We are a culture given over to lists, and were I to make a list of the recordings of Irish music that have meant the most to me, an album with Séan Ryan and P.J. Moloney on fiddle and flute would be near the top of the list. Long out of print, a friend shared a second-hand copy with me a few years back and I was instantly captivated. The fiddling is simultaneously languid and lively, smooth and soulful. And, like many others, I had been playing some of Séan's compositions for years before I ever heard his playing: tunes like "The Reel of Rio," "The Glens of Aherlow," and the "Killimor Jig" have become staples of the repertoire. Ryan's legacy suffuses Irish music, with his tunes coming up as frequently as Reavy's or Fahey's in concerts, in sessions, and recordings. In recent years, Brian Ryan, Séan's son, has published two books of Séan's compositions: The Hidden Ireland and Séan Ryan's Dream. I spoke to Brian and his mother Kathleen, as well as spending time in the Irish Traditional Music Archives in Dublin to create this biographical sketch.
Séan Ryan was born in Nenagh, County Tipperary, one of ten children. At an early age the family moved to the Newtown area, and later to Garranmore, outside of Newtown. His father, Thomas Ryan, was a strong dance fiddler, and related by marriage to Dinny O'Brien, the head of a musical family in Newtown. At a young age, Séan would have gone with his father to the house dances of the time, traveling from place to place on foot or by cycle, surrounded by the music. At nine or ten he began learning the fiddle from his father, Thomas. At first Séan would only work the bow while his father did the fingering. That would have lasted for as much as a year, and later on Séan would play at the house dances with his father. Dinny O'Brien's house in Newtown was a great center for music. Dinny's son Paddy was a famous accordion player, revolutionizing Irish box playing with his use of the B/C system, and the sessions at the O'Briens were a focus of musicians in the area, drawing Paddy Fahey and Paddy Kelly, among others.
From such a rooted beginning, Séan grew to be a powerful fiddler, winning a number of competitions in his early thirties. He won the Oireachtas in 1954, the Senior All-Ireland Championship in 1955 and 1956, the All-Ireland duet title with P.J. Moloney in 1956, and later on the trio title with John Brady and Ellen Flanagan. In addition to those talents, Séan was a champion step-dancer at a young age, competing successfully in the feiseanna, and played whistle and flute. In 1961, he formed his own ceili band, with John Brady and Eugene Nolan on flute, Ellen Flanagan and Denis Lyons on accordion, himself and Martin Fallon on fiddle, Jimmy McGrath on drums, and Mrs. Kenny on piano. Also in 1961, Séan met his future wife, Kathleen O'Loughlin, a strong piano player herself. In 1968 Séan and Kathleen toured America with "young" Paddy O'Brien, the box player from Daingean, County Offaly, and the following year they returned, this time with "old" Paddy O'Brien, the box player from Nenagh and Dinny O'Brien's son. The first tour was organized by Bill McEvoy, an Irishman living in Mineola, Long Island. Paddy O'Brien (the younger) was on that tour with Séan and Kathleen, and remembers this:
"Bill McEvoy had heard a composition of Séan's while he was over in Ireland in 1966. He was visiting and heard Séan playing this reel that he had just composed. The reel stayed in Bill's head until finally he went home, and of course he had problems sleeping at night because the tune was going in and out of his head. The memories of it disturbed his sleeping habits. So to cure himself, he decided he'd bring Ryan to America on a tour. Ryan wanted to have someone with him besides Kathleen playing piano accompaniment. He wanted another accordion player, so he asked me to do it....
"He liked to rehearse and was very sensitive about the notes and getting them right. We practiced for a whole year before we went to America, and when we came over here we played a lot around New York. We were made honorary members of the Michael Coleman club and of the Paddy Killoran club. We played in Cleveland and Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia. Met Ed Reavy in Philadelphia -- Séan was excited about meeting Ed Reavy.
"He was very passionate about playing, and I've heard people saying that if a child met Séan Ryan on the road with his fiddle and asked him to play a tune, he'd play a tune straight away. Of course, he neglected his farm an awful lot because of the music. Abandoning horses in the middle of the field, where he'd be plowing. He'd think of a tune and he'd run into the house, forget about the horses. Later on, he'd go back out in the field and the place would be a mess, the horses rambling around dragging the plow behind them.
"But Séan Ryan, if he had an audience, if he had a few people really listening to him -- it meant an awful lot to him and he'd play his heart out, he'd play very well. Once he'd get into those relaxed circumstances, in a kitchen where there'd be good followers of the music, it's almost as if he had a personality change, it would lift him up so much. He really didn't have too much interest in anything in life, other than his wife and family. The music was the big thing."
Séan started composing in the early '50s, after he had been playing for a good while. Kathleen attributes much of his inspiration to nature and the farm: "He just got a run of notes if he was out working in the fields and he'd develop that later on. I suppose it was inspiration from nature, the birds and such." Perhaps it was something in the soil, for the region was much richer in composers than other parts of Ireland: Paddy Fahey, Paddy O'Brien, Paddy Kelly, and Junior Crehan were all in the area, and all produced great and distinctive tunes.
Séan passed away in 1985, having accomplished as much as any fiddler could hope. His compositions are perennially popular, and those lucky enough to find recordings of his playing continue to be inspired by his smooth bow hand and sweet touch.
[For the full text of this article, as well as a transcription of Séan's tune "Ballyfin Lake," purchase the Winter 04/05 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]
[Brendan Taaffe lives in Massachusetts, where he plays both fiddle and guitar. He holds a master's degree in traditional Irish fiddle from the University of Limerick, currently plays with Magic Foot and Colman's Well, and directs Turtle Dove Harmony. Please see www.brendantaaffe.com and www.myspace.com/magicfootmusic.]
Photo: Séan Ryan with his wife Kathleen and Paddy O'Brien, 1968