Retired Sullivan-Artist-in-Residence Seamus Connolly, ten-time winner of the Irish National Fiddle Championship, when he opened the 2014 Boston College Arts Festival. (Photo by Christopher Huang)

A groundbreaking digital collection launched by Boston College Libraries signifies the vibrancy and constancy of traditional Irish music and one of its leading figures: retired Sullivan Family Artist-in-Residence Séamus Connolly, a teacher and scholar at the University for a quarter-century.

The Séamus Connolly Collection of Irish Music presents audio recordings of more than 330 tunes and songs by such traditional Irish music performers as Liz Carroll, Kevin Burke, Matt Cranitch, Martin Hayes, Kevin Crawford, Rita Gallagher, Paddy Glackin, Liz Knowles, Charlie Lennon, Tony McMahon and Tommy Peoples, and Connolly himself. These recordings – many of them previously unreleased – are complemented by music transcriptions, stories and essays. 

Project organizers note the collection links three generations of musicians and pays tribute to those in previous generations who kept the tradition alive. 

The collection also is a testament to the perseverance of its namesake, who for years collected and organized the materials for publication, and to the collaborative effort of several Library departments to bring Connolly’s vision to life – albeit in a different format than he originally planned.

“What began simply as 100 tunes for a book and CDs is now a digital collection of over 330 tunes and songs, each with its own transcription, recording, and story,” Connolly – who retired from the University at the end of 2015 – writes in the introduction to the collection. “The Boston College Libraries and I are delighted to be able to present the Séamus Connolly Collection of Irish Music free of charge via the Internet, for all to enjoy, download, learn, and play.”

“In producing and publishing this extraordinary cultural resource as a digital collection, the Boston College Libraries are enabling users worldwide to not only listen and read, but to search, explore, navigate and share,” said Irish Music Librarian Elizabeth Sweeney, a member of the project team.

During the first two weeks after the website went live, according to University Libraries, the audio tracks on SoundCloud were streamed some 12,000 times, with more than 1,300 downloads. Users from the Dominican Republic, Germany, Brazil, Turkey and Sweden were among those visiting the site during that period.

As Irish traditional music has grown in popularity around the globe, numerous archives and resources have been made available online. But the Connolly Collection is a unique window into the life and career of Connolly, a 10-time All-Ireland fiddle champion and the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship as well as a Faculty Award from the BC Arts Council. The recordings and other materials reflect many of the friendships he has cultivated throughout – and even beyond – the Irish music world, and evoke countless stories, anecdotes and musings associated with the music tradition.

For example, in 1990 Connolly recorded a fiddler and accordionist named Eddie Kelly playing a jig at an impromptu session. When Kelly finished, he asked, “Is it any good, Séamus?” and Connolly subsequently used that query as a title for the tune (thought by Connolly to have been composed by Kelly). Manus McGuire, a fiddler from County Sligo who has been a member of several outstanding bands, recorded the tune for the collection.

Another tune, “Mrs. Galvin’s Barndance,” came to Connolly from Ellen Galvin, a fiddler who was in her 70s when Connolly saw her perform back in the 1950s. Her playing “certainly did sound as though it were from an earlier time in history,” Connolly writes in the accompanying notes for the track, on which he plays along with pianist Barbara MacDonald Magone and banjo player Kevin McElroy. “I was enthralled with her music then, and I still am.” 

The collection also has local and regional dimensions. A tune composed by the late Brendan Tonra, a mainstay of Boston’s Irish music scene for many years, is included. Current or former Boston-area musicians like Helen Kisiel, Tara Lynch (daughter of accordionist Jerry Lynch, a member of Ireland’s legendary Kilfenora Ceili Band), Brendan Bulger, Tina Lech, Eamon Flynn and Matt and Shannon Heaton are featured on the tracks, along with New Englanders such as Donna Hébert, David Kaynor, Pete Sutherland and the late Bob McQuillen. 

Some of Connolly’s Boston College colleagues – Sweeney, Laurel Martin and Jimmy Noonan – also appear in the recordings. 

When he first embarked on the project 15 years ago, Connolly intended to perform and record 100 tunes with special meanings for him, selected from his private archives. The project expanded and progressed thanks to the generosity of fellow musicians who offered to perform and record some of these tunes for the project.

Along the way, however, Connolly was beset by a series of tragedies. First was the loss of his wife Sandy, who despite battling cancer had played a critical role in many aspects of the project, and then his son, Darragh. Another blow was the death of John McGann, a longtime friend and collaborator who had been working with Connolly to transcribe the source recordings.

“After the loss of Sandy and Darragh, I lost the will, motivation, and inspiration to persevere with this enormous task of compiling a collection of music to share with the world,” Connolly writes. “After much deliberation I decided to put the project to rest.” 

Following a hiatus, with the encouragement of family members and friends, Connolly resumed the project but found that the advent of digital technology had complicated music publishing. A conversation with University Librarian Thomas Wall convinced him that the collection could move forward, using technology to reach a broader audience. Connolly worked with a University Libraries project team that included Sweeney, Digital Archives Specialist Jack Kearney, Digital Publishing Assistant Nancy Adams, Senior Digital Scholarship Librarian Anna Kijas, Web Design and Communication Specialist Chris Houston-Ponchak and Web Applications Developer Ben Florin.

Connolly is quick to credit the many hands, at BC and elsewhere, and in particular the musicians who helped him in creating the collection: “Were I asked to define this collection in a few short words, I would not hesitate to say, ‘so much love from so many people.’” 

-Sean Smith | University Communications