Seán Keane 1946‑2023

The Irish Traditional Music Archive is devastated to learn of the passing of legendary fiddle player Seán Keane, one of the greatest ever exponents of Irish traditional music.

Sean Keane with logo June 2022

Seán Keane earned world renown as a pivotal member of The Chieftains who he joined in 1968 after coming to prominence with Ceoltóirí Chualann and the Castle Céilí Band earlier in the decade.

His powerful fiddle playing married technical virtuosity with an incredibly insightful and sensitive understanding of what made Irish traditional music distinctively beautiful. He was a beacon for our traditional art.

His professional career spanned nearly 60 years and his output was extraordinarily prolific, with The Chieftains, with musical confidantes Matt Molloy, Liam O’Flynn and many others and, strikingly, as an exceptional soloist. His 1975 recording Gusty’s Frolics is an enduring classic of Irish art. It was recorded the day after The Chieftains had performed in the Albert Hall for the first time. His other two solo recordings Seán Keane and Jig It In Style are essential parts of the canon of Irish music.

The body of breathtakingly brilliant non-commercial recordings in existence in ITMA is equally incredible, franking a very productive and important period in the history of music in Ireland.

Seán attributed his inspiration to his parents, from Clare and Longford respectively, and his connection with what he described as the ‘old music’ honed creatively through the generations and passed on to himself and his brother James as children.

Born in 1946, Seán grew up in the south Dublin suburb of Drimnagh and though imbued with music from the cradle, his technical development was strengthened by formal tuition in the School of Music and attentive listening to the great gramophone-era recordings of the Sligo master fiddlers Michael Coleman, James Morrison and Paddy Killoran along with Dubliner Frank O’Higgins.

He displayed an insatiable desire to learn the very best of what traditional music had to offer, frequenting the old Church Street and Pipers Clubs in Dublin and traversing the country as a youngster with his lifelong friend Mick O’Connor, playing with and learning from legends like Willie Clancy, Séamus Ennis and sean-nós singer Seosamh Ó hÉanaí.

He absorbed the unique components of the regional fiddle styles – the music of Pádraic O’Keeffe in Sliabh Luachra, John Kelly, Bobby Casey, Patrick Kelly and Joe Ryan in West Clare and John Doherty in Donegal. He also had a great love for the great Scottish fiddle music of Scott Skinner which formed a rich part of Seán’s expansive repertoire.

He was also very taken by the distinctive and vocal qualities of the uilleann pipes which influenced his highly stylized and original fiddle ornamentation.

The result was the emergence of a master, whose artistic ambition was unfettered.

He loved every minute of his career with The Chieftains and was deeply grateful to Paddy Moloney for his enduring leadership. They formed a very special bond musically and personally. Equally Seán carried great respect for Seán Ó Riada and the experience of sharing a creative period with musicians like Sonny Brogan, John Kelly, Seán Potts and Michael Tubridy.

Naturally inquisitive and ambitious as a fiddle player, Seán always enjoyed working with different musicians and genres and excelled as a collaborator cherishing the opportunities afforded to him through The Chieftains.

However, he was single-minded in his respect for, and his interest in, source. He was utterly unpretentious, always returning to what inspired him – the great music passed down through our folk tradition. He never felt any contradiction that the ‘palette’ from which he drew as an artist was Irish traditional music.

Arriving back from an arduous Chieftains tour he could be practicing with Matt Molloy on a duet performance or recording within days. This rapport he shared with Molloy yielded Contentment is Wealth, one of the greatest recordings of Irish music.

He always made time to attend the annual Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, local performances and sessions and understood the existential importance of the Irish music community.

ITMA were honoured to have worked with Seán in making a documentary film in 2022. “A Portrait of an Artist: Seán Keane”, was shown at Miltown Malbay last July.

Clare held a very special place in Seán’s heart. His soulmate Marie, who he lost tragically in March 2020, hailed from Ennistymon. A kindred spirit, Marie was the bedrock of Seán’s life supporting his artistic career and as he said himself, essentially rearing their three children Páraic, Deirdre and Darach in his absence with the band.

Family was everything to Seán extending to his adoration for his grandchildren, palpable whenever the family would gather at musical events.

To Páraic, Deirdre and Darach, extended family, friends and fellow musicians, ITMA extends its deepest sympathies.

Leaba is measc na laochra go raibh aige