Seán Keane obituary

<span>Photograph: Ross Gilmore/Redferns</span>
Photograph: Ross Gilmore/Redferns

Before Riverdance became a global Irish dance sensation, and standing apart from the raucous and good-time Irish music of the Clancy Brothers, the Dubliners and the Pogues, there was the Chieftains: Irish traditional music, arranged and played in an exciting and popular style without compromising its integrity.

Paddy Moloney, on uilleann pipes and whistle,may have been the central figure and spokesperson for the band, but his fellow musicians were just as accomplished. Seán Keane, who has died aged 76, became the band’s lead fiddle player, first playing with the Chieftains in 1968 and making his last appearance with them in April to perform for President Joe Biden on his visit to Ireland. He was a virtuoso musician, displaying a technical mastery of the fiddle that few could equal.

In 1963, the Dublin label Claddagh Records asked Moloney to put together a band to record an album: The Chieftains became the name of the album and the band. Seán’s debut with the Chieftains was at an open-air concert at the Edinburgh festival, and his first recording was on the album The Chieftains 2 album in 1969. He really made his mark on The Chieftains 4 (1973) with his solo, The Bucks of Oranmore.

For his first seven years in the band, Seán and his fellow Chieftains were still fitting full-time jobs around their band commitments, which included a trip to New York for a single concert in 1972 with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the audience.

Then, on St Patrick’s Day 1975, the promoter Jo Lustig booked them into the Royal Albert Hall in London. Disbelieving Lustig’s claim that he would fill the hall, they promised that if he did, they would turn professional. The broadcaster John Peel introduced the band on stage to a full house. With Seán in a secure job as a post office telegraph engineer, and raising a young family, his wife, Marie, was opposed to the uncertainty of a musical career, but he agreed to a three-year trial period. He never returned to the post office.

The Chieftains toured the world, collaborating with a wide range of musicians and musical genres. They performed on the Great Wall of China with Chinese musicians, with Mexican musicians and Ry Cooder, and with Luciano Pavarotti, James Galway, Van Morrison, the Rolling Stones and Madonna. In 1992 they recorded Another Country in Nashville with a host of country music performers including Ricky Skaggs, Kris Kristofferson, Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson. Seán also played alongside his teenage idol, the guitarist Chet Atkins, on an unlikely pairing of Heartbreak Hotel and The Cliffs of Moher.

The band performed for Pope John Paul II in 1979 and for Queen Elizabeth II on her first official visit to Ireland in 2011. They brought Irish traditional music to new audiences, including at the Glastonbury festival in 1982. During Seán’s time with the Chieftains, the band won six Grammys and a lifetime achievement award at the 2002 BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards. Seán won the TG4 television station traditional musician of the year award in 2004.

Seán Keane performing in 1976.
Seán Keane performing in 1976. Photograph: Odile Noel/Alamy

In 2022, the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin completed a film documentary, Seán Keane: A Portrait of an Artist, to celebrate his lifetime of music making. In the film, the fiddler and Bothy Band founder, Paddy Glackin, spoke of Seán’s exceptional bow-to-string contact, the flamboyance of his playing and his ability to uncover different tonal colours.

“His playing of Dark Lochnagar was emotional and spiritual,” Glackin said. Seán fully understood and absorbed the regional styles of Irish fiddle playing but was particularly drawn to those from County Clare and the Sliabh Luachra area of Kerry, Cork and Limerick.

Born in Dublin, he had a childhood filled with music. His father, Patrick, who worked in the Clondalkin paper mills, and mother, Mary, were both fiddle players, and Seán took up the instrument at the age of six.

At nine, he was spotted playing alongside his brother James on accordion by Moloney, who immediately recognised his talent. Seán was accepted by the Dublin College of Music to study classical music, which he later acknowledged greatly improved his traditional music playing technique. By the age of 14 he was also playing traditional music in a variety of bands, including the Castle Ceílí Band with his brother.

Leaving Drimnagh Castle school at 16, he first became an apprentice boiler maker. By the age of 18 he had been invited by the composer and arranger Seán Ó’Riada to join Ceoltóirí Chualann, the forerunner of the Chieftains, which presented Irish traditional music in the style of a chamber orchestra. Fellow members included future members of the Chieftains, Moloney and the fiddle player Martin Fay.

In addition to his recordings with the Chieftains, Seán recorded several solo albums that were much admired: Gusty’s Frolicks (1975, re-released in 2000), Seán Keane (1982) and Jig it in Style (1990), as well as a duo album with a fellow Chieftain, Matt Molloy (Contentment is Wealth, 1985), and a trio album with Molloy and Liam O’Flynn (The Fire Aflame, 1992).

Marie (nee Conneally), died in 2020. He is survived by their three children, Darach, Páraic and Déirdre, and by James.

• Seán Keane, musician, born 12 July 1946; died 7 May 2023