Charlie Lennon is one of the most prolific composers within the Irish music tradition and his contribution to the world of Irish music has been invaluable.
In 2006 his remarkable contribution was rightly celebrated when he was awarded the prestigious TG4 Composer of the Year Gradam Ceoil.
Charlie was born into a musical family in Kiltyclogher, Co. Leitrim. His father played the fiddle and his mother could play ‘anything and everything’ on the piano. Charlie began his own musical journey at the age of seven on the piano. He also learned to play the Irish fiddle, taught by his older brother Ben Lennon, a renowned musician in his own right.
‘My family was very musical and it was natural I’d start playing as well…. I learned by listening. I just picked it up.’
A disinterest in school led Charlie to immerse himself in his music instead. He went on to study classical violin, as well as studying classical and jazz harmonies. ‘I threw myself into music. It was easy.’ By age 17 he was becoming an experienced performer, playing with a number of céilí bands on fiddle, piano, drums and even double bass.
Charlie realised however the importance of an education, and eventually completed his O Levels and A Levels through distance learning. He discovered that he actually enjoyed studying – so much so that he went on to be awarded a PhD in Nuclear Physics from the University of Liverpool. Yes, really!
During his time in Liverpool he earned money by playing jazz in the local clubs. He was also a member of the Liverpool Céilí Band, who he played with from 1960 to 1968. During this time the band won two All-Ireland titles, recorded two albums and toured the US.
In 1969 however Charlie returned to Ireland with his wife, sean nós singer, Síle Ní Fhlaithearta. From the ’70s onwards he turned his focus to composition.
The Compositions of Charlie Lennon
Charlie Lennon has written hundreds of tunes, and several suites of music which straddle the line between classical and folk music.
His Irish dance tunes, with their sweet, flowing melodies have become immensely popular amongst musicians of all ages and are stalwarts at any Irish music session.
Charlie Lennon creates some of the most attractive and popular of the airs and dance tunes being made today in the Irish tradition. He forges a wide variety of different tune types on some mysterious anvil of his imagination; tunes with catchy melodies that stay and vibrate in one’s ear and heart, and with rhythms that dance with the heartbeat of the Irish tradition.
– Waltons Music Publisher
Luckily for Irish musicians everywhere, Charlie has published not one but two collections of his compositions – Musical Memories released in 1993, and Musical Memories Volume 2, released in 2012. Featuring hundreds of tunes – including a number of hauntingly beautiful slow airs – these books also serve as an expert guide not only to the Irish fiddle, but to the art of Irish piano accompaniment:
Charlie Lennon’s tunes have that authentic feel from day one. Every tune in this book could fit seamlessly into a selection of tunes that have been in the tradition for generations…
And this book validates the contribution of accompanists to the Irish tradition… A really valuable and practical hands on ‘user’s guide’ to piano accompaniment, of which Charlie is acknowledged as one of the finest exponents today.
– Jackie Small, ITMA
These books are a worthy investment for any musician, especially those looking to expand their repertoire with some of the finest tunes in the Irish music tradition. If you can manage to find a copy of Musical Memories Volume 1 make sure to hold on to it tightly. This gem has been out of print for several years now and is becoming rarer each day!
Fusion of Classical and Irish music:
Similar to the work of the great Seán O’Riada, Charlie’s suites of music present a stronger classical tone than his Irish dance tunes. An element to be expected however from an experienced piano player, well versed in all genres, whose favourite composers include Vivaldi, Bach, Beethoven and Handel.
Speaking of his orchestral compositions, Charlie states:
It’s quite difficult, actually, to fuse the two. There are strengths and weaknesses on both sides, so you play to the strengths. You seek an accommodation of sorts, and you hope that what comes out will be of interest, if not enjoyment, to the listeners.’ – Boston Irish
10 – The Flying Wheelchair
First on my list is a tune very close to my own heart. The Flying Wheelchair was written in honour of the brilliant whistle player, Donncha Ó Briain. As well as being a truly gifted musician in his own right, Donncha also happens to be the brother of our very own McNeela craftsman, John O’Brien – the maker of the exquisite Setanta Whistle.
A skilled tin whistle player, Donncha released his debut album Ceol ar an bhFeadóg Stáin in 1979. It was met with critical acclaim on its release and is still highly regarded today as a masterclass in Irish tin whistle playing.
Donncha suffered from muscular dystrophy and sadly passed away in 1990 at just thirty years of age. His life was not defined by his illness however and in his short time he made a lasting impact on the world of traditional Irish music.
If ever there was a character deserving of having a tune written in their honour, especially one penned by the great Charlie Lennon himself, it’s Donncha O’Brien.
Have a listen to Charlie Lennon and Johnny Connolly performing this popular session tune together (The Flying Wheelchair starts at 1:44):
9 – Round The House and Mind The Dresser
Recorded on his album Deora an Deoraí (which translates as The Emigrant Suite), Round The House and Mind The Dresser is a lively, upbeat reel guaranteed to get toes tapping. A popular session tune, it’s also a great workout for the fingers on any instrument.
Have a listen to it below, played by Charlie and his children, Éilís and Seán – a pair of mighty fiddle players following in their father’s footsteps.
Round The House and Mind The Dresser starts at 03:13 in the video above.
Another mighty rendition well worth a listen is that of legendary Irish flute player Tom Doorley of Danú. Have a listen to him in action – though be warned. This is not a beginner friendly tempo!
8 – Planxty Joe Burke
Written in honour of the legendary Irish button accordion player Joe Burke (which, in fairness, you’d probably have guessed anyway, even if I hadn’t told you), Planxty Joe Burke is a tune that divides opinion.
You see, a planxty isn’t actually a type of tune. The title ‘planxty’ simply means that the tune has been written for or dedicated to someone. The great Irish composer and wandering harp player, Turlough O’Carolan for example, wrote a number of planxties for his patrons.
So you’ll have some musicians who will tell you this tune is a planxty, others who will call it a hornpipe or a barndance, and others who will slow it right down and perform it as a sort of air or slow reel. Whatever it qualifies as, you’ll agree that Charlie Lennon’s classical influences are evident in this quirky tune, with a few references to Bach thrown in for good measure.
There are many different settings from which to take inspiration, but I particularly enjoy the version below, played here at a lively, upbeat dance tempo by Irish button accordion player Benny McCarthy (also of the supergroup Danú):
7 – The Peach Blossoms
This tune is undisputedly a barndance, and a very catchy one at that. Perhaps not the most commonly known session tune depending on which circles you move in, but a joy to play from start to finish, no matter what your choice of instrument may be. It lends itself particularly well to being played on the fiddle or banjo, but I particularly enjoy adding a few dramatic flourishes on the flute myself!
Have a listen to it played by the master himself on his album Turning the Tune. If you can resist tapping your foot or bopping along in some fashion then you may deserve a prize:
6 – Ceannt The Piper
Composed in honour of Irish patriot Éamonn Ceannt, this jig was written as part of Charlie Lennon’s Áille na hÁille suite to commemorate the 1916 Rising.
In addition to being a leading figure in the Easter Rising, Éamonn Ceannt was also a talented uilleann piper and founder of Cumann na Píobairí Uilleann (The Piper’s Club) – an organisation which is still thriving over 120 years later.
A true piping tune if ever there was one, Ceannt The Piper is a fitting tribute to a man to whom our small country owes so much. Here it is is played by Rónán Browne – one of Ireland’s greatest uilleann pipers – and Charlie Lennon himself:
5 – The Handsome Young Maidens
Another jig, but one that’s a bit more lighthearted. The Handsome Young Maidens isn’t just one of Charlie Lennon’s most popular compositions, I would argue it’s one of the most popular jigs in the contemporary traditional Irish music repertoire (if you’ll excuse the paradox!).
Due to its soaring melody, and highly rhythmic nature this tune is a firm favourite of musicians of all ages – especially fiddle players.
Here it is played Irish violin virtuoso, Zoe Conway (The Handsome Young Maidens starts at 1:09):
4 – The Dance of The Honey Bees
This happy little hornpipe is another joyful tune filled to the brim with Charlie’s charming personality. Originally recorded by The Lennon Family on their album, also titled Dance of the Honey Bees, this tune was also made popular by the legendary Altan.
Some may argue this tune has more of a barndance feel, particularly in the way the rhythm is swung, but if Charlie himself refers to it as a hornpipe then that’s good enough for me.
The Dance of The Honey Bees is the perfect tune for more advanced players to show off their skill – particularly in the second part with all of its octave leaps. It’s filled with endless opportunities for ornamentation and embellishment in the form of triplet runs. Have a listen to the talented Lennon family in action. Their whimsical arrangement of this charming tune starts at 02:19 in the video below:
3 – The Leitrim Lilter
The Leitrim Lilter is one of the most popular tunes that Charlie Lennon has ever written. This lively reel is a firm favourite with Irish musicians everywhere. You’ll hear it played at sessions, by céilí bands, in group and solo competitions at fleadhanna ceoil and more. It’s firmly embedded in the Irish music tradition, perhaps even more so than much older reels which came before it.
Time spent learning this brilliant tune would be time well spent indeed:
2 – The Moving Pint
While The Leitrim Lilter is a popular tune indeed, The Moving Pint may well be the most popular tune that Charlie Lennon has ever written – and that’s quite a feat. This skilled composer’s tunes are beloved by Irish musicians of all ages and have been welcomed with open arms into the Irish folk music repertoire.
This driving, highly rhythmic reel is best played at a lively, upbeat tempo so it may be a challenge for any beginner musicians out there, but once you get it to speed you’ll be flying. Here’s a little inspiration from another legendary Irish fiddle player – maestro Frankie Gavin – accompanied by Charlie Lennon on piano:
1 – Sound Man, Éamonn
A little moodier than Charlie’s other offerings, Sound Man, Éamonn isn’t so much a reel as an entire suite of music in its own right. Recorded on Charlie Lennon’s masterful album, Turning The Tune, this track starts out as a beautiful slow air, played skilfully on the piano, before evolving into a slow but steady march-like performance of what turns out to be a lively reel with plenty of drive.
Charlie’s compositional style is typically associated with sweet melodies, largely written in major keys. This break from the norm however with its brief hints of moody minor tonality is my favourite Charlie Lennon tune of all:
Learn More About The Man Behind The Music
In addition to being a renowned fiddle player and one of the most prolific living Irish tune composers in existence, Charlie Lennon is also a skilled piano player. His understated playing style is an example of the older more traditional style – with some slight differences however.
Never heavy handed, Charlie Lennon offers a light touch that is highly rhythmic, yet distinctly delicate.
You can learn more about his skills as a piano player in my blog post on Irish Music Accompaniment: How To Accompany Traditional Irish Music.