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About Johnny Keenan
  The Keenan Family
The Tribute Concert
September 20, 1992 was a tragic day for one of Ballyfermot's most famous families…it was the day that John Keenan Sr. (Johnny Keenan’s father) musician / teacher / craftsman - passed away. It was the day that marked the end of an era…

In or around 1954, John and Mary Keenan, along with their young children, decided to make Ballyfermot, Dublin their home (John originated in Mullingar, and Mary was born and raised in Cavan). John's friend, Ted Furey, had already moved to Ballyfermot a couple of years previously, so he felt right at home in his new neighbourhood.

Both John and Ted were no ordinary citizens…they played music all over Ireland during a time when the populace didn't embrace Irish Traditional Music with much enthusiasm. But they were devoted to the music they loved, and today Irish Traditional Music is enjoying unprecedented international success. John and Ted each headed a family who would make a major impact on Irish Music the world over. Ted (who passed away in 1979) was the father of Finbar, Eddie, Paul and George, collectively known as The Fureys, a group who were to shape the future of the Irish Ballad scene. And John, who inherited the gift of music from successive generations, would turn out no less than four exceptionally talented sons, each of whom have made their mark in Irish Traditional Music. John, indeed, was very gifted - a multi-instrumentalist, who played the uilleann pipes, banjo, bouzouki, mandolin, ukulele, fiddle, etc. Additionally, John was a skilled craftsman who regularly turned his hand to making leather goods (handbags, watch straps, shoes, etc.) as well as instruments (bodhrans, whistles, and uilleann pipes-concert flutist James Galway has a ½ set of pipes made by John)…not to mention the occasional pair of wooden clogs!


John's life revolved around music and fellow musicians. Such luminaries as the late legendary pipers Leo Rowsome and Seamus Ennis considered John a good and worthy friend. John and Mary were frequent welcomed visitors to Ennis' dwelling in Naul (North County Dublin) during those times. They were also friendly with the late Matt Kiernan, a former garda turned uilleann pipe maker and spent much time at his home in Cabra.

The Keenan Children grew up enveloped by music. It was the most consistent aspect of their young lives. Their home was a breeding ground for some of the finest music in Ireland. In the early years, there were many late night music sessions in their Ballyfermot home at 116 Oranmore Road. Family and friends would gather to share their talents and their love for music. These sessions became infamous with local (and some not so local) musicians, and were known as "Radio Oranmore". Frequent visitors to their home at that time included Joe Gaynor, the late Tommy Ryan (a local well-known fiddle player), and Pecker Dunne (a friend and aspiring banjo player), among others.

Often, visitors from overseas, particularly America, would turn up at their door in Ballyfermot, to gather invaluable advice from John. Whether for advice, tuition or a nice half set of pipes, John Sr. was a man most respected by novice and professional players alike (the massive numbers that turned out for his funeral paid witness to that fact).
In later years visitors to the Keenan household included the likes of the piper Felix Doran, Tony Mc Mahon (accordion player, who went on to produce programmes for RTE), the late Ciaran Bourke (of the Dubliners), the late Liam Weldon (also of Ballyfermot), Davy Spillane the piper Martin Nolan, etc. The late John Molloy was also a visitor to their home. The former actor and RTE Television host was duly impressed by the talents of the children that he brought John's youngest son, Brendan on his show to perform.

The eldest of John's children, John Jr. (Johnny), was the first to follow in his father's footsteps, and learned to play the pipes at an early age. John Sr. could see the exceptional talent of his first-born, and encouraged him in every way (as he later did with all his children). John Jr. soon tired of the pipes, though, and helped his younger brother Paddy to learn the whistle, who went on to the pipes very soon after. Next, John Jr. went on to the fiddle, which he mastered as a teenager and was offered a scholarship to a music academy in France, which had to be turned down due to his young age…so he went on to even more instruments. In fact, over the years John Jr. learned to master nearly every instrument he touched, such was his inherited gift. Eventually he settled on banjo, and to this day, his skill and unique style of playing is unmatched. In fact, both John Sr. and Jr. were pioneers in the art of "thimble picking" in Ireland…a most difficult technique. There are precious few tenor banjo players who have become proficient with this skill…most prefer the traditional plectrum style of playing.

Young Finbar Furey spent a number of years living with the Keenan’s, and, during much of that time, simultaneous training of two soon-to-be-world-famous pipers began at that terraced house on Oranmore Road…upstairs, John Sr. would sit his son Paddy down, teaching and coaching him, and ensuring that he would practice his pipes intensely, while downstairs Finbar would sit, also getting tuition from John Sr.

Later, Finbar along with his brothers and John Jr. formed their first band, "The Furey's and Johnny Keenan" and set about touring Ireland.

In the 1960's, John Sr., along with his sons John Jr. and Paddy formed a group called the Pavees. There were various incarnations of the Pavees, and at times members included John's other sons, Thomas and Brendan (each on whistles and pipes), Dublin piper Eoin Kenny, flute player Mick Moriarty, George and Paul Furey, and singers Johnny Flood, Sean Garvey, and Liam Weldon. They played twice weekly at Slattery's of Capel Street…Mondays and Tuesdays…which lasted well into the late 1970's. In fact, these nights became known as the Pavees Club, due to the vast number of guests who performed with them each week. Performers such as Christy Moore Paddy Reilly, Mary Black, members of the Dubliners, The Glackins, Frank and Patrick Cassidy, etc. would all grace the stage at the Pavees Club.

John's sons have each moved on to international musical experiences since then…Thomas lived and played for a number of years in Belgium. His piping on Sean Tallamh's (an Irish group based in Belgium) early recordings helped bring the band much respect on the European continent. Brendan, meanwhile, spent some years in Brittany, in the western part of France. Irish music is very much alive in that Celtic province (in fact the Festival Celtique de Lorient each year bring thousands together to celebrate Irish/Scottish/Breton music), so there was no shortage of appreciative listeners. In the mid 1980's, Brendan recorded an album for Gael Linn, a recording of top class piping which received much critical acclaim.
Soon after the Pavees, Paddy went on to form the Bothy Band, along with Triona and Micheal O'Domhnaill, Donal Lunny, Matt Molloy (now with the Chieftains), and Paddy Glackin (followed by Tommy Peoples, then Kevin Burke). The Bothy Band made a number of albums and toured the world for a number of years, before disbanding. Each member has continued to have successful careers since. To this day, the Bothy Band represent all that is great in Irish Traditional Music and CD re-releases of their numerous albums continue to sell in big numbers. Many up-and-coming musicians (as well as many seasoned pros) count the Bothy Band as one of their biggest influences…and in particular, musicians and fans across the world list Paddy Keenan as one of the greatest pipers of the 20th Century. To date, Paddy has released several solo CD's and tours the world continuously, wowing audiences everywhere with his extraordinary talents…and inspiring numerous folk to make their way across the waters to Ireland.

John Jr, meanwhile, chose to sample the life of foreign living…Germany, France, England, USA. These all had features of interest to John, so he set out to explore the world. Over the years he played with a number of groups, touring and living around Ireland and Europe. (He once played an impromptu gig on stage with the Dubliners in Germany, when they happened to discover Johnny was residing nearby). But Johnny loved Dublin, loved sitting among his friends, playing in the Traditional Music sessions. No matter where he travelled in the world, he'd always return to his Dublin roots.

Sadly, John Keenan Jr. passed away in March, 2000, after a particularly nasty battle with lung cancer. The world of traditional music certainly lost one of its greatest assets on that day. As in his father's death 8 year previously, the colossal number of mourners who piled into the Cathedral in Longford Town for John Jr.'s funeral would give an indication of the impact his passing had on people the world over. Friends and fellow musicians travelled from as far away as America to pay their last respects to the much-loved master musician.

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