Séamus O’Mahony: A Hidden Gem in ITMA / “Caill‑taisce’ sa Taisce Cheol Dúchais Éireann

During the 1920s and 1930s, Séamus O’Mahony (1900–1991) was regarded as one of the leading fiddle players in Ireland. Captain Francis O’Neill held Séamus O’Mahony in such high esteem that he included the young fiddle player in Irish Minstrels and Musicians (1913) despite Séamus being just 13 years of age at the time of print. Yet, in recent decades, O’Mahony’s music has almost been forgotten.

Seamus Omahony Playing Fiddle
Séamus O'Mahony (1900–1991)

Even though Séamus O’Mahony lived to reach the grand old age of 91, his name is seldom mentioned in discussions on fiddle playing in Ireland. There are several reasons for this: O’Mahony did not make solo commercial recordings and he grew increasingly reluctant to perform in public or commit to broadcasts in the mid-twentieth century. However, the quality of his fiddle playing evident on the following tracks may prompt the question “How could a musician this good be forgotten?” 

Born into a musical family, by the tender age of 13, Séamus and his older brother Edward had earned a sufficiently formidable reputation, as being outstanding young fiddler players, to warrant a biography and full-page photo in Chief O’Neill’s Irish Minstrels and Musicians (1913). 

Older brother Edward or Eddie O’Mahony (1896–1962) substantiated his early promise by winning the senior Oireachtais fiddle competition in 1912 before joining the Capuchin Order in 1914 and moving away from playing traditional music. Younger brother Séamus followed in Eddie’s footsteps by winning the senior Oireachtais competition in 1917 thus adding to an already impressive array of medals.  

Crop James Omahony Oneills
Séamus and Edward O'Mahony in: Irish Minstrels and Musicians, 1913

In addition to 16 tracks of solo fiddle playing, ITMA has six recordings made by Séamus with uilleann piper Liam Walsh. Leo Rowsome was another musical partner that Séamus played with on several broadcasts and they recorded together as part of the All-Ireland Trio with Nelius Cronin. 

Having developed a reputation as one of the Ireland’s leading traditional musicians, unfortunately for fans of Irish traditional music, Séamus became less inclined to play in public and did not commit to further commercial recordings. 

The All Ireland Trio: Séamus O'Mahony, Leo Rowsome and Nelius Cronin

My own personal interest in Séamus O’Mahony arose from reading the liner notes to Tommie Potts’s seminal album The Liffey Banks (1972). Potts, like Chief O’Neill, was not in the business of giving praise too easily. In a very considered note, Potts cited three fiddle players as being “the nearest on the point of influence on” him. 

Luke Kelly, fiddle (though he was not a great player), Mrs. Sheridan – she was quite distinctive, and Séamus Mahoney. Also, if I may say so, my brother Edward who improvised well. ​The others had what they called very nice touches, but they used the same notes all the time without intensity or emotion… Séamus Mahoney was serious minded in his playing, I consider this a great thing.
Tommie Potts, 1972

Having read Tommie’s note, I asked myself: “Who was Séamus Mahoney [sic.]? Are there recordings of him? How good was he and why is he not spoken about?” 

As it happened, my father Mick O’Connor had been in contact with Séamus O’Mahony in the 1980s while conducting research into Leo Rowsome and in preparation for a history of the Dublin Piper’s Club. Subsequently, he began correspondence with Séamus’s son Brendan E. O’Mahony. Mick has prepared an unpublished biographical article on Séamus for future publication. 

In October 1998, Kathy Mirza lent ITMA a reel-to-reel from Father Killian Curran’s Collection which contained a very fine recording featuring Séamus O’Mahony playing in his home in Youghal, Co. Cork, in July 1952 with some accompaniment on piano from his son Brendan. Upon being appointed Director of ITMA, I sought an introduction to Brendan from my father Mick O’Connor to see if there was a possibility of making the recordings accessible to the general public through ITMA’s website. Luckily Brendan agreed to ITMA’s proposal. 

A special thanks must go to Brendan E. O’Mahony for being so generous with his own time, for donating other material such as photographs, letters, contracts, newspaper clippings and concert programmes to ITMA thus providing important insights into the extraordinary life of his father. During a recent field-work trip to Cork, Brendan told ITMA staff that his father Séamus brought the fiddle with him on active duty with the Irish Republican Army in North Cork during the War of Independence. Séamus’s wife, Máire also played the fiddle and took fiddle lessons from him in Mitchelstown in the 1920s. “The fiddle,” Séamus wrote to her at the time, “is part and parcel of us, part of who we are.” ITMA plans to continue to develop this project over the coming months and to conduct an interview with Brendan in 73 Merrion Square. Brendan, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the National University of Ireland, UCC, where he lectured for 35 years, wrote a lyrical, insightful and personal memoir of his parents in his 2013 publication The Last Words.

Crop Brendan E Omahony Liam Oconnor Mick Oconnor 2019
Brendan E. O'Mahony, Liam O'Connor and Mick O'Connor

Upon hearing these recordings, as a fiddle player, I was absolutely blown away by the quality of Séamus's playing, his command, emotion, skill, intensity, tone, subtle ornamentation, flair and polished execution. The more I listen to it, the more nuances I hear in his music. Hearing some similarities in style, tone, rhythmic character between O'Mahony and Tommie Potts becomes more evident too and gives a retrospective into the development of the latter's style. 

I hope these recordings inspire others to find their own hidden gem/”caill-taisce” from the collections awaiting them in the largest and most comprehensive collection of Irish traditional music in the world here at the ITMA. 

In the coming months a total of sixteen tracks will be shared through ITMA’s newsletter and website in order to shine a light on one of Ireland’s forgotten musical figures of the early 20thcentury. 

Bainigí sult as an gceol draíochtúil seo. 

Written & Researched by:

Liam O'Connor

With thanks to:

Brendan E. O’Mahony, Séamus O’Mahony’s son, for permission to make an outstanding recording from 1952 available to the traditional music community. 

Kathy Mirza for her co-operation in 1998 in allowing ITMA copy the 1952 reel-to-reel recording of Séamus O'Mahony in the Fr. Killian Curran Collection.

Seán Keegan, DKIT, who kindly restored the recording to concert pitch and to the speed at which it was originally played. 

ITMA Non-commercial Media Officer, Alan Woods, and Mick O’Connor who contributed significantly to the research on Séamus O’Mahony. 

The boys of Bluehill, hornpipe ; Sweep's, hornpipe / Séamus O'Mahony, fiddle, and Brendan O'Mahony, piano

The Salamanca, reel ; Hand me down the tackle, reel / Séamus O'Mahony. fiddle

An raibh tú ag an gcarraig, air / Séamus O'Mahony, fiddle