Hall of Fame - Sean McGuire

Geoff Harden pays tribute to Ireland's greatest fiddler

Sean McGuire was arguably the greatest fiddler ever to play traditional music. Born Sean Stephen Maguire (he changed the spelling) in December 1927, he died in March 2005.

He grew up in Belfast although he always looked on himself as a Cavan man. His father, John, came from Mullaghoran and was another accomplished musician who led his own ceilidh band and encouraged McGuire at an early age.

McGuire always regarded that start as one of his greatest assets, attributing his remarkable technique to 'my two brilliant teachers'.  At the age of twelve he was studying classical violin with Professor George Vincent and later he acquired his remarkable bowing style from Madame May Nesbitt.

He joined the Belfast Cooperative Youth Orchestra and, with early interest from the BBC, could easily have stayed in the classical world. His father brought him into his band, though, and young McGuire found the lure of traditional music too strong to resist.

He was with his father in the Malachy Sweeney Ceili Band from the age of 19 (having made his first broadcast four years earlier) and with his own band he recorded eight 78 singles around 1950. Talking to me in his Twinbrook home nine years ago, he recalled 'Those records were negotiated by Mervyn Solomon. They were recorded in his house. There were nine of us; we were treated to dinner and drinks. A big room was converted to a recording studio. I signed the contract. There was quite a bit of money involved.'

Through Solomon, he met singer, harp aficionado, actor and film maker Richard Hayward, one of whose films, The Early Bird was described as ‘the first real Irish film and was the first to be shown at the former Broadway Cinema. The pair worked extensively and formed a mutual admiration society. 'It’s a bloody disgrace that more people don’t know about him. He was very generous and a gentleman. I adored him - loved every bone in his body. And he looked up to me. I never saw him panic. He was easy going, a fine big tall man, good looking, well dressed. My band loved to see him - he earned the appreciation of all my boys.'

Hayward died at the wheel of his car, possibly from a heart attack. Ironically, McGuire was also driving when he suffered the stroke which ultimately killed him.

McGuire lived in Dublin for a couple of years, initially working in the pools department of Gael-Linn but soon got drafted into their touring cabaret show. It was there that he recorded the album of which he was most proud, the Four Star Quartet’s Music of Ireland, for an American label. He was soon on his way to New York where he played major concert halls and stunned television viewers with his unique style of playing.

As well as playing violin - he always called it that - McGuire was an accomplished uilleann piper, pianist and guitarist. But it was the fiddle for which he will always be remembered. That classical training stayed with him, as did an interest in Hungarian gypsy music - he had an unfulfilled ambition to spend some time in the Balkan countries, long before their music became popular here.

These influences affected his style, leading to wild leaps of the imagination in the twists and turns of his arrangements, sparkling in particular on reels and hornpipes. Sudden key changes made life all but impossible for his long-suffering accompanists. One tune in particular he made his own; his arrangement of 'The Mason’s Apron' became the template for all aspiring young fiddlers. It has become the show-stopping climax for concert performances by many of the top bands over the years, from The Dubliners onwards.

In the early eighties he suffered throat cancer and it looked as though he may not have long to live. But an operation in 1983 and a stubborn streak meant that he continued to play on and off until the end of last 2004. Sean McGuire had a huge zest for life and loved nothing better than getting up to play in front of an audience. He was a great showman too, always appearing immaculately dressed.

In later years, he channelled his energies into teaching and took huge delight in passing his distinctive technique on to a whole new generation of players. His talent lives on in performers such as the exceptional young Belfast fiddler Meabh O’Hare.