McGuire (Maguire), Seán Stephen (1927–2005), traditional musician, was born in Dunmore Street, off the Springfield Road, Belfast, on 26 December 1927, the son of Johnnie Maguire, of Callanagh Kilcogy, Mullaghoran, Co. Cavan, and his wife Martha (née Butler), of Ballycastle, Co. Antrim. The young Seán grew up surrounded by music: his home was regularly visited by Belfast's best musicians and his father played flute and piccolo while his mother was a singer. His grandparents on both sides were musical: his maternal grandfather played traditional music on the fiddle and his aunt was also a noted fiddle player. Seán's brother Jim (d. 2001) was held in high regard as a fiddle player and also played the guitar, and his sister Marie was a singer. At around the age of 10, Seán showed an interest in playing the fiddle and was sent to lessons. His music teachers included George Vincent and May Nesbitt. Initially he learned to play in a classical style, a discipline to which he credited his distinctive bow-hand. He became first violinist with the Cooperative Youth Orchestra in Belfast and declined an invitation to join the Belfast Symphony Orchestra, preferring to play traditional music. His first broadcast was on BBC radio, while in his mid teens. In 1949, at the age of 21, he won the Oireachtas all-Ireland music performance competition in Dublin, where each of the four adjudicators awarded him full marks. After this, McGuire, who was a qualified motor mechanic, embarked on a career as a professional musician.
Throughout his life, he devoted himself to traditional music and to giving it greater artistic significance. His classical training allowed him to experiment with and create a new and unique way of playing traditional music on the fiddle. He was constantly challenging the boundaries of traditional music both in terms of repertoire and style. His perception of Irish music as primitive by nature saw him strive to elevate it to a level comparable with art music. This, he felt, would achieve worldwide recognition and appreciation for the music. His deep love of Irish culture included a particular regard for music, dance, and sean-nós (unaccompanied traditional singing, which he believed drew people close to nature). He had a high regard for storytelling and for traditional festive community occasions such as the harvest and house dances. Believing that much of the heart of Irish traditional music existed in neighbourhood social gatherings, he claimed that Ireland had been denied her culture and that the music and the Irish language had almost disappeared. He was convinced, however, that this had changed in the course of his own lifetime and that some of his students would outdo him in terms of musical ability.
During his long career as a professional musician, McGuire played music in a number of different combinations. As a member of the Malachy Sweeney Céilí Band during the late 1940s he toured widely, playing alongside his father and the accordion and fiddle player Johnny Pickering. He also toured and recorded with the Seán McGuire Céilí Band and the Four Star Quartet. In 1952 he travelled to the USA where he played in Carnegie Hall and appeared on the Ed Sullivan and Arthur Godfrey television shows. Wurlitzer of New York invited him to play the famous Stradivarius and Guarnerius violins. As a result, his name is said to have been included in their 'golden book', and he was placed alongside such legendary violinists as Yehudi Menuhin and Fritz Kreisler. In the 1960s McGuire spent some time working in London where he played with flute player Roger Sherlock. Later, he was lead player in the Gael Linn Cabaret in Dublin and was a regular performer at the Pike Folk Club in Belfast. His performing and recording career was extensive: co-performers included other well-known musicians such as accordion player Joe Burke from Co. Galway, and Barney McKenna, a prominent member of the ballad group The Dubliners. McGuire generally chose to play with accompaniment, often piano accompaniment.
McGuire was sometimes perceived as a cultural and musical ambassador for Ireland. His musicianship was widely regarded as exceptional and he composed and created variations of established tunes. The well-known reel 'The moving clouds', originally composed by Donegal fiddler Neillidh Boyle, is often identified with him because of his iconic arrangement of it. Some of the hallmarks of McGuire's music include the modulations within a tune, his bowing techniques, and his use of the second and third positions on the fiddle and what has often been termed a virtuoso style. He is often compared to the Scottish player James Scott Skinner (1843–1927), known as 'The Strathspey King'. In the 1980s McGuire gave classes at the Clonard Traditional Music School, run by members of the McPeake family, and later he taught at the Andersonstown Music School in Belfast.
McGuire's political outlook was nationalist and he frequently commented on political matters. In terms of style, his influence is still evident in fiddle music. He was a person of enormous personal courage and continued performing and playing in public after losing his voice as a result of a tracheotomy resulting from throat cancer. In recognition of his sixtieth birthday a concert was held in the National Concert Hall in Dublin in 1988. In later life, he changed the spelling of his name from Maguire to McGuire. He received significant attention and numerous honours in his later years, including the Fiddlers' Green Hall of Fame Award, honorary artiste of the Soviet Union, and a celebration of his achievements on the Sé mo Laoch series on TG4. The principal releases of McGuire's music are: Irish traditional fiddling (with Roger Sherlock and Josephine Keegan) (1969); Champion of champions (with Josephine Keegan) (1969); Two champions (with Joe Burke) (1971); Pure traditional Irish fiddle music (with his brother Jim) (1982); Portráid (1988); The hawks and doves of Irish culture (with his pupils) (1996). He suffered a stroke in January 2005 and died in hospital in Belfast on 24 March 2005. He was married to Maureen McNally, originally from Liverpool.
In an article about Johnnie Maguire (Seán's father), Breandán Breathnach wrote of Seán, the eldest son, that he 'plays with ease the pipes, whistle, flute, guitar and the piano, but it is as a fiddle player he is most widely known. Gifted with amazing powers of execution, he is able to toss off reel after reel in riotous variations. A controversial figure among those interested in traditional music, he is hailed by some as the mod traditionalist, by others with somewhat less enthusiasm' (Ceol, 1967).