Listening to Paddy Canny

On 15 May, the Irish Traditional Music Archive will host the launch of No Better Boy: Listening to Paddy Canny. In this blog, author Helen O’Shea discusses the sources she uncovered at ITMA and in other archives, affirming the importance of archival collections for our understanding of musicians and their music in their historical context.

PC Carnegie hall

A familiar recording

Listen to Paddy Canny and P. J. Hayes (fiddles) with Bridie Lafferty (piano) play ‘Rolling in the Barrel’, ‘In the Tap Room’ and ‘The Earl’s Chair’ on All-Ireland Champions – Violin: Meet Paddy Canny and P. J. Hayes, Dublin Records, 1959.

(Preview of commercial recording track taken from Spotify. Visit the ITMA library in Dublin to hear the full track, and many other recordings)

You may have heard this set of tunes played at many a musical gathering, as I have. Unlike other iconic sets­ – Michael Coleman’s ‘Tarbolton’, ‘Longford Collector’ and ‘Sailor’s Bonnet’, for instance, where each tune introduces a distinct change of key and melody – the second tune is really only a more elaborate version of the first, requiring a ‘hup’ or animated facial expression to get the change, while moving into the final tune is always an easy, triumphant transformation into a different melodic universe. It’s fun, and a kind of homage, for those familiar with the iconic 1959 recording this set comes from.

Recorded for ten pounds each, with no rehearsals, no re-takes and in just a few hours – my book reveals the drama involved in that – All-Ireland Champions was among the earliest LP records of Irish music made in Ireland. It remains one of the best-known and loved albums of Irish traditional music, for its sweet, unrushed sound, memorable tune sets, and the fiddles’ plaintive tonality, which some call ‘the lonesome touch’. Over the past few decades, the album has been re-released under various titles, including An Historic Recording of Irish Traditional Music (Shanachie, 2001).

Who is Paddy Canny?

Paddy Canny, who lived between 1919 and 2008, was one of Ireland’s most significant Irish fiddle players, who began his musical journey at a time when the music played for set dancing was central to rural cultural life. I felt compelled to write about Paddy Canny, because I love his music and wanted to celebrate it, while conveying the struggles and opportunities that led to his success as a musical artist. I also wanted to understand the mid-life circumstances that saw his career fall away.

Paddy came from a small farm adjacent to the Glendree Bog, a few miles above the East Clare village of Feakle, known today for its annual traditional music festival. As a young child, Paddy was enchanted by his father’s fiddle playing and by the age of twelve had become a fine fiddler himself. As a teenager, he gave lessons to his neighbour P. J. Hayes, and the pair were soon playing together at dances around the district. This partnership is at the heart of my book, following them across the nearly twenty years when they played together in the Tulla Céilí Band, of which they were founding member and which Hayes led for many decades.

The Tulla Céilí Band, 1957 (photographer unknown), Paddy Canny seated at left, P. J. Hayes standing next to him

In his youth, Paddy listened avidly to every record of the virtuoso Sligo fiddlers – Michael Coleman in particular – that arrived in the district from America. He worked out their technique and repertoire, which he transformed with his own poetic phrasing and emotive dynamics. Paddy’s passionate application was rewarded in the 1950s, when he was in his thirties and at the pinnacle of his musical prowess. He was selected to make regular broadcasts on national radio at a time when traditional music allegedly got only nine hours of airplay—nine hours per year, that is. After Irish musicians set up Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, Paddy travelled to fleadhs and in 1953 won the All-Ireland fiddle competition and the inaugural Coleman Trophy. Paddy Canny was a star of Irish traditional music, known throughout the country for his brilliant radio recitals and his solo performances at concerts and band performances. In 1956, he toured to New York, where he played at venues including Carnegie Hall and was invited to make the recording that became All-Ireland Champions.

Paddy Canny playing in Carnegie Hall, New York, 1956 (photographer unknown)

By 1960, Paddy had also recorded two 78 rpm ‘sides’ for Gael Linn (re-released on Seoltaí Séidte / Setting sail: Ceolta Éireann 1957-1961, 2001). In my book, I transcribe several of these tunes, including the jig ‘Garret Barry’s’, and discuss Paddy’s tonality, phrasing, volume changes and the influence of his friend, the Dublin fiddle player, Tommie Potts.

(Preview of commercial recording track taken from Spotify. Visit the ITMA library in Dublin to hear the full track, and many other recordings)

These were all extraordinary achievements for a man raised on a marginal farm, without electricity or motor vehicles or a radio, and where in his youth, the gramophone records that inspired him were accessible only through the good grace of neighbours. As a young man, Paddy Canny had little prospect of achieving financial independence as a farmer, let alone of succeeding as an artist. As a non-inheriting, youngest son, whose beloved father died before Paddy came of age, he undertook decades of gruelling labour, the kind that wrecks the body, especially the hands, in order eventually to buy his own farm. For example, he and his brother quarried rock from the family farm’s barren ground, carting it to the roadside to hammer into road metal.

From the mid-1960s, Paddy made far fewer public performances and only a handful of recordings, including those on the recently released compilation Friends of Note, together with his musical friends Paddy Murphy (concertina), Peter O’Loughlin (flute) and Geraldine Cotter (piano). Paddy finally released a solo album in 1997, when he was 78 years old. Paddy Canny: Traditional Music from the Legendary East Clare Fiddler includes his own composition, this poignant three-part jig, ‘The Caves of Kiltanon’.

(Preview of commercial recording track taken from Spotify. Visit the ITMA library in Dublin to hear the full track, and many other recordings)

Searching for the music and the man

Through these commercial recordings and compilations, we can begin to know a musician like Paddy Canny. To come to a deeper understanding of the man and his music, I consulted broadly among his musical friends and acquaintances and immersed myself in the history of the locality, using county and university libraries.

Paddy Canny, 1998 (Peter Laban)

To understand more about Paddy Canny and his music, I had to search farther and dig deeper. In this, archives and archivists were my greatest resources, and can be yours, too. For example, if you missed the opportunity to listen to Paddy Canny play at the Willie Clancy Summer School in the years following the release of his solo recording in 1997, there are recordings of Máire O’Keeffe’s fiddle class, where he played alongside other legendary fiddlers, including Bobby Casey, Joe Ryan, and Junior Crehan, in the ITMA archives, as well as photos, and videos of the fiddle concerts where you can discover the mature style, camaraderie and humility of these master musicians.

Both RTÉ and the ITMA hold the earliest available sound recordings of Paddy Canny, made from 1955 by Ciarán Mac Mathúna and RTÉ’s (at that time, Radio Éireann’s) Mobile Recording Unit, which toured rural Ireland searching for traditional musicians and recording them for his radio programs. For many years, Ciarán used for the opening theme of A Job of Journeywork his recording of Paddy Canny playing ‘Trim the Velvet’ (also transcribed and discussed in my book), which enchanted at least one generation of listeners. (Trim the Velvet starts at 27:25)

Recordings from the latter end of Paddy Canny’s life can be accessed through that most democratic archive of all: YouTube, where you can find videos of Paddy playing for TG4’s Geantraí program with musicians including Frankie Gavin and Kieran Hanrahan and the recording of the Gradam awards in 2001, when this peerless musician received the Gradam Saoil or Lifetime Award.

Máire Ní Chathasaigh (Ceoltóir na Blíana) and Paddy Canny (Gradam Saoil) after receiving their awards (TG4, 2001)

Hidden Treasure

Anyone who has explored the vast trove of the National Folklore Collection will have discovered that ‘hidden treasure’ was a common theme in the folklore recorded by schoolchildren over 80 years ago ( The hidden treasure I discovered in archives took two very different forms. The first was a recording made in 1975 by a young Dutch ethnomusicologist, Jos Koning, who recorded musicians around Feakle, East Clare, including Paddy Canny. I had come across Jos’s thesis on Irish traditional music when I was researching my doctoral thesis, later published as The Making of Irish Traditional Music (Cork University, 2008). After I got in touch with Jos, he digitised some of his field recordings, and transferred them to me. It was only then that I discovered among them the interview with Paddy Canny, which I draw on in my book, describing his highly charged musical response when he learns to his dismay that his friend Tommie Potts is ill. Jos Koning has generously donated these materials to the Clare Library’s Local Studies Centre and to the ITMA.

Across the ditch at Boston College’s John J. Burns music library, another master fiddler from Clare, Séamus Connolly, generously donated his collection of recordings after retiring from the College’s faculty. Thanks to the Music Librarian, Elizabeth Sweeney, I was able to digitally borrow some of these files to study in my home university library in Melbourne, Australia. One recording I treasured listening to was made by Louis Quinn, a highly regarded fiddle player and promoter of Irish music and musicians in New York (see ITMA’s Louis Quinn Collection). This was recorded at one of Louis’s regular house concerts, with Paddy Canny as the special guest. That night, Paddy’s music elicited joyful responses from an audience that included the crème de la crème of New York’s Irish fiddle players, and old musical friends Joe Cooley and Paddy O’Brien, who had recently landed Stateside.

A second recording from Boston College reveals Paddy Canny’s astonishing virtuosity as a fiddle player, the pure love of music that comes out in his playing. Recorded one evening by a fan, Johnny Byrnes, in John Minogue’s hotel in Tulla, Clare, just after the 1959 All-Ireland Fleadh, Paddy’s musical genius gradually unfolds during his warm-up accompanied by Seán Reid, who had dedicated himself to the Tulla Céilí Band since its early days, then takes flight with Paddy’s release from the plodding piano, and later soars to new heights, in the playful energy of his duets with flute player and friend Peter O’Loughlin.

If I had one wish …

In writing about Paddy Canny, I have relied on commercial and informal recordings of his music, along with my interviews with his family and musical friends. But the breadth of his life experience and the depth of his music only came alive through the generosity of musicians and researchers who had donated their recordings to archives, the archivists who catalogued and preserved those records, and the archives’ policy of making available these materials to other musicians and researchers.

Some treasures remain hidden. I have loved listening to Paddy Canny from the moment I first heard him on the All-Ireland Champions record, but the recording I believe to be his finest is the one he made a few months earlier Minogue’s Hotel in Tulla. If only that recording, having made its way to Boston, could now be brought to a wider listening public.


All photos have been sourced from the Irish Traditional Music Archive, with the exception of the photo of Paddy Canny in Carnegie Hall (courtesy the New York University’s Tamiment Library).