There is a substantial element of spirituality in James Keane’s love for and dedication to Irish traditional music. It is embodied in his demeanor as a quiet, thoughtful reverence that is both heartfelt and profound, but it is conveyed in his playing as a joyous devotion – tremendously uplifting, self- renewing, and triumphantly alive with emotion.
Raised with a deep and abiding respect for his culture, he draws most of his inspiration from the belief that traditional music is more than a mere pastime or entertainment, but rather, in a very real sense, is a living history of the Irish people – a chronicle, embedded in sound, of everything that has gone on up until this moment and, as such, must be treasured by each succeeding generation. James Keane has treasured this music for his entire life.
Born in Drimnagh, Dublin, in 1948. he began teaching himself, with one finger, the button accordion not long after his sixth birthday, and was first taught the essence of the tradition by his parents, Patrick and Mary “Molly” Keane, and by his uncles James and Peter Hanly of County Longford. Accomplished musicians all, they brought him into a circle of people, places, and events from which he would absorb the nuances of the music and come to know some of the finest musicians who ever picked up a box, bow, whistle or chanter. Names like Leo Rowsome, Willie Clancy, Joe Cooley, Tommy Potts, Sonny Brogan, John Kelly, Paddy Taylor, Tommy Reck, Denis Murphy and Seamus Ennis – the acknowledged masters of their generation – who gave freely of their time and talents to instruct the younger players, and particularly rewarded James’ gentle manner and eagerness to learn with their wit, wisdom, and friendship.
As a teenager, then, James possessed not only an unbridled, youthful enthusiasm for the music, but also the temperament and maturity of a seasoned performer. By 1963 he’d won the first of four All-Ireland accordion titles and had co-founded (along with his brother Sean and Mick O’Connor) The Castle Ceili Band, which would in time emerge as one of the most admired and often imitated ensembles of the era. With a lineup that over the years included John Kelly, Joe Ryan, Sean Keane, Liam Rowsome, John Dwyer, Michael Tubridy, Mick O’Connor, Bridie Lafferty, and Benny Carey, “The Castle“ brought James a share in a fifth All-Ireland championship and, coupled with his consecutive wins in solo competitions, established him, by the age of seventeen, as a nationally known figure in the traditional music arena.
Having so earned the respect and fellowship of the patriarchs of the music, James also forged strong ties with a number of kindred spirits of his own generation – musicians from every corner of Ireland who were drawn to Dublin in the mid-1960s either to seek work, to attend university, or to bask in the glow of the burgeoning folk music scene.
Among them was Matt Molloy, a flute player from Bealach An Doirin in Co Roscommon. And there was Tommy Peoples, a fiddler from St. Johnston in Co. Donegal whose fierce abilities with a bow and rarely heard repertoire of northern tunes were causing heads to turn at every session he frequented. And Liam Og O’Flynn, who was born into a family of well known fiddle players, and was staunchly determined to learn the “fine art of piping” from the “king“ himself, Leo Rowsome.
Together, they immersed themselves in the tradition and “paid their dues“ at innumerable sessions in The Pipers Club on Thomas Street or across the Liffey at the Church Street Club, in The Embankment or the 95, at O’Donoghue’s on Merrion Row, or at Slattery’s on Capel Street. At a vibrant time that is now looked back on as the watershed for the modern era of Irish traditional music, they, and others like them, practiced their art with an energy and exuberance that captured the imagination of an entirely new generation of listeners, inspired an entirely new generation of musicians, and eventually led to the widespread global recognition that the music enjoys today.
The course of their musical camaraderie, however, took a slight detour in 1967 when James, anxious to experience the sights and sounds of the world, emigrated to New York following a short tour of America with Joe Burke, Kathleen Collins and Paddy Carthy in the Loughrea Ceili Band. Once there, he quickly established himself in a highly respected solo career, and has since achieved legendary status as a mainstay of the Irish-American traditional music scene.
But since those late 1960s, James’ path and those of his former musical colleagues have crossed all too infrequently. And while it is often said that one cannot fully sustain a relationship that is based primarily in the past, that theory discounts the intangible elements of spirituality that is, again, the very heart of James Keane’s approach to Irish music. Because if that past relationship is underscored by the memory of having shared with you a reel, a jig, or a slow air, then all that’s required to make the many years that may have passed seem like a momentary lapse of time is the drone of a reed, the trill of a whistle, the throaty rush of a flute, or the strings touched by a bow.
2020 Recipient of the Irish Artist in America Achievement Award