NORTH YARMOUTH — One might say Séamus Connolly was born to make music, and through his success he has paid homage to those who came before him.
“The music was always in my home,” the 69-year-old native of Killaloe, County Clare, Ireland, reflected last week. “Both my parents were musicians. My father played the accordion and the flute, and he was an old-time dancer as well. He made up his own dance steps.”
At the age of 12, Connolly picked up the Irish fiddle and taught himself to play it, and soon he was winning competitions.
Decades later he is renowned around the world as a master of traditional Irish music. This year he has been awarded the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, and recently the National Endowment for the Arts named the North Yarmouth resident an NEA National Heritage Fellow.
Connolly had been encouraged by his father to hear the recordings of Michael Coleman, a famous fiddler of County Sligo who became a hero to Connolly. Once he reached his mid-20s, Connolly was 10-time champion of the Irish National Fiddle Championship, a feat no other musician has accomplished, according to the NEA.
“I began to meet the old master players, and they accepted me into their fold, and I watched them playing,” Connolly said.
He called the folk musical tradition both oral and aural. As a youth he learn a song from the old 78-rpm records, which his father collected, slowing down the piece to hear it more gradually, tuning his fiddle down accordingly to emulate what he heard.
The music “stays inside you,” he said. “The thing … about learning in that way, you retain the tune, and you retain the feeling of it and what you’ve heard from the older people. Most of the older people didn’t read music.”
“The music has to be heard, the style has to be played to interpret what’s going on,” Connolly said. “It’s all sort of incorporated in the culture. … (An) old piper in Ireland, Willie Clancy … said it’s the music of the earth. The people live it in their lives.”
He traveled to the U.S. in 1972 as part of the first Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann tour ensemble, and four years later moved to the Boston area. He began teaching Irish fiddling and since 2004 has been Sullivan Artist in Residence at Boston College’s Center for Irish Programs. Prior to that he had directed the college’s Gaelic Roots Summer School and Festival, and he organizes the Gaelic Roots free concert and lecture series.
Among Connolly’s numerous other accomplishments are his release of two solo CDs, “Notes from My Mind” and “Here and There,” along with “The Boston Edge,” on which he worked with Joe Derrane and John McGann. He is also compiling a book of more than 300 songs accompanied by recordings of older tunes not much heard, and newly composed material.
Connolly, who moved with his late wife to North Yarmouth seven years ago, said he loves the people of Maine, “because they’re very much like the Irish people. Very welcoming and friendly. And … there’s great music around.”
“The Irish music, it connects me with Ireland,” said Connolly, who tries to gets back there once a year. “… It keeps a lot memories for me, the people from whom I learned the music.
“And I also think it’s very important that we try to remember and preserve the ways that it was played,” he said. “… It’s nice to be able to play outside the box, too, as long as one has respect for the tradition. For me it’s important, that I remember the old people who kept the music alive when it was difficult to do it.”
Séamus Connolly of North Yarmouth, an Irish fiddler, was recently named a National Heritage Fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts.