Jimmy Noonan, a faculty member in the Music Department and Irish Studies Program at Boston College, is the recipient of a $10,000 Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Fellowship award. The fellowships “recognize exceptional work by Massachusetts artists across a range of disciplines,” according to the MCC website. “These highly competitive awards provide artists crucial validation among their peers and the public. They catalyze artistic advancement and pave the way for creative innovation of enduring cultural value.”
An acclaimed and award-winning Irish flute and tin whistle player, Noonan was one of two fellows chosen in the Traditional Arts category, and one of 15 overall. More than 700 applications were received for this year’s awards, including 17 in Traditional Arts.
“I’m very honored to have been chosen,” said Noonan, a Cleveland native who has taught at BC since 1996. Citing previous recipients of the Traditional Arts fellowships, including Sullivan Artist-in-Residence Seamus Connolly, director of Irish music programs at BC, Noonan said, “I feel as if I am in very distinguished company.”
Noonan is a two-time US Western champion on tin whistle and flute, and has performed at a number of premiere Irish and Celtic music events, including BC’s Gaelic Roots festival, the Milwaukee Irish Fest and National Folk Festival. He has played at events for Irish Presidents Mary McAleese and Michael D. Higgins, as well as for Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and is a member of the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann Hall of Fame Northeast Region. His recordings include the albums “The Clare Connection” and “The Maple Leaf.”
With a father from County Clare, a particular hotbed for Irish traditional music, Noonan grew up in a household that embraced Irish culture and as a boy took up step dancing. As he grew older, he gradually found himself more interested in playing the music than dancing to it, and found teachers and mentors among some of his father’s friends who were traditional musicians.
Moving to Toronto in the early 1980s, Noonan was invited by renowned musician P.J. Hayes to join the Tulla Ceili Band, considered one of the finest Irish traditional music ensembles. Noonan settled in Boston in 1985, opening up a music school – some of his students have since gone on to win national music competitions and qualify for the Fleadh Cheol, the world championship of Irish music – and later becoming a faculty member at BC.
Noonan credits Connolly, along with the mentors from his youth in Cleveland, as key influences in his musical development. “These men gave me an appreciation of the older, rural, simpler style of music. In this style of music, what you don’t play is just more important sometimes than what you do.”
Much to his delight, Noonan has seen his young son Seamus cultivate an appreciation for Irish music and take up tin whistle himself, performing well in the Irish music competitions. Noonan plans to use some of the MCC Artist Fellowship award to bring Seamus to more such events, including the Fleadh Cheol. Doing so, he said, is part of carrying on the work of generations of musicians before him – especially those who have been his friends and mentors.
“I see one of my greatest attributes as being able to pass on their music, their humor, and what they thought was important in life onto students such as my son, so hopefully he in turn will feel the same way. If this happens, not only will the standard of music remain strong but so will the tradition itself.”
Watch a video of Jimmy Noonan and Seamus Connolly performing at the 2013 National Heritage Fellowships awards banquet at youtube.com/watch?v=H7n-YV1zbJY.