RIP Flute Player Seamus Tansey
The renowned Irish traditional flute player Seamus Tansey has passed away. His virtuosic playing influenced generations of musicians from the 1960s onwards and his recordings played a key role in the resurgence in the popularity of the instrument in the second half of the twentieth century.
Tansey was born in 1943 and grew up in Gurteen, County Sligo. His mother was a fiddle player and his father played the tin whistle. The area had a strong Wren Boy tradition and the accompanying traditional flute and bodhrán playing was an early influence on him.
He began learning the whistle with his father and came to the flute quite late at age 17. His local area was traditionally strong in flute players, but by the time he came to the instrument many had emigrated. In a video interview recorded by the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin last September, Tansey said, ‘Just when I needed them most, all these flute players… they were all swept away by the emigrant ship… I was left a musical orphan, you could say.’
He was, however, influenced by the music he learned from his mother, recordings of musicians such as Michael Coleman, Ciarán MacMathúna’s radio programme A Job of Journeywork, and flute players such as Paddy Joe Moloney from Tipperary and Peadar O’Loughlin from Clare.
Tansey dedicated himself to the instrument and just a few years later in 1965 he won the senior all-Ireland competition at the Fleadh Cheoil. He also played extensively at the time with the Coleman Country Ceili Band.
In 1967, he released Masters of Irish Music, with Eddie Corcoran, on the Leader label, and in 1969 he appeared on the The Breeze From Erin album on Topic Records, alongside Willie Clancy, Tony MacMahon, Festy Conlon and Corcoran. In the 1970s, Tansey recorded influential albums such as Séamus Tansey – Traditional Irish Music (1970) with Josephine Keegan on piano, and King of the Concert Flute (1976) accompanied by Charlie Lennon. His powerful playing drew wide attention and he was regarded as an exemplar of the Sligo style. Subsequent recordings include Jigs, Reels and Airs (1981), Easter Snow (1997), To Hell with the Begrudgers with fiddle player Jim McKillop (1998) and Words and Music: The Phantom Shadows of a Connaught Firelight (2001), which includes stories as well as music.
Tansey was known for having strong opinions on traditional music and in a 1999 essay in the Crossroads Conference book he criticised modern developments in arrangement and accompaniment and emphasised the influence of the natural world on the origins of the art form. In his interview with ITMA, referring to traditional style and ornamentation and quoting the Sligo whistle player Jim Donoghue, Tansey said, ‘You have to bring it all with you, not like a horse going through a hedge’. In 1999, he published a book on music in Sligo titled The Bardic Apostles of Innisfree and this was followed by a second volume in 2009.
In 2017, he featured in a special edition of the TG4 series Sé Mo Laoch, with Matt Molloy and Michael Flatley. In the programme, Tansey comments, ‘Between us, I like to think that we dragged Irish traditional concert flute playing kicking and screaming into the twentieth and twenty-first century.’
Seamus Tansey’s funeral will take place on 13 July at The Oratory in Larne, Co. Antrim, BT40 1RQ, followed by a session and refreshments at the Masonic Hall, Mill Brae, Larne, BT40 2DE. The funeral mass will also be broadcast live on Facebook. On Sunday 17 July at 2pm there will be a service and burial of ashes at Gurteen Cemetery, Co. Sligo, F56 VE08, followed by a celebration of the musician’s life, with a music session and refreshments at The Crossbar, Gurteen, Co. Sligo.
Watch Seamus Tansey’s Irish Traditional Music Archive interview with flute player Barry Kerr below.
Published on 11 July 2022