When Keenan was three years old, older brother Johnny would play music for him. "He would prop me up with blankets, coats, whatever he could find, and play the banjo. He taught me a tune called The Three Sea Captains on the old Clarks whistle when I was six or seven. Sometime later at age 9 or 10 years old, I was found struggling with my dad's pipes. I must have been doing okay with them. My dad came in the room and said, ‘I'm going fishing for a few hours. If you can play Rakish Paddy on the pipes when I get back I will do my best to buy a set for you.’ I played the reel for him, he was happy. I got myself a full set of John Clarks pipes."

John Keenan, Sr & Paddy's brother Brendan.
John Keenan, a piper of some renown, soon took on his son’s education as a piper. He was a notoriously strict teacher, tough and insisting on a rigorous adherence to standards, passing on Keenan’s open-fingered style of playing, which constantly nets comparisons to Johnny Doran (a famous piper that Keenan didn’t hear any recordings of until he was 19 or 20). The Fureys lived just down the street, and John Keenan also tutored Finbar Furey, Martin Nolan, and Davey Spillane, among others. All night sessions at the Keenan home earned the place the milkman’s moniker of "Radio One-Sixteen Oranmore Road."

Keenan’s first major concert was at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin when he was 14. The father and sons played together as The Pavees (along with others, including members of the Furey family and Michael Moriaty), performing together all around Ireland and especially at Slattery’s, a pub club on Capel Street in Dublin. Slattery’s was often filled with now famous faces and names—Matt Molloy, Paddy Moloney and more.

John Keenan did his best to guard the young players’ developing musicianship. "My dad tried to keep the door closed on the outside world in the Fifties/Sixties; music and whatever influences that might change what he thought was right. All we had was an old radio, and what we got to listen to was very limited. Except when he was out—Johnny and I would be glued to that two-story dinosaur searching for new stations!" They listened to the new rock and roll and the blues on the sly.

Paddy Keenan on the Uilleann Pipes

By my own observation, there’s two types of uilleann piper, regardless of expertise level, with each piper falling somewhere in the spectrum: the piper who fiddles about with the instrument constantly, and the piper (usually with the luxury of a reedmaker nearby) who loves to play but hates fooling around with "The Octopus," as Paddy Keenan calls the things. Keenan falls into the former group.

"The uilleann pipes are the most complex, and therefore the most difficult of all reeded instruments. The reed is the most sensitive and difficult of sound givers. It changes with the weather," explains Keenan. "For the piper, stage tuning is most of the time ‘guess work.’ I make my own reeds from the very best cane, hand picked by myself from Ted Anderson. ‘The Gold,’ Ted calls it. Ted also makes my chanter staples. And even with all of this, the octopus can come alive! And one could lose control altogether."

Tim O’Brien, whose latest CD, Two Journeys, features three tracks with Keenan piping, enjoys watching Keenan at work. "At the gig or the studio, he's always talking about his reeds, how dry it's getting, worrying about sitting in the sun and how the pipes are going to dry up and go sharp," says O’Brien. "He's always worrying with them, collecting wound guitar strings to use to close up holes when it gets dry. Of course when the time comes to play, he's ready, and the sound and execution are right on."

Keenan’s joking advice for those who are learning the uilleann pipes? "Try the blues, man!" Tommy O’ Sullivan earnestly advises, however, that "the uilleann pipes are the very safest instrument that a parent can purchase for their children—they come equipped with their own safety belt and an air bag!"

For slightly more serious comments from Keenan about the pipes, click here.

The PaveesJohn Keenan’s feeling was that Paddy Keenan was to be molded into the piper of the future, and he was eventually proved right. But in the meantime, Keenan says that, while he loved the pipes in the beginning, he soon rebelled from the strictness—and he tried his young best to get out from under. He went to stay with his aunt in England.

"I was seventeen when I felt I should get away from my dad's strong influence. As protective and right as he might have been, I found it sometimes impossible," Keenan remembers. "I needed to find a way to grow and express myself. It was only a couple a days after I arrived at my Aunt's apartment in Liverpool, she told me that I should leave. That my dad had called the police in Liverpool looking to have me brought back." It was 1967, the Summer of Love had crossed the Atlantic, and to the 17 year old Keenan, going back to the strict rules of his father seemed unbearable. The streets were a lot more friendly back then, and Keenan made his decision.

"With the fear of my eighteenth birthday so far off, the thought of being brought back home by the cops didn't sound too good. So I took a coach to London. I arrived in London at midnight, knowing nobody in England out from my Aunt Kathleen in Liverpool. I stayed around Piccadilly Circus and soon found the hippie squats and later the communes. I spent some time sleeping rough around London before this. It wasn't at all uncommon at the time; there were lots of kids doing the same thing."

"This wasn't too bad in the summer, but after waking up covered in snow in St. James Park one morning, that was it," Keenan recalls. "I had to get myself onto the subway train that went round in a circle, just to thaw out! It was soon after this, I was forced to sing and play my guitar to feed myself. My first nights buskin', I had to hide my hairy head up an alleyway from football supporting Skinheads. Soon after that first night I was a regular in the subways of London, singing with my guitar. I made a lot more doing this then I did working in a tile and concrete pipe-making factory." (Weatherwells, at Clondalkin, Co. Dublin)

During this time, Keenan didn’t play his pipes, even trying at one point to sell them at a pawn shop, but had no takers—uilleann pipes were simply Not Cool in late 60’s London. Even now Keenan sounds incredulous when he recalls, "I went as low as two bob. I couldn’t believe my ears when he turned me down." (They were Crowley pipes with a custom Rowsome chanter, and the Crowley part of the set had been owned by the Honorable Garret Browne of the Guinness family.) Keenan walked out of the pawn shop and made to throw his pipes into a trash bin. A friend stopped him and told him he’d keep the pipes for him.

Keenan even turned down an opportunity to meet with the Beatles in their search for exotic new instrumental sounds. Hippying around London, playing the pipes just seemed very "square."

Finally, Keenan took his pipes to St. James’ Park one day in 1971, tuned them up and started playing. He looked up and there was a crowd of people jostling each other to throw money in his box. He thought, "God, what have I been missing!" and headed back home to Ireland.

There he got together with Micheál O’Domhnaill and Mick Hanley, and he played with The Pavees a bit more. He recorded his first solo album in 1974, which included the brilliant whistle playing of his younger brother Thomas, and the only published recording of brother Johnny Keenan and Paddy playing together. Paddy Glackin also appeared on Paddy Keenan (known as The Brown Album for the cover), paving the way for the duo to record Doublin’ in 1978 and re-released last year by Tara Records.

Then Keenan played with Triona Ní Dhomhnaill and Micheál O’Dhomhnaill, and they were joined by Paddy Glackin, and then Tony MacMahon, Matt Molloy and Dónal Lunny, and so they called themselves Seachtar (which means ‘seven’). MacMahon and Glackin left when the band decided to go professional, to be replaced by Tommy Peoples who was in turn eventually replaced by Kevin Burke. Micheál O’Dhomnhnaill suggested the name of the band after he saw a picture of a band in front of the stone huts—known as bothies—that housed Irish laborers in Scotland across from Donegal, and one of the seminal bands of Irish traditional music was born: The Bothy Band.

The Bothy Band is still revered among musicians and knowledgeable fans of the music alike, never forgotten by anyone who saw them live. (One reviewer wrote that listening to The Bothy Band was "like being in a jet when it suddenly whipped into full throttle along the runway.") Their driving rhythm section backing the tunes so changed the way we hear Irish music that many don’t realize that this is a recent innovation and that the Bothies were experimenting and playing the music in totally new ways.

His virtuosity and ferocity helping to take the band to new heights, Keenan was a driving force of the band, whose six albums are still to be found at the top of most of the lists of most popular Celtic music albums ever.

There are two major points of interest of this time.

One, the band was having such a great time bringing their own brand of Irish traditional music to the world, they didn’t think enough about the money. And two, Paddy Keenan found himself trying to compensate for the years of growing up thinking himself a second class citizen by spending all his time in a haze of drugs and alcohol.

The first point, money, has become an object lesson to Irish traditional musicians all over the globe. It’s almost part of the normal business of Irish traditional musicians at this point—so many of the great innovators and entertainers who we know as the giants of the traditional music world have been deprived of their financial rights to their own music, and The Bothy Band was one of the first major bands to fall into that unfortunate situation. (A very funny timeline of the history of Irish traditional music by Pat O’Reilly has an entry under 1975 of "The Bothy Band demonstrates that Irish traditional music can thrive in the ‘not for profit’ enterprise economy.")

Keenan now releases on his independent record label, Hot Conya Records—a direct descendent of the extremely difficult time he had financially around the time of The Bothy Band. He is still trying to retrieve the rights to some of his own recordings and may never manage it.

(This hard lesson has also culminated in FACÉ—Filí, Amhránaithe, Ceoltóirí na h-Éireann—a movement to protect the rights of Irish traditional musicians, poets, and singers by the performers themselves.)

The second was a not uncommon choice of the rock and roll lifestyle of the time led by many musicians of all genres. In an August interview last year, Keenan told Siobhan Long of Hotpress, "Being a musician, you get away with a lot of stupidity, really. I’ve done more damage to myself with drink and drugs and whatever. And the biggest problem is that you end up hurting people around you. And of course, a lot of the time, you don’t even remember what you did!"

Much of the seventies and eighties, he admits, is now pretty foggy. Keenan isn’t alone in this, of course. "Several of my well-known musician friends have also shared with me their fears and reasons for hiding behind the drink and things."

Keenan released his second solo album Poirt An Phoibaire in 1982, and he played with Johnny Moynihan, Tommy Peoples, Shane Hogan and Eddie Stack as Last Nights Fun for a bit. But by now he’d just about had enough of living in an alcohol-induced haze.

Keenan did a bit of thinking and decided to get away from the music scene that promoted a lifestyle he was no longer interested in—the pubs, clubs, drinking and all. He moved to West Cork, took some courses, and opened an antique shop. But just relocating and trying to settle down wasn’t enough to get over alcoholism—there were relapses, he lost his family, his home, and his business. "I lost everything," Keenan recalls, his quiet voice sad. "I lost it all."

It was a shock and impetus that helped him to uncover the roots of his problems. "I don't know why or how, really," he says, "but in the early nineties I realized that I really had been hiding as so many of us do." He did a short tour in the States; it was good and he stayed longer than originally planned, and ended up moving first to Boston, and then New Hampshire.

"The nineties have been a new beginning for me and I would say in the last four to five years I have become the person that I am today," Keenan says.

Next—The Present & Future King
Paddy Keenan's website

© 2001, Zina Lee