The Jack Canny Story


This is the fascinating story of Jack Canny: his deep family connection to traditional music in Clare, Ireland and how this most unlikely person came to influence the sound of Irish music played in Canberra, Australia.

Part 1: The Jack Canny Story: Threads
Part 2: The Jack Canny Story: About Jack
Part 3: The Jack Canny Story: The Half Set

Jack Canny playing at the Australian National Folk Festival 1993

Jack Canny playing at the Australian National Folk Festival 1993. Image: Canberra Times

Part 1: The Jack Canny Story: Threads

I used to think that a 100 years was a long time – ancient history. Now that I have just passed my own half century, I see it differently – close, not that far away, with threads that weave my own history into that time.There is a reverberation, an echo from down the years, a depth of influence that County Clare has had, and is still having on, Canberra Irish musicians and dancers, like myself.I was first alerted to this connection in 2004, when my husband Martin and I stepped into a King O’Malleys pub music session in Canberra on a Sunday night, for the first time. We looked at each other in surprise “Sounds just like the Tulla” we said, almost in unison. It was like an instant trip back to Clare – eerie and beautiful.

Music session at King O'Malleys, Canberra

Pete and Sue Hobson with Mark Tandy: Music session at King O’Malleys, Canberra

The first time I heard that sound was at the Willie Clancy Festival, Co.Clare in 1999. I was dancing sets with Martin, my then (very) new boyfriend, to the Tulla Céilí Band in The Mill, as it was known then. The band has a very distinct sound – sweet, soft and lyrical with just the right amount of lift for dancing- very addictive but also an experience that envelopes you, cocoons – I have written more about this.Years later, having just arrived down from Dublin for the 2003 Willie Clancy Festival, we pushed our way into the very small, extremely noisy Queallys bar and managed to get a seat on a bench. I happened to glance down at our neighbour and noticed he was wearing a pair of Blundstone boots. Mmmm, definitely not Irish. I commented on the boots and we got chatting. Yes, he’s Australian and where from? Canberra? How amazing. We told our new friend, David Game, of our plans to emigrate/return next year and that we wanted to start a set dancing class – were there any musicians? “Sure” said David “we have great Irish music in Canberra.” Little did I know!I first became aware of Jack Canny at a 2006 presentation at the National Library of Australia,  made by local musicians Adrian (Ado) Barker and Ben Stephenson (photo below) about their research and influences, including Jack. The first track on their joint album Undertones is titled Jack Canny’s Reels Rolling in the Ryegrass /Julie Delaney’s /The Beauties of Limerick.

Enda Cathain, Adrian Barker and Ben Stephenson : NLA presentation 2006. Photo: N.Stewart

Enda Cathain, Adrian Barker and Ben Stephenson: NLA presentation 2006.

And, as chance would have it, our friend David Game of the boots that we met in Queallys, and his wife Jenny Gall both not only knew Jack pretty well, but Jenny had interviewed him and we have the recordings of these oral histories to gain some insight into the man and his early life*. Jack Canny provided a missing piece to the puzzle of how that sound came to be part of the Canberra music-playing style.What makes this story so poignant for me is the idea that Jack was like a time capsule – all that music he had absorbed as a youngster, waiting for the right time,the right situation to be unleashed. And I think of migrants and others in the world, who have a latent talent or knowledge, just waiting to be unlocked, like a seed waiting for rain.

Jack Canny Mark Tandy and Sue Hobson

Sue Hobson, Jack Canny and Mark Tandy

And lucky for us, that time came when the folk music revival was in full swing in the 1970’s, and there was lots of interest in Irish folk music. Canberra was in the grip of folk fever, and when it became known that the brother of the very famous Irish fiddler Paddy Canny, was actually living on the doorstep, Jack was quickly located and gradually met and played with all the local musicians we now know – Mark Tandy, Sue Hobson, Pete Hobson, Libby Conrick,  Richard Conrick, David Game, Jenny Gall, Pete Woodley, Kevin Bradley and others. Jack said* on meeting them:

”They played some of the tunes I played in my younger days and I thought, well, I’d better make a start, and that’s what started me off, otherwise I’d never have picked it up again, but it took me a long time to get back, it took me years to get back. Every tune that I’d ever learned, I’d forgot it.”

But what he hadn’t forgotten was that distinctive East Clare style of playing music which he had unwittingly soaked up as a boy, and that was his great gift to Canberra.

Canberra Irish musicians playing at the Not Just Ned exhibition, NMA 2011

Canberra Irish musicians playing at the Not Just Ned exhibition, NMA 2011.

Nora Stewart

*Jack Canny interview source by Dr.Jennifer Gall, NLA, 25 July 1991. Thanks to Dr.Helen O’Shea for her assistance with this information.

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PART 2: The Jack Canny Story-About Jack

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.

Maghera Mountain 1

Maghera Mountain, Co.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.”

Mark Tandy with Jack Canny

Mark Tandy with Jack Canny

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.”


Paddy Canny, founder member of the Tulla Ceili Band

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


Martin Hayes

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”!*

Bertie Donnelly Cycling - Cycling Ireland Hall of Fame

A contemporary of Jack Canny: Bertie Donnelly Cycling – Cycling Ireland Hall of Fame

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 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.

Jack Canny with Mark Tandy and Pete Woodley: Hall, NSW 1985

Jack Canny with Mark Tandy and Pete Woodley: Hall, NSW 1985

“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.

Nora Stewart
Easy Irish Dance
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.

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PART 3: The Jack Canny Story Part 3 -The Half Set

This half set began it’s life in Canberra over 3 years ago at the King O’Malleys music session with Libby and Richard Conrick, amongst others. Richard and Libby knew Jack well : in fact, one of their sons is named after him, and Jack Conrick is now a fabulous fiddle and concertina player himself.

Martin and I would often go to the session on Tuesday nights, and occasionally, we would get up and “throw a few shapes”, as they say, just the two of us in a very small dance space, enjoying whatever music they were playing.

Some of the signature moves came from experimenting at the session. But mostly, the influences have come from my years dancing in Ireland, and in Clare, reflecting many of the Clare dance moves we know and love, with a few twists.

martin and Nora O'Malleys

Nora and Martin dancing St.Patrick’s Day, King O’Malleys Pub, with Jack Conrick concertina and Ian Stewart, flute.

The Clare Plain Set is a favourite of mine and was also mentioned twice by Jack Canny in his interview with Jenny Gall*, so I am assuming he would have danced something similar to what we dance now, although it might have been danced to polkas rather than reels – the reason this set can be danced to any type of music available.

I particularly love the 3rd figure, which I always feel is the penultimate figure of the set. There is something about the moves when returning across the set to dance with your partner in that figure, turning under and turning under again, which needs good timing with your partner and is great fun when it all comes together. I have used this idea in the Clare Cosy and the Canny Chase, which can also be danced as a single couple, if no other dancers are available.

I became fascinated with the Caledonian set, a much-loved dance in Clare, of which there are recordings of at least 4 different local versions. Many dancers find this set repetitive and boring but I revel in that repetition, which I feel is more like a meditation, with dancer, music and musicians all focused on the inner life that rhythm gives.

The secret of the version of the Caledonian set we now dance is that every figure has a multiple of 32 bars, which is often the standard length of Irish traditional tunes. This means that the dance and music fit snugly together, giving it a smoothness that is very satisfying to dance. And I have attempted to replicate that kind of snug fit with the music, when all 3 figures are danced together sequentially– 96 bars + 96 bars + 96 bars.

The Jack Canny Half Set - Three figures named

There is also a nod to Jack Canny and his own story, in the structure of the dance:

Figure 1: The Clare Cosy
Being snug and safe at home in Clare as a youngster, focused on pursuits close to home – dancing at home.

Figure 2: The Bridge
Leaving home, across the water, reaching out to others beyond what you know; “I’m the only one that had itchy feet. I wanted to travel and I don’t regret it. I suppose we’re all built different.”

Figure 3: The Canny Chase
Coming together with others “down under”, plenty of dancing with others in the set.

The Canny Chase was inspired partly by Canberra’s architectural circles and roundabouts/rotarys, and by also by Jack’s natural energy, talent and cheeky love of life. In his interview with Jenny Gall*, he recounts a great story about his own canny chase.

“I think was coming from a sports meeting somewhere….on the main highway from Ennis to Tulla… and all of a sudden I realised that I was coming along towards two policemen. I did a U turn on the road, and one of the cops shouts out “Where’s your lights?” and I didn’t answer.
They started to put up speed to catch me, and I’d let them get within a hundred yards, then I’d sprint and I’d get about 200 yards away from them, then I’d slow down and let them get within a hundred yards again, and they’d put up a sprint and I’d sprint and I was gone 200 yards away and they couldn’t catch me. And they said ”Ah, you bugger, we’ll get you one day!”

Thanks, Jack!

Nora Stewart
Easy Irish Dance
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.