Musicians of Conemara: (Courtesy of the Knotted Chord Archive).
Joe Heaney(1919-1984) Sean-nos singer.
Joe was born west of the village of Carna in Conemara, County Galway where he was known as Joe Einiu(he was also known as Seosamh O’hEanai). His mother was a well known storyteller and his father a very fine singer and the area was long reknowned for it’s wealth of songs and stories. Among the famous singing families close by were the MacDonnchadha’s, O’Conghaile’s and UiCheannabhain’s.
His national school teacher Brid Bean Ui Chonchuir was an early influence and encouraged all the kids towards sean-nos singing.
Joe secured a scholarship to a preparatory school for primary school teachers where he stayed for two years. Differences with a very strict regime led to his being asked to leave at about the same time as his father died.
He entered the Oireachtas competition for Irish singing and won first prize in 1942(he won it again on a visit home in 1955). It was at this he met, and began a lifelong friendhip with Seamus Ennis, the piper, broadcaster and archivist. Seamus travelled to Carna shortly after and recorded Joe.
After a short stint working on a farm in East Galway Joe emigrated, in 1947, to Scotland first, then England, as a building labourer, and finally the United States. In Scotland he married Mary Connolly and had 4 children but the marriage was an unhappy one. He moved down to London(and Southampton) until the mid 1950’s. There he met up, and sang with, with the famous Irish musicians who were then driving a dynamic pub session scene. Among the musicians were Michael Gorman, Paddy Taylor, Roger Sherlock, Bobby Casey, Mairtin Byrnes and Willie Clancy.
He also met the English folk singer Ewan McColl and his wife Peggy Seeger who had started a folk club called the ‘Singer’s Club’ where Joe sang regularly.
In the late 1950’s, up to 1961, he made a series of recordings for Gael Linn in Dublin. This brought him back to Dublin for a time where he held a residency with Seamus Ennis in the famous O’Donoghue’s pub, on Merrion Row, which also featured the up and coming Dubliners group. He stayed with Ronnie Drew and his wife for a year and actually gave Ronnie the song ‘Seven Drunken Nights’ which was to propel The Dubliners to fame. Tom Clancy(of the Clancy Brothers) invited Joe to play at the Newport Folk Festival(which famously featured Bob Dylan’s move from acoustic to electric guitar) in the U.S. in 1965. Joe moved to New York permanently in 1966 where he took a job as a doorman and elevator operator in Central Park West, Manhattan. Among those living there was Merv Griffin, then hosting a coast to coast television chat show, who’s people originally came from County Clare. After hearing Joe sing Merv gave him a full 20 minute slot on a St. Patrick’s Night special which or course brought his name to prominence.
Most of his performing through the next fifteen years was in festivals and concerts.
In 1980 he was appointed as a part time teacher in Irish Folklore at Wesleyan University in Conneticut which finally allowed him to teach and perform full time. He was later appointed to a similar position in the University of Washington in Seattle and in 1982 he was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts the National Heritage Award for Excellence in Folk Arts. This was the highest award the U.S. can confer on a traditional artist. Not uncommonly his fame was not broadly recognised at home, the award not even mentioned in Irish national papers. He made his last visit home to Carna in 1982 and died of heart failure on May Day 1984 back in Seattle. A huge funeral followed with his own people in Galway and Conemara paying due tribute. Dr. Mick Moloney, who played with Joe, captured the general view of Joe as "a gifted singer and storyteller and a consumate performer …… who could hold any audience riveted for hours …." His commercial recordings include "Seosamh O’hEanai"(Gael Linn), "come all you gallant Irish men"(Clo Iar Chonnachta), "Joe and the Gabe"(Green Linnet), "O mo Dhuchas/from my tradition"(Gael Linn) and most recently "The road from Conemara"(Topic/Clo Iar Chonnachta).(L.MacC.I.)
You can listen to short samples from some of the tracks from this artist using the player below.
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