Sharon Shannon, 52, is one of Ireland’s greatest accordion players. She attracted international fame with the release of her self-titled debut album, Sharon Shannon, in 1991, the first of over a dozen albums, including her latest, The Reckoning. Having grown up on a dairy farm outside Ruan, Co Clare, she has made Galway city her home since 1988. Her family is profiled in Comhluadar Ceoil, a TG4 series about musical families. The episode is still available on the TG4 Player.
My parents were music mad. They loved dancing. They passed on their love of music to all four of us. My brother Garry took up the concert flute; my sister Majella the fiddle; and my sister Mary, the banjo. I chose the accordion because my auntie’s husband, a guy called Eamon Mee from Liscannor, Co Clare, was a big jolly man who used to play a small Hohner button accordion. I loved the sound of it and the look of it. As a small child, I was absolutely fascinated by it, especially the movement of the bellows. But we were never allowed to play it or hold it or touch it. It was like this little kind of magical thing that makes this magical noise, but we couldn’t go near it. He was probably afraid we’d damaged it. It seemed to be something that was out of our reach. So when I was 11 and was asked what instrument I’d like to play, I said: 'an accordion'.
I found with the accordion you're not struggling to find a note. With the fiddle or flute, to get a good tone on the instrument takes a lot of hard work, even to play a single note or the scale. With the accordion, it’s simple: you press a button and move the bellows and there's your note straight away. It’s the same with the piano – the note is there. There isn't much you can do to feck it up! So nearly straight away, I was able to pick out a simple little tune. There’s great satisfaction out of it because it's so instant.
Donegal fiddle player Tommy Peoples was a huge influence on me growing up. I listened to his records and tapes non-stop. He developed a unique fiddle style that was fierce and untamed. Over the years, many of us tried to imitate him, but there’s a dimension to Tommy's music that is inimitable. There's something extraordinarily special about his music – something divine that even with thousands of hours of practice you would never be able to tap into. It definitely felt like Tommy's music was somehow connected to something otherworldly. To me, he was a bit like Albert Einstein.
When we were very young, the only Irish music that we had at home on records was céilí band music. With a céilí band, you can’t really hear the individual instruments and how special it is what each instrument is doing. I remember hearing a compilation tape and hearing Matt Molloy for the first time. He was playing a tune called The Contradiction, which is a very difficult tune on the flute. I was blown away by how he could be so technically brilliant. The feel he had for the music. He’s an absolute powerhouse and a hero to so many in the Irish music scene.
Tommy Peoples and Matt Molloy were both in The Bothy Band. That band was amazing. Matt, Tommy and Paddy Keenan, the piper, played the melody instruments in the band. Dónal Lunny used to describe them as being like a three-headed monster. Dónal described the accompanists – himself who played the bouzouki; Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill who played a clavinet; and Mícheál Ó Domhnaill who played the guitar – as the engine behind the three-headed monster. They were massive.
Growing up in the 1980s, we couldn't wait for every new Stockton’s Wing record that came out. We were dying for it because we learned those records from back to front, inside-out. I was hugely influenced by the melody instruments in that band – Kieran Hanrahan’s banjo playing and Maurice Lennon on the fiddle. He was such beautiful rhythm on the fiddle, such great swing, and then Paul Roche is a gorgeous flute player. Those are three of my favourite musicians of all-time.
There was magic in the air in Galway in the late-1980s. There was a great old vibe in the Quay St area. There was Irish music coming out of all the pubs. De Dannan were flying it, a band that I've been hugely influenced by. We used to go to a pub called Clogs, a little shebeen down a laneway, across the road from Mick Taylor’s. It was like a secret place, all bales of hay and sawdust. There was no normal stools. They used a board across barrels for seats. There used to be gigs inside. All these great sessions were happening in pubs like The Quays and Naughton’s. As well as all this amazing music going on, there was Druid Theatre and these brilliant actors coming to town. They might be staying for six weeks to do a play. And the Galway Arts Festival at that time was a lot more Irish music-orientated. There was this fantastic excitement around.
Myself, Sean Smith, Brendan O’Regan and Kevin Haugh started doing gigs together in The Quays and Naughton’s. Those sessions were epic, mighty craic altogether. They were informal. Everyone would be standing around. Everyone was part of it. They’d be roaring when we’d change key into another tune: “Yahoooo!” They were totally into it. I remember each set of tunes we used to play, we were so into it we didn't want to stop.
The sessions started at four o'clock and were supposed to finish around eight o’clock. I remember one beautiful sunny evening. The two double doors at the side of Naughton’s on Cross St were wide open. People were out in the street. The pub was packed. We said, 'OK, we’ll play one more for the road', but sure we didn't want it to end at all. The session was just taking off, lifting the roof off the place. Other musicians had joined in – Jackie Daly, Martín O'Connor, Steve Cooney, Seamus Begley, Máirín Fahy, Chris Kelly.
We stopped at 4.40 in the morning. There was about four cops inside looking at us, laughing. They knew there was no point in trying to stop it because there was something magical going on. The sessions in those days were unstoppable.