The Pennyburn Piper: the Tomás Ó Canainn Collection at ITMA

Tomás Ó Canainn's (1930-2013) contribution to the traditional arts in Ireland manifested itself in a remarkable array of outputs, as an uilleann piper, accordion player, singer, poet, writer, composer, researcher and lecturer. 

In November 2019, the Ó Canainn Family contacted ITMA with the generous news that Tomás' archival legacy was to become part of the national collection. 

ITMA videos are hosted on YouTube, a platform which requires the acceptance of marketing cookies before the video can be launched. Please update your cookie preferences to watch this video. You can change your cookie preferences at any time from the link at the top of the page.

ITMA Field Recording video documenting the donation of the Tomás Ó Canainn Collection February 2020

Originally from Pennyburn just outside Derry, Tomás spent time in England where he was a founder member of the Liverpool Céilí Band. In 1961 he moved to Cork where he became Dean of Engineering in University College Cork (UCC). He studied music in UCC under Aloys Fleischmann and Seán Ó Riada and succeeded Ó Riada as lecturer in Irish music after his death in 1971. He also taught uilleann pipes at the Cork School of Music for many years.

2945 Crd A
Na Filí: Tomás Ó Canainn, Matt Cranitch and Tom Barry

In the late 1960s Ó Canainn formed the successful Irish music group Na Filí along with fiddler Matt Cranitch and whistle player Tom Barry. Réamonn Ó Sé, the original whistle player with Na Filí, recorded on their first album An Ghaoth Aniar/The West Wind in 1969. In the 1970s the group toured extensively in Europe and the US and recorded a number of other albums: Farewell to Connacht (1971); Na Filí 3 (1972); A Kindly Welcome (1974) and Chanter's Tune (1977). 

Tomás was also an accomplished solo performer and toured internationally, lecturing and playing the uilleann pipes. He published a number of solo albums: With Pipe and Song (Outlet, 1980), Béal na Trá (with his daughter Nuala Ní Chanainn, Outlet, 1982); New Tunes for Old (Ó Canainn, 1985); and The Pennyburn Piper presents Uilleann Pipes (Outlet, 1998).

From With pipe and song (Outlet, 1980): At swim with two birds (Ag snámh le dhá éan), jig; Ard Barra, jig / Tomás Ó Canainn, uilleann pipes, composer

Ó Canainn was the author of a number of books on traditional music most notably: Traditional Music in Ireland (Mercier, 1978); biographies in English and Irish on Ó Riada Seán Ó Riada: His Life and Work (Collins Press, 2003), Seán Ó Riada: Saol agus Saothar (with Gearóid Mac an Bhua, Gartan, 1993) and Songs of Cork (Gilbert Dalton, 1978) where he acted as editor for the collection.

He published an autobiographical novel Home to Derry (Appletree Press, 1986), memoirs entitled A Lifetime of Notes (Collins Press, 1996) as well as a book of his own compositions Tomás' Tunebook (Ossian, 1997) and a book of slow airs Traditional Slow Airs of Ireland (with 2 CDs, Ossian, 1995). 

Ó Canainn has a number of choral compositions and arrangements to his name including three masses in Irish; Aifreann Cholmcille (Veritas, 1978), Aifreann Naomh Fionnbarra, and Aifreann Biosántac. He also published two books of poetry Melos (Clog, 1987) and Dornán Dánta (Coiscéim, 2004). 

At the 2004 Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, Ó Canainn was awarded Ard-Ollamh, or Supreme Bard by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.

Toc Fleadh Ticket 2004 Clonmnel Resized
Ticket 2004 Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann

The Tomás Ó Canainn Collection at the Irish Traditional Music Archive 


In February 2020 ITMA staff members Maeve Gebruers and Alan Woods made a number of visits to the home of Helen Ó Canainn and Nuala Ní Chanainn (Tomás’ widow and daughter) in Glanmire, Co Cork. With help from the family, Maeve and Alan sorted through Tomás' multimedia collection, isolating materials which were to be deposited in ITMA. They were particularly interested in acquiring original/unique material for the ITMA collection. 

Alan concentrated on appraising the non-commercial sound and video recordings, particularly field recordings which were made by Ó Canainn down through the years. 

Toc Collection Itma 11 Gt
Selection of audio cassettes in the Tomás Ó Canainn Collection

Maeve examined the print and manuscript items in the collection and gleaned as much information as possible from Helen and Nuala about these materials. This detailed information from the family will greatly assist Maeve in cataloguing the collection in the coming months and years.

Toc Grove Of Glanmire Ms Resized Crop
Manuscript of Groves of Glanmire which was later published in 'Songs of Cork' (Gilbert Dalton, 1978).

In total 15 boxes of manuscripts, printed items, ephemera (posters, flyers, programmes etc.), photographs, film reels, research papers, lecture scripts, scrapbooks, commercial/non-commercial sound and video recordings (LPs, audio cassettes, reel-to-reel tapes etc.) were transferred from the Ó Canainn house in Cork to the Irish Traditional Music Archive. 

These materials will be processed in the coming months with priority given to the digitisation of the most at-risk audio/visual carriers. ITMA is working towards organising and making the Tomás Ó Canainn Collection accessible to the public in the coming years. 

ITMA is extremely grateful to the Ó Canainn family for entrusting this collection of national importance to the Irish Traditional Music Archive.
Toc Radio Calling Card Resized
Tomás Ó Canainn's Amateur Radio QSL Card

This blog was written by Maeve Gebruers & presented by Grace Toland. The video was created and edited by Alan Woods.

April 2020