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Seamus McGuire: An Ocean of Music
Tim McCarrick
2010-05-14

Seamus McGuire, originally from County Sligo, enjoys a dual career: medical doctor specializing in pediatrics and professional musician. Born into a very musical family, his parents played music, as do his sisters and his brother Manus (by the way, also a doctor). Seamus now lives on the shores of Lough Swilly in County Donegal with his wife Una. Their sons Patrick and Neil are following in the McGuire family tradition –– both are medical students and both play the fiddle!

From the beginning, Seamus managed to bridge the classical and traditional worlds –– winning prestigious fiddle contests (Fiddler of Dooney, The Oireachtas) and playing with the Dublin Symphony Orchestra. A bit later, the influential group Buttons and Bows featured Seamus, his brother Manus, Jackie Daly, and Garry O’Briain. His highly-acclaimed solo album The Wishing Tree melds classical with traditional, as does his ongoing work with the West Ocean String Quartet, who have just released their third CD, Ae Fond Kiss.

I was delighted to be able to talk to Seamus about his background and influences, as well as his current work.

You and your brother Manus are from Sligo, right? So you began your playing there?

Yes, we did, starting at the early age of six or seven. Our parents, Paddy and Jo, loved music and both played –– our mom was a fine violin player and our dad played piano. They shared a particular love of Irish traditional music, and encouraged us to play from a very early age. I think we were very fortunate to grow up in the kind of musical environment in which classical music was encouraged as well as Irish music, and that gave us a broadly based interest in music of different kinds. Yehudi Menuhin was on our family record player as often as Michael Coleman and James Morrison!

One of the interesting things that happened in our house as we grew up was the arrival of musical friends of our parents, including some from the United States. Among our visitors was the celebrated New York-based fiddler, Lad O’Beirne, whose younger brother, Dick O’Beirne, was an English teacher in Sligo Grammar School and a good friend of my parents. Lad was a very influential fiddle player in New York as a younger man, and his dad, Phil O’Beirne, taught Michael Coleman how to play. Lad would visit our home in Sligo, bring his fiddle, play great tunes for us kids, and send us recordings of sessions from New York. Looking back on it now, that was a really inspiring start to our traditional music education!

I also met Paddy Killoran, another great US-based Irish fiddle player, at a Fleadh Ceoil in Mayo when I was a small boy… So we had a very interesting time when we were kids, meeting other musicians and hearing lots of different types of music, and playing in competitions such as the Fleadh Ceoil and the Sligo Feis Ceoil, one traditional, the other classical.

My sisters studied piano and the Irish harp, and Manus and I concentrated on the fiddle. One of my sisters, Fiona, played piano along with John Lee and myself on our album The Missing Reel, which is an exploration of music from Leitrim and Sligo. So to get back to your question, I had a very musical family with lots of support and encouragement from the beginning –– a great start to my life in music.

Sadly our dad, Paddy, died in June 2009, but his musical legacy lives on through his family –– most of his grandchildren are fine young musicians, something which made him very proud.

To take my own musical story a step further, I had to make a big decision when I reached the age of seventeen –– I had to decide which career I was going to pursue and I was quite interested in music as a career. But I also enjoyed science in school and had an interest in studying medicine. My parents encouraged me, I think, in the direction of medicine rather than music. Initially I was undecided and I brought my fiddle over to college in Galway and played a bit, but I decided to concentrate on medicine as my career, and I’ve absolutely no regrets. I’ve had a very rewarding and interesting life in pediatrics, and I feel privileged to have had this most interesting career. I managed to keep my music going as well, which is something that some people find a little bit unusual –– but it can be done with a lot of careful planning and time management, and I don’t play golf [laughter], which is the standard answer I give when people ask me (which they often do) where I find time for music and medicine –– I don’t play golf, unlike many of my medical colleagues!

My brother Manus is a doctor, too –– he’s a GP, a family physician, in East Clare –– in a place called Scarriff on the shores of Lough Derg –– where there’s a deep-rooted interest in traditional music. And I live in Donegal, in the northwest of Ireland, where traditional music is also very prominent –– we’ve got well-known groups such as Altan and Clannad, and many other well-known musicians such as Tommy Peoples and Dermot Byrne have also come from this part of the world.

I read that you did an internship in Canada?

I did my residency training in pediatrics at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, a famous medical institution with a world-wide reputation, an inspiring place to work and study. A life-changing experience which I still feel so lucky to have completed…

Did that get you learning different styles of tunes?

It was really amazing how it worked out. I went to Toronto as a young medical graduate to do my post-graduate residency in pediatrics, and purely by good fortune, I arrived in a place which introduced me to the world of non-Irish fiddle music! At Canadian folk festivals I had an opportunity to meet fiddle players from Cape Breton, the Ottawa Valley, Scandinavia, and the United States –– in fact, I played briefly in a band called Hang the Piper with Ian Robb, a well-known Ottawa-based folk singer. We played at a few festivals in North America –– including the Philadelphia Folk Festival one year… and we performed at a very beautiful festival called Mariposa, held every summer on the magical Toronto islands. There I had the opportunity to meet Tom Anderson, the great Shetland fiddle player who was an iconic figure in Shetland and Scottish fiddling. I was really glad to have had a chance to meet him at Mariposa, and again some years later at a fiddle festival in Shetland. My brother Manus came to Canada when I was there, during his vacation from medical school –– he played the fiddle for the whole summer, and made some good friends in the music world in Toronto at that time.

That was the period in 1980 when we recorded our first fiddle duet album, for a label called Folk Legacy, based in Sharon, Connecticut, under the kindly guidance of Sandy Paton, a great supporter of our music. The album was titled The Humours of Lissadell after a reel of the same name. Lissadell is a beautiful coastal place in County Sligo made famous by W.B. Yeats. He wrote some of his most beautiful poems about Lissadell House and the Gore-Booth family who lived there.

A short while later I met the great box-player, Jackie Daly, in Toronto. He was over there on tour with De Dannan and we played at a memorable session in downtown Toronto one evening. That was the start of the next chapter –– because a few years later, in 1983 back in Ireland, Manus and I and Jackie Daly formed a band with Garry O’Briain, the mandocello and guitar player. We called the band Buttons and Bows. We recorded two albums with Green Linnet and one with Gael Linn. The interesting thing for Manus and me was that we were able to bring back to Ireland a lot of the music which we had learned in Canada from such far-flung places as Sweden and Shetland.

Manus and I and Jackie recorded Canadian waltzes, which had never really been played very much in Ireland before. And this was a new, exciting time because we brought music from Canada, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton and Shetland, which we had learned in Toronto, back to Ireland, where some of the tunes may have originated…you could say the circle was completed!

….

[For the rest of this interview, along with Seamus’ transcription of “Esther’s Reel” (played on the West Ocean String Quartet’s new CD, Ae Fond Kiss, as well as on Buttons and Bows’ first album, entitled Buttons and Bows), purchase the summer 2010 issue.]

[The West Ocean String Quartet’s new CD, Ae Fond Kiss, with special guest Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill, has just been released. For more information, please visit their website at www.wosq.com.]

[Tim McCarrick works as a music editor for J.W. Pepper. He has written about fiddle playing for Fiddler Magazine and Mel Bay’s Fiddle Sessions website. He has nearly 20 arrangements published for school orchestras from Mozart and Beethoven to Gershwin and Led Zeppelin, and he is also working on a string method book, and that, ladies and gentlemen, is why he never updates the Irish Fiddle website! He lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with one wife, two daughters, two dogs, and lots of stringed instruments.]

Photo above by Shane McCarthy. West Ocean String Quartet, left to right: Seamus McGuire, Niamh Crowley, Ken Rice, Neil Martin.