A Tribute to Charlie Lennon (1938-2024)

I’d like to pay tribute to Dr. Charlie Lennon, an extraordinary man, who sadly passed away this week. I got to know Charlie well when I lived in Spiddal/An Spidéal from 2006-2011. It was there, at the regular sessions in Tigh Hughes that I first played tunes with him.

He hosted regular sessions with his brilliantly talented daughter Éilís and his great musical colleague Johnny Óg Connolly. These Sunday afternoon gatherings were always a highlight of the week for me, especially in the bleak Connemara Winters where we were kept alive by music, song, stories, Guinness and hot whiskeys. I’m not sure any of us would have made it through those Winters without the joy and camaraderie of those sessions.

Many’s a memorable session was had in Hughes’. The allure of Charlie and his family being there alongside Johnny Óg , and his legendary melodeon playing Dad Johnny Connolly, brought numerous great musicians to Spiddal over the years. Sadly Tigh Hughes’ had to close down 10 years ago and it was a huge loss for music in the area. Here’s a clip from one of the sessions I was in, you can’t see me in it, but trust me I was there! The head of my Martin guitar is visible on the bottom left.

Charlie was an incredible composer, of course. His tunes are played by Irish trad musicians the world over and he’s one of the few composers I can think of who composed melodies for orchestral suites that have made it into the wider culture of traditional Irish dance music sessions, concerts and recordings. His ‘Island Wedding Suite’ is a true classic of Irish orchestral music.

His best tunes are distinctively his, with beautiful turns and harmonic twists – The Smiling Bride, The Twelve Pins, Paddy Canny’s Toast, Kilty Town, The Handsome Young Maidens and Ríl An Spidéil are but 7 of his magnificent tunes that are widely played wherever Irish trad is found.

Composing was but one of his many talents; a wonderful fiddler, violist, harpsichordist and he is also one of the most highly regarded pianists in the history of Irish traditional music. His recordings with Joe Burke are legendary. Yet, music wasn’t even his profession. He was Dr. Charlie Lennon because he had a Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics and that was the space in which he made his career, after a few early years playing professionally in dance bands.

During my time in Spiddal, I had many conversations with Charlie. We shared similar musical interests. We’re both trad musicians who like to write music for orchestras. I’d ask him about the tunes he composed and he’d tell me one bit might be influenced by Bach or Mozart and another by Michael Coleman or Paddy Canny. The merging of ideas from classical and Irish trad was very clear in his music, yet he managed to bring the classical influence into his tunes without his Irish tunes ever seeming diluted by it. That was a testament to his deep knowledge of both traditions.

Charlie is without a doubt one of the greatest ever composers of Irish traditional music. His books and recordings are hugely influential in the tradition. If you look in the credits of his second book of tunes ‘Musical Memories Vol.2‘, you’ll see my name kindly mentioned. My small contribution to his considerable legacy was to help with some of the typesetting of the notation.

I was lucky enough to join Charlie on stage a few times over the years. He was very encouraging to me. If he wasn’t such a nice man, I might have found it intimidating to accompany his imaginative fiddle playing. Yet, he had such a warm, genial and gracious manner, that he lifted you into his orbit.

His encouragement was more than important to me. In fact, looking back today at old emails between us, I was astonished to read a 2009 exchange where I’d had a serious confidence crisis. I wrote to him wondering whether he and the rest of the Tigh Hughes musicians didn’t like me playing guitar with them. I’d got paranoid they didn’t like me being there. Sadly, I was prone to that kind of thinking back then. However I’d like to share his reply to my pitiful email, which tells you all you need to know about his character.

“Hi Dave

Your imagination is running away with you.
I have no idea why you are concerned.
I thought your playing fitted in just as well last night as it always does.
Keep up the good work.


When a musician is undergoing a confidence crisis, reassurances like that are really, really important. He helped knock me out of a deluded, destructive mood. So I’m really grateful to Charlie for how he encouraged and supported me over the years.

He was also very encouraging when I played him my arrangement of his distinctive melancholy Slow Reel ‘Paddy Canny’s Toast‘. I turned it into a bit of a slow air to begin with, and I was a bit nervous about what he’d think of me doing that. But he fully endorsed it and I was chuffed by that!

Confidence fully restored, in 2012 I asked Charlie if he’d join Mairtin O’Connor, Liz Carroll and I on a couple of dates of our Tune Makers tour. Charlie had just overcome a very serious illness, so I wasn’t sure he’d make it. But he garnered the strength and we played together in Whelans in Dublin and then The Dock in his home County of Leitrim. I think the Whelans gig was his first gig back since his illness. Charlie and I started the second half together with a half-hour set of his own tunes. Then Liz and Mairtin joined us for a belting finale. Some videos of the Leitrim gig are available online. One of them, The Bucks of Oranmore, is the most viewed video I’m in anywhere! Over 400k views and counting.

I left Spiddal in 2011, so I haven’t seen much of Charlie since those beautiful gigs. I invited him to attend the premiere of The Clare Concerto in 2013, as his daughter Eilis was one of the main fiddle players. I seem to remember giving Charlie a shout out from the stage at the end and the audience gave him a great reception. That’s probably the last concert interaction I had with him.

The other main interactions I had with him took place in his beautiful recording studio Stíuideo Cuan, in Spiddal. Part of my ‘Irish Minimalism‘ album was recorded there and Charlie sat in to listen to some of the sessions with the Con Tempo Quartet. It was also there where Charlie kindly granted me the opportunity to interview him for my Ph.D. research. Charlie was a fountain of wisdom and I’m really grateful to him for sharing many wonderful insights and stories with me, several quotes of his ended up in the thesis.

It’s quite possible that it’s 10 years since I last saw Charlie and I’m very sad I’ll not see him again. I’m not quite sure why I hadn’t seen Charlie in so long. I just haven’t been back to Spiddal since then and maybe the last time I saw him, very briefly, was at a birthday session for his brother Ben in Mullagh during the Willie Clancy Festival in Clare a few years back.

Looking into my emails, it seems the last time I was in touch with Charlie was back in 2020, when I sent him a condolence note on the passing of his wonderful brother Ben. How sad it is, that was my last communication with Charlie. I should’ve made more effort to go see him again.

There was talk in 2016 of a project bringing him together with some members of the Irish Memory Orchestra to play a suite of his tunes that I’d orchestrate with Charlie’s guidance, but sadly a funding application was turned down for it, and it never got off the ground. It’s funding decisions like that which give me pause for great regret at times like this. There was an opportunity there to do something special for Charlie’s legacy, but a baffling funding rejection quashed it and I know that Charlie felt hurt by that.

But anyway, today shouldn’t be a day for regret, it should be a day to celebrate Charlie’s unique and very special legacy as a composer, musician, scientist and family man. Charlie had a wonderfully warm bond with his family and I know they’ll miss him so terribly. I send my deep condolences to his wife Síle, a wonderful singer, his children Éilís, Seán and Dónal, all talented musicians, and their extended family and close friends. I’m truly sorry I can’t make Charlie’s funeral. This tribute is the closest I can get.

Slán a Charlie agus go raibh míle maith agat as do cheol, cruthaitheacht, eagna agus cairdeas.

The Tune Makers, backstage at The Dock, Leitrim, 2012. L-R Máirtín O’Connor, Dave Flynn, Liz Carroll, Dave Flynn

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