim. His easy sense of humour, deep feeling for the music and his boundless array of anecdotes and stories ensured Ben provided an enriching experience for anyone in his company.

Maurice, Ben and Charlie Lennon / SSWC 2000

A Meeting of Old Friends and a Fond Farewell

For over 30 years Ben played a regular Saturday night session in Gilbride's pub, Rossinver, with his good friend Jim Connolly, an accordion player from the locality. On 7 March 2020 a bus full of musicians and music lovers travelled from Donegal to Gilbride's pub to meet and play music with Ben. The group of about 20 people included old musical friends, Tara & Dermot Diamond, Jimmy Campbell, and Danny Meehan amongst others. After greeting and welcoming his old friends, Ben led a session of music that will be long remembered by those present, for not only was it a wonderful night of music, song, stories and laughter, it also proved to be Ben's final session in Gilbride's as he passed away just over three weeks later on 30 March 2020. 

He left behind a legacy which his family and the traditional music community can be proud of. For those who shared time in Ben's company: the memories of his music, stories and wit will long live on! Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.

Gilbride's pub, Rossinver, Co. Leitrim. 7 March 2020 (courtesy of Annie Quinn, Tara Diamond & Gerry McKenna)

Ben’s Style and Thoughts on the Music


Phrasing is what it is all about. That’s where Coleman had a mastery. (5)
Ben Lennon, (Vallely, 2011, p.69)

Ben was noted for his thoughtful and reflective approach to fiddle playing and the tradition as a whole. His determination to improve as a musician never faded, and in the 1980s, after a discussion with his brother Charlie about bowing technique, Ben decided to change his bow hold, adopting the ‘orthodox hold’. Ben stated that it took him five years to master this change but he was glad he did it.6

In a 1995 interview, conducted by Seán Corcoran on behalf of ITMA, Ben discusses the importance of musicians having personal identity in their music. He demonstrates the “weaving” bowing style which he employed in his own music and he also plays a tune illustrating music containing what he referred to as “nyah”.

Ben speaking about the importance of musicians having personal identity in their music

Ben speaking about bowing styles and demonstrating the 'weaving' technique ; The moutain top, reel ; Callaghan's reel

Commercial Recordings 

Ben made/featured on a number of recordings including Dog Big and Dog Little with Séamus Quinn, Gabriel McArdle and Ciarán Curran in 1989. The Lennon Family released an album in 1994 titled Dúchas Ceoil: Dance of the Honey BeesBen was joined by family and friends on The Natural Bridge which was released in 1999. In 2006 Ben featured as part of the Leitrim-Fermanagh fiddle compilation Within a Mile of Kilty and in 2008 he recorded a duet album with Tony O’Connell titled Rossinver BraesSome of Ben’s original compositions such as ‘Sally Lennon’s Jig’ and ‘Ben’s Arrival’ feature amongst these commercial releases.

Top L-R: CC51CD, 1989 ; CEFCD167, 1994 ; Bottom L-R: CICD139, 1999 ; CICD174, 2008

Achievements and Tributes

The esteem in which Ben was held was evident by the number of honours and tributes that were paid to him during his lifetime. Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy and the Joe Mooney Summer School both paid tribute to Ben in 2005 and 2009 respectively.  In 2007, Leitrim County Council hosted a civic reception in honour of Ben and his brother Charlie, to recognise their outstanding contribution to Irish traditional music. Ben was honoured in 2011 by TG4 with the Gradam Saol / Life Time Achievement Award. 2011 also saw the publication of The Tailors Twist, a superb and detailed account of Ben’s life written by Fintan Vallely, enriched by the photography of Nutan Jacques Piraprez, and designed by Martin Gaffney.

The Tailors Twist, FOBL, 2011 (courtesy of Nutan Jacques Piraprez)

Friends and Peers - Tributes to Ben

I was so sad to hear of the great Ben Lennon’s passing: such an immense loss to Irish traditional music. I first played music with Ben in Cork at the Country Club sessions in the early 1970s, and remember being very much impressed with his impeccable rhythm and adherence to strict timing. His choice of session tunes was a delight and tunes of his which come to mind include the reels ; 'The Four Courts' and 'The Beauty Spot' and the big jig tune, 'The Old Grey Goose'. Another wonderful quality Ben possessed was his ability to directly influence other musicians during session playing: if the quality of the music was not up to standard he had the gift of gently shifting the rhythm and time so that everything fell into place and all was well. He was without doubt one of the finest among traditional musicians. Thanks so much for the great times Ben! Charlie Piggott

Ben was a great musician, he loved to tell stories and jokes and to make people laugh. A very sociable personality and an absolute gentleman, right down to the folded handkerchief in the breast  pocket of his jacket! When I was younger, meeting Ben and his family at the Roscommon Fleadh was always something to look forward to. It was a real privilege to have known him and played tunes with him over the years and we will miss him greatly. Tara Diamond

Tara Diamond & Ben Lennon. Gilbride's pub, Rossinver. 7 March 2020 (courtesy of Dermot Diamond)

I have the fondest of memories of our time playing music together in the company of a true gentleman with a big generous heart. Our Monday night sessions in Ben’s apartment in Donegal town, in the 1970s, complete with the customary toasted ham sandwiches, were nights to remember. Playing to Ben’s musical beat was always captivating - beautiful phrasing with judiciously chosen technique. Our sessions in Rossinver and Kiltyclogher, often with Ben’s brother Charlie, were full of excitement and always made for a rewarding journey home to Aughavas with Mary, whatever the hour of the morning. A man in a million - thanks for the music and the memories! Michael McNamara

The blackthorn stick, reel ; [unidentified]. reel / Ben Lennon, fiddle ; Michael McNamara, flute ; John McGuinness, bodhrán

When I started to play with Ben nearly 40 years ago I would start a tune with great gusto think I could play it well. Halfway into the first bar Ben would stop me. Then he would start the tune slow with a lovely lift rhythm. When we finished the one, Ben would say it’s a fine line between getting it right and being beside it. Best lesson I ever got.  Jim Connolly

Ben Lennon & Jim Connolly (courtesy of Jim Connolly & Eugene Meehan)


I knew Ben Lennon since I was seventeen when I first met him and his lovely wife Patsy at Féile na Bóinne in Drogheda, Co. Louth. Over the years since then our paths crossed regularly at various annual festivals such as in Derrygonnelly, Belleek, Letterkenny and the many Fleadhanna Cheoil up and down the country. Ben always had a great welcome for all musicians but was especially encouraging to younger musicians and included them in sessions. For many years Ben taught fiddle at Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy and, in my role as facilitator of what was originally known as the ‘West Clare Fiddle Room’, it was always a great pleasure when Ben and his class would visit us. I remember one very special occasion when Ben’s arrival with his class coincided with a visit to the room from Paddy Canny. Both men were delighted to see each other and Ben and Paddy told stories of Ben’s time in Limerick when he and Paddy got together regularly to play music. When Ben had retired from teaching at the school he joined the team in the West Clare Fiddle room and, while no one is sure how it happened, the name of the room changed forever more to the ‘House of Lords’ with Lord Leitrim himself in situ. One of the main aims of the ‘House of Lords’ has always been to introduce younger musicians (and not so young) to the elders of the fiddle school at Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, giving them an opportunity to listen to and meet with the more senior musicians in a smaller setting than at the larger concerts. Ben was a great storyteller and always prefaced a tune with a story which invariably had a funny ending. The fiddle classes who were lucky enough to be present were always spellbound and highly entertained. In more recent years, Ben wouldn’t arrive to the House of Lords until midweek and his arrival was always eagerly anticipated. I have great memories of the first tunes we would play every year. Regular as clockwork, Ben would suggest the jig The Maho Snaps followed by the Heel and Toe Polka. Ben is sadly missed and fondly remembered by all who were fortunate to have known him. Suaimhneas síoraí dá anam uasal ceolmhar. Máire O'Keeffe

Ben Lennon and Máire O'Keeffe (courtesy of Nutan Jacques Piraprez)


Ben was an entire experience in himself. His warm, respectful welcome gave you a sense of being important, unique and wanted. Playing music with him was so much more than just the music. The gaps between sets of tunes would be enriched with anecdotes - some interesting, some amusing, some going back to years before he was born. He was blessed with an extraordinary memory for anything he had ever heard, seen or experienced right back to his childhood, and would give the story time to unfold organically. His “timing” grew out of a generation who understood the value of silence and were not intimidated by it. His sharp brain pierced through, took apart and put back together again anything in life that he put his mind to. While he incorporated in his music the basic style of the great South Sligo fiddlers of the early twentieth century and could discourse knowledgeably about their technique and approach, his own fiddle playing was unique to himself. He copied nobody in the end. And I’ve just realised that that is true of everything that was Ben. He was not a copy of anyone. He remained the gift that he was right up to the very last moment.      Séamus Quinn

Ben was an integral part of Joe Mooney Summer School (JMSS) from its beginning. Renowned for his humorous concert performances and his skills as a tutor, students came from many parts of the world to attend his popular fiddle classes every year in Drumshanbo. He was a musical legend. Nancy Woods, JMSS

I first got to know Ben through Jackie Daly, who if memory serves had played in a band with him when Ben had lived in Cork. I always found Ben to be so friendly and encouraging to a young musician like myself. I got to know him a lot better in later years via our mutual interest in fishing. In the mid 1990s, a Cork-based group of traditional musicians, who were also passionate fly fishermen formed a group, inspired by Colm Murphy, called TAPSI...The Trout and Porter Society of Ireland. Its remit was to repair once a year to a well known angling location for a weekend of fishing, drink, and music. Ben became involved shorty after its inception, and one of the, if not the, most memorable of our weekends was on Ben's home turf of Kiltyclogher and his beloved Lough Melvin. We caught a lot of fish, played a rake of tunes, and drank the world of porter. How sad, in these strange times that we can't all get together in his memory, but hopefully we will, and talk of tunes, and flies, and raise a glass to his memory. Hammy Hamilton 

Ben Lennon & Jim Connolly fishing on Lough Melvin (courtesy of Nutan Jacques Piraprez)

Always a gentleman, Ben represented all that is good in Irish traditional music and was one of its most popular ambassadors. A wonderful fiddle player who could put his unique rhythmic swing on any tune, he struck me as someone who had an insatiable appetite for fiddle playing. He made great analysis of master fiddle players such as Michael Coleman and James Morrison and was generous with sharing his insights with young people. Like many others, I will cherish fond memories of sessions with him where his storytelling and good humour made for excellent company. Between tunes on my first session with Ben, during the Joe Mooney Summer School in Drumshanbo, I recall getting advice from him about how to properly hook a salmon! The esteem in which he was held by fellow fiddle players was very evident in the tutors’ tea-room during Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy where Ben’s words were listened to with a special reverence and respect. I, like many other musicians, will continue to draw on recordings of Ben for inspiration, joy and warm-hearted memories.  Liam O’Connor, ITMA Director

Liam O'Connor & Ben Lennon at the Joe Mooney Summer School (courtesy of Liam O'Connor)

The Lennon Family - Tributes to Ben

Ben influenced me in many ways. With music he never “taught me”. He would bring my attention to the way a top player treated a phrase or part of a tune. We would discuss it in depth including the approach, the delivery, its integration with what came before and after and how appropriate it was to the overall style. His deep interest and knowledge of music remained throughout his life. His gave encouragement to all musicians who came to him for help, irrespective of where they were on the long road to perfection. He would point to their good features and then to the areas that needed additional effort. He would also suggest ways of approaching difficult areas and emphasise the importance of developing and retaining their own personal style. Every week I continue to reach for the phone to go over old stories, tunes, words and their usage, the local news and many other subjects. Then I am reminded that we never had the chance to come together, family and friends to mourn and grieve, to talk about his wit and rich humour, to be enthralled with his art of storytelling, to wish him well on his journey and to send a message to God to remember all his good deeds in this life. Charlie Lennon

Ben & Charlie Lennon at the Joe Mooney Summer School 2019 (courtesy of Philip O'Connor)

Dad was a very gifted man. For me it was his ability to make everyone feel special that stood out. It did not matter about your ability to play, it was whether or not you had what he called “a wee thing” in your playing. One of his greatest gifts was his willingness to listen without judgement. His best advice to me on the music was when he told me this....“Every note has a sweet spot. You should always try to find the sweet spot”...and he always did. Maurice Lennon

Every note has a sweet spot. You should always try to find the sweet spot.
Ben Lennon

In 1974 Dad asked Joe Burke to source a flute for me…..when he heard me get a few notes out of it he was delighted. He loved nothing better than fiddle/flute music and he had an incredible understanding of the phrasing and rhythm of the north Connacht style. He had huge respect for the tunes and felt an obligation to honour them and to not let the ego interfere, not only did he achieve this, but he continued to learn and develop his style right up to the end. Brian Lennon

Thank You

On behalf of the Lennon family I would like to sincerely thank Liam O'Connor and all the team at ITMA for this wonderful tribute to our Dad. In particular we would like to thank Alan Woods for his trojan efforts pulling together material from so many sources. As fate would have it Alan was in Gilbride’s pub in Rossinver on 7 March this year on what turned out to be Dad’s last night out. On the night in question Alan turned up on a bus from Donegal loaded with musicians and friends, a great night was had by all and Dad was in his element playing tunes and telling stories. Having been deprived of the opportunity of giving Dad a proper send off due to the restrictions that were in place at the time, tributes such as this are even more appreciated. Many thanks again to the ITMA team and all those who contributed. David Lennon

On behalf of myself and ITMA, I would like to thank the Lennon family for their contributions to this blog. Particular thanks goes to Ben's son, David, who was always at the other end of the phone if I ever had any questions for him. Sincere thanks to all those who contributed a written piece in memory of Ben. I also wish to thank everybody who donated photographs. Particular credit should be given to Jim Connolly and Rónán Galvin who helped me source many wonderful pictures of Ben. Finally, a special thank you to Nutan Jacques Piraprez who has been incredibly generous in allowing us to feature several of his magnificent photographs in this blog. Alan Woods



CITATIONS

Vallely, Fintan, and Charlie Piggott, Blooming Meadows: the world of Irish traditional musicians (Dublin: Town House, 2008), 113.

 2  Vallely, Fintan, The tailors twist: Ben Lennon's in traditional Irish music (Dublin: FOBL, 2011), 24.

Mac Aoidh Caoimhín, An fhidíl Ghaelach: the magazine of Irish, Scots and Eastern Canadian fiddle music from the Gaelic tradition (Kilrush, Co. Clare: Neptune print, c.1982), 8.

4  Commins, Verena, Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy: Transmission, performance and commemoration of Irish traditional music, 1973-2012 (Galway: NUI Galway, 2014). 1.

5 Vallely, 2011, 69.

6 Vallely, 2011, 67.


Researched and written by Alan Woods, July 2020.