Sean McGuire

Traditional music's rock star

Sean McGuire was born in Co Cavan in 1928 and came to Belfast at the age of ten. He is regarded by many traditional musicians as the biggest single influence on Irish music this century, particularly among the fiddle fraternity.

As a young boy McGuire expressed an interest in playing the violin, and his parents sent him to classical teachers George Vincent and May Nesbitt. McGuire excelled at his chosen instrument, and the young prodigy was soon first violin with the Belfast Youth Orchestra. Before long, he was being groomed for the Belfast Symphony Orchestra.

However, McGuire was more comfortable playing the traditional music he grew up listening to. His father Jack Maguire was a renowned flute and tin whistle player, and as Sean’s technique developed he found he could combine his traditional repertoire with his classical technique. This combination of styles proved to be a success and gave McGuire his trademark sound. In 1949, at the age of 21, McGuire entered the Oireachtas competition in Dublin and became the All Ireland Fiddle Champion with the only perfect score ever awarded in the history of the organisation.

In the 1950s, McGuire began recording Irish music. He also became part of a major touring group called the Malachy Sweeney Ceili Band, and later helped form the Sean McGuire Ceili Band and the Four Star Quartet. This was at a time in Ireland when ceili music was the popular music of the generation, and a comfortable living could be made by celebrated musicians.

Sean McGuire was responsible for taking traditional music from the dance floor and elevating it to the concert stage. He toured extensively throughout the world, playing in the famous Carnegie Hall, New York. On many of his recordings he is accompanied on piano by Josephine Keegan from Mullaghbawn, south Armagh.

Sean McGuire is a showman. Many traditional musicians in Ireland and throughout the world have tried to emulate his distinctive style. Nevertheless, his attitude and technique has been criticised by musicians past and present. What we have to remember is that Sean McGuire was equivalent to a rock star in his day, and his new and rebellious sound was attractive to a young 1940s audience.

McGuire developed throat cancer in the 1980s and was successfully treated for his illness in Belfast. Since then, he has concentrated not so much on his professional career, but on teaching his technique and knowledge of traditional music to a new generation of musicians. He also excels on the uileann pipes.

Sean McGuire is currently teaching at the Andersonstown School of Traditional Music and continues to be one of traditional music’s the most influential characters and finest practitioners. Long may he reign.

Paul Flynn