ONE of the curious things about the master fiddler Séamus Creagh was that he didn’t come from a traditional music stronghold. He was born in the parish of Killucan, Co Westmeath, in 1946. His family had little interest in trad, and he only knew of one fiddle player, Larry Ward, locally.
“He was out of the norm. He used to say he was a changeling,” says William Hammond, the organiser of the Cork Folk Festival, which is holding a tribute night next Saturday in Creagh’s memory.
Creagh did, however, get caught up in the showband craze that swept the midlands in the 1960s, playing electric guitar for several outfits in the area, including the Carolinas, a band in which he replaced Joe Dolan. Their manager was Donie Cassidy, the former Fianna Fáil senator and TD.
“Seamus said that Donie Cassidy bought them dance band shoes that they could wear on stage, but he bought them a size too small so that they wouldn’t be able to wear them out off stage,” says Seán Ó Loingsigh, who played bouzouki on an album Creagh recorded with the ex-De Danann box player Aidan Coffey in 1997.
Creagh drifted down to Munster in the late 1960s, famously ending up living on Sherkin Island for a spell where he worked several different jobs, including salmon fishing and as a postman.
“I heard the post was often late, but the craic on the island must have been absolutely brilliant,” says Hammond.
It was Creagh’s partnership with the accordionist Jackie Daly in the 1970s that brought him to wider attention. Their 1977 album, Jackie Daly agus Séamus Creagh, has become a seminal work in the Sliabh Luachra tradition.
Daly used to be fond of saying Creagh’s ability to play a slow air would “bring tears to a glass eye”, which always brought a laugh. They were notorious for ribbing each other during sessions together.
“Séamus used to tell a story,” says Hammond. “They were after playing a gig up in Roscrea. They were travelling and they’d stopped in the middle of a town because they were tired. There might have been drink taken. It was about two o’clock in the morning.
“There was a fella on a railing. He was moving very slowly across the railings. Séamus went up to him and asked him, ‘What are you doing?’ He said: ‘I’m going home by rail.’ ”
Hammond remembers first meeting Creagh in the Gables Bar on Cork’s Douglas St around 1982. “It was a real scene in those days,” he says.
“One of his tunes was a Shetland tune called ‘The Four Poster Bed’. It was kind of a solo that he played late at night. In the middle of the reel he tapped the bottom of the bow on the four posts of the fiddle.”
Hammond remembers touring with Creagh in London around the turn of the millennium. He says he could “get you out of trouble”.
They arrived at a venue in South London to play, but the organiser was nervous about all the ballad singing that would be going on.
“At the end of the night, he said: ‘Would you mind not playing the Irish national anthem, but would you play’ Faith of Our Fathers’?’ We hadn’t a clue how to play it, but Séamus knew it so we followed him.”
Creagh was good for singing a song. He’d pick unusual, playful songs like ‘Ten Minutes Too Late’ to entertain. In the middle of all the jigs and reels and polkas, he was renowned, too, for his slow airs such as ‘An Ciarraíoch Mallaithe’ (The Cursed Kerryman).
“He had a very sweet touch on all types of tunes,” says Ó Loingsigh. “In a reel, in the middle of a fast tune, he could put beautiful ornamentation on a note.”
Creagh moved to Newfoundland in 1988. He made a remarkable impression in the Canadian province. There is a festival, Féile Séamus Creagh held in its capital city, St John’s, each year.
Gerry Strong, who played alongside Creagh in the band Trickle Harbour, will travel over from Newfoundland to perform at the Cork Folk Festival’s tribute night.
It was in Newfoundland that Creagh met Marie-Annick Desplanques, his second wife. They married in 1991, two years before moving back together to live in Ireland.
“He had given up drink so his true self came through,” she says. “He was always a very quiet person. His gentleness, his softness — I’m not saying he was soft in the mind. He was strong about his opinions, but he was very open-minded. He was very generous in letting people be what they wanted to be.”
Ó Loingsigh last saw Creagh perform a gig — on the night of Creagh’s 63rd birthday — with Daly, Alec Finn and Paul de Grae at The Gleneagle Hotel in Killarney a few weeks before Creagh passed away.
His funeral was on St Patrick’s Day, 2009. It was only in hindsight that Ó Loingsigh realised how ill he must have been that night. A light had gone out.
“He would have been very sad to leave this world,” he says. “What comes to mind is Nuala O’Faolain’s radio interview with Marian Finucane shortly before she died from cancer. What was it she said? ‘I have more songs to sing.’ I would think that was the way with Séamus as well — he had more to take from the world and more to give it.”
There will be a tribute to Séamus Creagh, featuring Matt Cranitch, Jackie Daly, Hammy Hamilton, Aidan Coffey, Donal Lunny, Paddy Glackin, amongst other musicians, at 8pm next Saturday at Cork School of Music. See www.corkfolkfestival.com
Highlights of the Cork Folk Festival (October 1-4)
Thursday, Cork Opera House
Composer Peadar Ó Riada premieres a collection of new compositions, pipes and orchestral arrangements, featuring some special guests.
Thursday, The Pav
The trad group from Co Sligo have had a notable year, including the release of a new album, The Thrush in the Storm, which they will likely dip into on the night.
Friday, CIT Cork School of Music
The ensemble will take time out from broadcasting on the BBC and playing live at the Hollywood Bowl to stir things up on Friday night.
Friday, Cork Opera House
The headline act this year will be a twist from Cork’s international songwriter, returning to the festival for the first time since 1993.
Saturday, Cyprus Avenue
The two-time Meteor award-winner returns to Cork to play some of his favourite songs.