Canny, Patrick ('Paddy') (1919–2008), traditional musician, was born 9 September 1919 in Glendree, Tulla, Co. Clare, youngest of three sons of Patrick ('Pat') Canny, a small farmer, and Catherine ('Kate') Canny (née McNamara), from nearby Feakle. He was reared in a household steeped in traditional music; many contend that the east Clare style of fiddle playing gestated in the Canny family home. A blind fiddler and travelling music teacher, Paddy McNamara, lodged with Paddy Canny's grandfather every winter for several years, giving lessons in the house to local children, including Paddy's father (who became a fine fiddler, and also tin whistler and flutist), who in turn taught the fiddle to Paddy, his two brothers, and another generation of local youngsters. Practising diligently as a boy – often in the fields, to the neglect of the farm work – Paddy was also instructed and influenced stylistically by two other local fiddlers, Martin Nugent and Martin Rochford; the latter taught him to read music and transcribed tunes for Paddy to learn from his treasured copy of The dance music of Ireland, the renowned 'thousand and one' of Chief Francis O'Neill (qv). By age 10, Paddy was playing regularly at local house parties, weddings, crossroads dances and céilís. A frequent playing partner was a younger contemporary whom Canny mentored, P. Joe Hayes (1921–2001), from a musical family living a mile from the Cannys; the lads bicycled together to gigs with their fiddles strapped to their backs.
Canny played in the short-lived Ballinahinch Céilí Band (1944–5), formed by Rochford and multi-instrumentalist Seán Reid. In 1946 he joined, along with Hayes, a new céilí band organised by pianist Teresa Tubridy to compete in that year's Féile Luimní; entered as St Patrick's Amateur Band, and winning the competition against six rivals, the combination was soon renamed the Tulla Céilí Band. For the next two decades, Canny's musical career would be intertwined with that of the band. While the original 1946 lineup comprised eight or nine musicians (sources differ) – four fiddles, two or three flutes, accordion and upright piano – over the years numerous personnel changes and instrumental mixes were effected. Based from its formation in Minogue's bar in Tulla, the band drew its core membership from the strong musical tradition in the area, while also recruiting farther afield. When in 1947 three of the founding members, including Tubridy, left the band, Canny and Hayes cycled to Ennis to recruit Seán Reid as pianist and bandleader. Reid's uilleann piping on some numbers (and that of the west Clare musician Willie Clancy (qv), during whose brief tenure the band won the céilí competition at the 1947 Munster oireachtas) added an instrumental dimension lacking from most céilí formations. A distinctive element of the band's sound was the addition of a second accordion (early 1950s); in deference to evolving audience tastes (under the influence of other musical genres), a drummer was permanently added (1953), and occasional vocal numbers entered the playlist.
Céilí bands had emerged in the 1920s to provide musical accompaniment in sizeable venues for céilí dancing, the style of Irish dance being vigorously promoted by Roman catholic clergy, Conradh na Gaeilge, and other cultural bodies, while actively suppressing set dancing as immoral and un-Irish; amid concurrent clerical disapproval of informal and unsupervised house and crossroads dances, multi-piece bands were required to produce the required volume in the large parochial or commercial halls in which approved dancing was conducted. By the late 1940s, however, céilí music and dancing, and traditional music generally, were at an ebb of popularity, appealing only to a small, geographically scattered, and socially marginalised rural or rural-originating audience, and perceived as old-fashioned and rustic by large swathes of the population, who preferred an Irish variant of the international genre of big-band swing music to accompany ballroom dancing.
Against this background, the Tulla Céilí Band played regularly in competitions, and commercially in parish halls, ballrooms and summer marquees, commanding a growing following, first in their east Clare base, then elsewhere in Clare, and steadily expanding into neighbouring counties. On foot of their 1947 Munster oireachtas championship, they secured a twenty-minute slot on Radio Éireann (September 1948), travelling to Dublin for the broadcast; the RÉ music director, reflecting the elitist bias prevalent at the station, faulted their instrumental mix and general musicianship, and the band was precluded from further broadcasting for some years.
Interest in traditional music and céilí bands revived throughout the 1950s owing to the excitement generated by the competitive regional and national fleadhs organised by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCÉ), with the first Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann occurring in 1951; through regular participation in fleadhanna, the Tulla Céilí Band both contributed to and benefited from the revival. They first competed in the national fleadh in 1953, at which Canny won the Coleman Cup (after Michael Coleman (qv)), signifying the senior all-Ireland fiddle championship. At the 1954 national fleadh, he combined with three band colleagues – Hayes, Joe McNamara (accordion) and Martin Talty (flute) – to win the all-Ireland quartet championship. After tying for first place with their north Clare rivals, the Kilfenora Céilí Band, at the 1956 Munster fleadh, at the subsequent all-Ireland fleadh the Tulla band were runners-up by a half-point behind the Kilfenora (which won for the third year running). The Tulla band finally won their first all-Ireland championship at the 1957 fleadh; a second ensued in 1960, and in 1961 they won the céilí band championship in the national oireachtas (organised by Conradh na Gaeilge) in the Mansion House, Dublin. After competing in the 1962 national fleadh, they ceased entering competitions and concentrated on their burgeoning commercial touring schedule.
Canny was among the several supremely talented musicians whose collective skills rendered the Tulla one of the most aesthetically tasteful and artistic of the hundreds of céilí bands of the twentieth century, and perhaps the most celebrated dance ensemble in the history of Irish traditional music. (It is reputed that Seán Ó Riada (qv) said of the céilí bands that he would shoot all the rest but keep the Tulla (Taylor, 51).) In 1956 the Tulla recorded five 78-rpm discs for HMV, becoming one of the first céilí bands to release commercial gramophone records. By the 1960s they were gigging regularly throughout Connacht, north Munster, the midlands and Dublin. They toured Britain annually from 1958 to 1963, enjoying a large audience especially among the many Clare émigrés in London and Birmingham. Canny did not accompany the band on their USA tours in 1958 and 1961 – on foot of their two all-Ireland championships – and so did not appear on the album they recorded in New York, Echoes of Erin (1958), the first LP ever made by an Irish céilí band. However, during a 1956 trip to New York with Dr Bill Loughnane (qv), during which he gave a solo performance in Carnegie Hall, Canny was invited by Dublin Records – the same Irish-American label that would release the band's LP – to record material either alone or with other musicians. The project did not materialise till 1959 when, on a single weekend in Dublin, three members of the Tulla band – Canny, Hayes and flutist Peadar O'Loughlin – accompanied by pianist Bridie Lafferty, recorded All-Ireland champions: violin. The first commercial LP recorded by traditional musicians in Ireland, and a highly influential landmark of the genre, the album was remarkable for capturing the spontaneous vitality and authenticity of the performances with minimal sound engineering. 'Few recordings in the history of Irish music have ever made such a deep and long-lasting impression on traditional musicians and their fans' (Historic recording, liner notes, 5). There have been retitled CD remasterings on the Shanachie label (An historic recording of Irish traditional music from County Clare and east Galway (2001)) and by Dublin Records (Meet Paddy Canny: all-Ireland champion – violin (2004)).
From the mid 1950s Canny appeared – solo, with the Tulla band, and in varied ensembles – in field recordings made by Ciarán Mac Mathuna (1925–2009) for his RÉ programmes; Canny's rendition of 'Trim the velvet' was the signature tune of Mac Mathúna's radio programme A job of journeywork. Shortly after performing with the Tulla Céilí Band in a series of programmes on RTÉ television in 1966 in the Club céilí series, Canny left the band; strained by juggling the demands of touring and farming, he was finding that the band had become too much of a job.
For the next quarter century, a mystique developed around Canny's legacy, as he largely refrained from public performance, and was highly selective about where, when and with whom he would play. He performed beside O'Loughlin and concertina player Paddy Murphy before a large audience at a music festival in Paris (early 1990s), and appeared occasionally on the RTÉ radio programme Céilí house. Attending the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Tulla Céilí Band in Smyth's Hotel, Feakle, he was among the several past members of the band who joined the contemporary lineup on stage (January 1997). He ended a long absence from recording by appearing on an album by concertina player Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin, Traditional music from east Clare and beyond (1996). At age 78 he released his only solo album, the highly acclaimed Paddy Canny: traditional music from the legendary east Clare fiddler (1997), comprising his own arrangements of tunes from the traditional repertoire with which he was associated during his career and several recent compositions by himself (the jig 'The caves of Kiltanon') and others, with piano and guitar accompaniment by Eugene Kelly. The Irish Times traditional music critic Fintan Vallely, while noting that Canny's playing lacked the 'concertina-like power of his early years', praised his rich tone and 'profoundly varied style' (18 July 1997), and selected the recording as the best traditional album of the year (19 December 1997).
A stylish, exciting and inventive musician, capable of maintaining the essentials of a melody while playing numerous and subtle melodic variations, Canny was a huge influence on the evolution of traditional Irish fiddling in the second half of the twentieth century, recognised in both his solo and ensemble playing as one of the foremost exponents of traditional dance music on any instrument. His music was redolent with the distinctive 'lonesome' quality said to characterise the east Clare fiddling style, a quality that he himself did much to develop: a heartfelt lyricism, slow-paced and spacious, employing a wide dynamic range to enhance its expressiveness. His recordings, while few in number, are among the most influential, historically significant and sensitively played in the history of the genre.
A gentle, softly spoken, shy man, unassuming and self-effacing, Canny invariably took 'the quiet corner' when sitting down to play, but commanded an audience's attention, not with theatrics or force of personality, but with the sheer brilliance of his musicianship. He married (1961) Philomena Hayes, sister of P. Joe Hayes; they had two daughters. Canny was thus the uncle-in-law of P. Joe's son, the internationally renowned fiddler Martin Hayes (b. 1961). In his later years Canny resided with his family in Kiltannon, Tulla. He died 28 June 2008 after several weeks' illness at Mid Western Regional Hospital, Limerick city.