Jack Canny would have been just over 3 years of age when the Easter Rising of 1916 took place in Dublin a hundred years ago, miles and worlds away from his home in the small townland of Glendree, two miles West of Feakle, Parish of Tulla in County Clare.
The eldest of three sons of Patrick Canny and Catherine MacNamara, Jack was active, and lively – “happy as a sand boy”, as he recounted, and was a natural sportsman including regular games of hurling, and later, cycling.
And, of course, there was music. His father, Pat Canny, was a noted local whistle and fiddle player “It was their main hobby when their day’s work was done in the farms. We had no radios or televisions at that time. We had to make our own enjoyment and our main enjoyment was music.”
“My Dad played, he was a great inspiration to all of us. He used often take down the fiddle on the long winter evenings and he’d play there for half an hour, just to keep on practising. He used to do that once a week…sometimes once a fortnight.”
Jack first started to play at age 14 or 15. “But I was never very keen. I’d learn a tune and then I wouldn’t touch that tune maybe for weeks until we’d go to a neighbour’s house where they were learning the fiddle. But so far as learning at home, I never did any practising at home much.”
Jack said of his brother, “Paddy was the youngest one and he turned out to be the best. He went into some competition music and he won the All-Ireland three years in a row.”
He is of course referring to Paddy Canny, a founding member of the well-known, long-lived and much-loved Tulla Céilí Band from Clare, which began in 1946 and continues to this day. In addition, Paddy married Philomena Hayes, sister of P Joe Hayes, who was also a founding member of the Tulla Céilí Band. Now, their very talented son Martin Hayes is successfully bringing his own style and sound of traditional Clare music to the world. The Tulla Céilí Band is having their 70th Anniversary with a weekend celebration 29th April – 2nd May 2016
Despite not practicing much, there was plenty of upsides to the music for Jack, including dancing and girls, Jack re-collected:
“Just after I left school, we used to congregate at a neighbours house where there were three girls -two girls learning fiddle at the time and we used to meet there and do our practising. And during the cold frosty nights in the winter time, there was a local fiddler called O’Malley which used to come in and we’d talk nice to him and ask him to play for a set and we’d all get out and dance the Clare Set to get the frost off of our bones”
Jack’s talent as a cyclist only became apparent when he got his first push bike at age 16, which he initially used to get around to football and hurling matches and other sports meetings. A few years later he had his first taste of pacing a sprint cyclist, who he beat the very first time, and never looked back. By age 20, he was an All-Ireland 1000 metre cycling champion, having travelled and raced all over Ireland-in his “spare time”!*
A few years after this, he got the idea to emigrate to England, which would have been about 1935 when he was about 23.
” I’m the only one that had itchy feet. I wanted to travel & I don’t regret it”
He met his wife Margaret, and married in the UK, where they had four children. They lived there until the pull of sunshine and warmth drew them to Melbourne, Australia. He didn’t like big cities much and soon found his way North inland to Canberra, the capital of Australia, a small but growing town, where he found his building skills in demand.
“He was a bricklayer by day, and he laid the bricks for my flute-making workshop. The fiddle player in our band mixed and carried “the mud”. My dad (carpenter and box player) designed it, and I (flute player) did the roofing. Irish music belted out of the house nearby to sustain the musicians during the building process.
He hadn’t played in years – but he was soon back in the saddle (so to speak) and rarely missed an opportunity for a tune. We got a lot of great tunes from him.”
Terry McGee (The Session.org 2009)
And by all accounts, even though fiddle playing wasn’t his first love, playing again and sharing the music with others in his later life brought him great pleasure and satisfaction.
“When I came to Canberra I thought, this is the place for me and I’ve been here ever since.”
Jack passed away on 23 June 1996, and is survived by his four children Pat, Margaret, John and Mary.
Easy Irish Dance
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Source material: Dr.Jennifer Gall interview with Jack Canny, National Library of Australia, 25 July 1991. * Jack spoke at length about his early cycling career- more details available.