Master fiddler, engaging teacher, Seamus Connolly signs off at BC

Seamus Connolly played “one last tune” during his retirement party last month. Sean Smith photoSeamus Connolly played “one last tune” during his retirement party last month. Sean Smith photoMusician, teacher, organizer, scholar: Fulfilling these roles for the better part of a quarter-century, Seamus Connolly has helped make Boston College a go-to place for traditional music from Ireland, Scotland, Cape Breton, and other Gaelic cultures.
But the final notes of his tenure at BC have sounded.

Connolly, who has been BC’s Sullivan Family Artist-in-Residence since 2004, retired from the University effective at the end of the fall semester. Appropriately enough, a formal public announcement of his plans came at the Dec. 8 Christmas concert in the Cadigan Alumni Center, held as part of the Gaelic Roots Music, Song, Dance, Workshop and Lecture Series – widely acclaimed as one of his signal achievements.

“There comes a moment in everyone’s life when you look back and then say, ‘It’s time,’” said Connolly in an interview. “I felt that over 25 years, with the help of many good people, we were able to accomplish so much in giving the Irish and other Gaelic music traditions a home at BC. So moving on at this point just seems the right thing to do.

“I wasn’t an academic, but working here I was very fortunate to be around the finest academics in the world, who were always so supportive and helpful to me.”

Arriving at BC in 1990, Connolly – a native of Killaloe in County Clare who moved to the US in 1976 – burnished his reputation as one of the finest Irish fiddlers of his generation by establishing Irish music, song, and dance programs at the University, expanding the scope of BC’s groundbreaking Irish Studies Program. He made it possible for BC undergraduates to take for-credit classes – some of which he taught – in Irish fiddle, flute and tin whistle, as well as Irish dance.

Through his efforts, Boston College also became a public venue and resource for Irish and other traditional music. As director of the Gaelic Roots Summer School and Festival (forerunner to the current academic-year series, which will continue after his departure – See separate story), he brought outstanding performers from around the world to campus each year from 1993-2003 for a weeklong series of classes, workshops, and concerts that drew hundreds of aficionados. Connolly also championed BC’s Irish Music Center at the Burns Library, a trove of archival recordings, manuscripts, photos and other materials, by facilitating numerous donations and donating many items from his own considerable collection.

Among the many honors he has earned was a National Heritage Fellowship in 2013 from the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s highest honor in folk and traditional arts.

“It’s impossible to overstate the importance of Seamus’s legacy, not just to BC but to Irish culture in America,” said Brian O’Donovan, WGBH-FM radio host and Celtic music events organizer. “The fact that he was able to take his outstanding skills as a fiddler and an encyclopedic store of tunes and turn them into a sustainable, multi-faceted resource at BC is truly remarkable. The vision shown by BC must also be pointed out.

“Anyone with any interest in Irish music has a debt of gratitude to him, and I for one would like to step forward and say a heartfelt ‘thank you.’”   

Connolly’s many colleagues and friends laud the contributions he has made to BC and Irish music.

“When the late Adele Dalsimer and I were first creating an Irish Studies Program at Boston College, we were determined to expand our horizons beyond the ‘normal’ academic disciplines of history and literature in English to include Irish language, visual arts and music,” said Associate Professor of History Kevin O’Neill, who co-founded and directed the Irish Studies Program with Dalsimer.

“We knew that Seamus Connolly would bring to Boston College both his own virtuoso ability as a musician and a connection to the world-wide community of Irish music. He did that, but he did much more: He has become the soul of Irish music at Boston College, and he will be impossible to replace.”

Center for Irish Programs Director Oliver Rafferty, SJ, affirmed Connolly’s role in O’Neill and Dalsimer’s vision for the Irish Studies Program. “Seamus has had an important part in the development of Irish Studies at BC, validating the insight of Adele Dalsimer and Kevin O’Neill that the program incorporate broader aspects of Irish culture. Gaelic Roots concerts have been among the best-attended events organized by Irish Studies. Seamus’s teaching also deserves praise, as does his work with the fine Irish music faculty he recruited over the years.”

Connolly helped to raise the profile of BC Irish Studies, Fr. Rafferty added, thus attracting interest and support for the program beyond academia: The endowed position Connolly has held, established through a gift from G. Craig and Maureen Sullivan, is an example.

One of Connolly’s closest colleagues and friends has been Irish music librarian Elizabeth Sweeney, whom Connolly has praised continually for her collaborative leadership in co-directing the Gaelic Roots series, a joint initiative of Irish Studies and the University Libraries for more than 10 years. 

Sweeney is happy to return the compliment, pointing to the partnership that has evolved between Connolly and the University Libraries in archival initiatives and digital scholarship. “One thing that has impressed me about him is his commitment to the living tradition as well as to the past, combined with a drive to innovate. Seamus can be very much in the moment, yet at the same time looking to the future.” 

Reflecting on the past 25 years as he packed up his Connolly House office, Connolly was characteristically quick to list numerous people who made his time at BC a successful one, beginning with O’Neill and Dalsimer, as well as his Irish Studies colleagues, and Sweeney; Jimmy Noonan, Sheila Falls, Kieran Jordan and other Irish music and dance faculty; the Sullivans; University Libraries administration and staff – and the late William B. Neenan, SJ, who several years ago advised Connolly to trademark the name “Gaelic Roots” so it would always be identified with BC.

“I’m very proud of what we’ve been able to do here – not only putting on concerts, but also teaching about the music and the traditions, why they’re important, and about the people who exemplify those traditions. And through the Irish Music Center, being able to preserve those traditions through recordings and manuscripts, and making them available so they can be studied and passed down to other generations.”

Connolly has a soft spot for his fiddle students at BC, some of whom he still hears from after 20 years. “They were great to work with, especially for the BC Arts Festival; it was always so gratifying that every year, Irish Studies musicians and dancers have opened the festival.”

Connolly isn’t completely finished with BC. He’s involved in a major project with the Irish Music Center that involves recordings and notations of some 400 traditional tunes played by legendary musicians of past and present eras. He’ll also be participating in a special concert on campus in March commemorating the 100th anniversary of Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising.

But this is a transition for Connolly, and while he believes the time is right to retire, he feels a certain sadness at the prospect of leaving. On such occasions, he likes to remember a rhyme his father recited for him as a child as a source of comfort:

Tell your cares to the birds and the bees
They will tell them to the leaves and the trees
The leaves on the trees will bow to the breeze
And the breeze will blow them away.

This article originally appeared in the Boston College Chronicle, published by the Boston College Office of News & Public Affairs