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Tom Lenihan (1905 – 1990)

Tom Lenihan's songs in the Singers and Songs of County Clare from the Carroll Mackenzie Collection

On Christmas Eve in 1905, Tom was born into his father’s small-holding in Knockbrack on the outskirts of Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare. He was a farmer whose whole lifestyle was similar to that of his Irish-speaking fellow countymen. Though English is the language of his area, it is deeply coloured by Irish idiom and constructions, as can be seen in the many hundreds of pages of lore and song which Tom contributed to the Department of Irish Folklore over almost two decades.

All of Tom’s working life was spent on the home farm which he inherited. In 1938 he married Margaret Vaughan, from Letteragh, Kilmaley and they had three sons, Michael, Tom and John. At the time Tom (Senior) was born in 1905, West Clare life was going on much as it had done since the Great Famine and before. Although the blind uilleann piper Garrett Barry died in Ennistymon Workhouse on the ninth of April 1898, his legacy lasted throughout Tom Lenihan’s lifetime and his music is still part of the Clare repertoire. A mendicant musician, he was a frequent visitor to Lenihan’s house in Knockbrack and to Hugh Curtin’s across the road. Tom grew up with accounts of Garrett’s adventures and when Garrett came visiting the area, local folk vied with each other for the privilege of having him stay with them and supply them with music for dancing, and he was greatly in demand for weddings and other festivities.

Set-dancing was, and remains, an important part of the social life of Clare. All his life Tom was an enthusiastic and excellent dancer who never had to be asked twice to take the floor. Among his earliest memories he recalled being at a dance in the house of the Curtin’s and feeling rejected because nobody would dance with a five year old boy. He solved the problem by taking the kitchen broom and entering the dance using it as a partner. He also received lessons from the traveling dancing-master, Paddy Barron who visited the area intermittently and taught step-dancing and set-dancing from the turn of the century until the late ‘thirties.

Although Tom was a deep well of all sorts of folklore, he was primarily known as a singer. “In addition to songs of Irish origin he performed old ballads derived from European tradition, along with local ditties and music hall songs; all were grist to his unbiased mill.” (Munnelly)

The social occasions on which dancing and singing took place were weddings, American wakes, parties for returned emigrants in the summer or at Christmas. Meitheals were rewarded with food and drink when they had finished helping their neighbours with harvesting or turf-cutting and these too usually finished with a few sets and singing.

Although a life-long teetotaler himself, Tom frequently joined in the singing which was a normal part of the fair days in Miltown and elsewhere when the farmers who had finished their trading resorted to the pubs to have a few drinks and discuss how well or how badly they had fared in their deals. A familiar figure at these fairs was Bully Nevin, an itinerant ballad seller and singer from whom Tom got several of his songs. A neighbour, Mary Haren of Cloonyogan, an aunt of Willie Clancy’s, was another source of inspiration for Tom who remembered her not only as a good singer but also as a fine musician.

While Tom was a welcome guest at special gatherings like weddings and parties, he did not require such occasions in order to sing. Song was a part of his everyday life and he could be heard singing continually in the fields or cowhouse or doing chores about the house. As he got older, and sleep became more evasive he often said that he would pass the hours before dawn by ‘wording’ his songs to himself in bed. With his repertoire constantly on his lips and in his mind it is not surprising that, in twenty years of being recorded for the Department of Irish folklore, the instances wherein Tom forgot the words of the song he was singing can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Music and song surrounded him from birth. Among his earliest memories are those of his father searching through a pile of ‘Clarke’s flutes’ (tin whistles) in a shop, until he found one ‘with the right soft note’ before purchasing, and he also told of his eldest brother Paddy buying a fiddle with his first week’s wages. Tom said it was a ‘right antique Stradivarius fiddle that cost a pound!’ His mother was both a fine singer and a good concertina player. All of Tom’s nine brothers and sisters took up an instrument and went to their neighbour, Hugh Curtin, for instruction in playing.

Like the Curtin’s house, the Lenihan’s was a noted spot for musicians and singers to gather throughout the ‘twenties and ‘thirties. Sunday evenings were regular occasions when people from miles around would gather to swap songs and tunes, dance sets and exchange the news of the week. At this time too Tom’s sister in America began sending home 78 rpm gramophone records of Michael Coleman and Paddy Killoran. These were eagerly listened to and discussed in depth. ‘Junior’ Crehan from Mullagh attended these nights regularly, walking the ten-mile round trip. He recalls that he would borrow the newly-arrived record and if he liked the music on it he had to have it ‘learned off’ within a week as the record had to be returned by the following Sunday.

In The Mount Callan Garland, Tom Munnelly describes Tom Lenihan’s style of singing:

“Like most of the older singers in West Clare, Tom used very little ornamentation. The decoration with which he concludes some lines, one may, on first hearing, assume to be vibrato, but on closer listening it is actually staccato, more akin to a cran on the uilleann pipes than anything else I can think of. This is a personal form of embellishment which I have not come across elsewhere. Otherwise Tom conformed totally to the regional style which makes minimal use of gracing and totally abjures the use of dynamics or histrionics in performance. This minimalist approach is not indicative of a lack of skill among the singers of West Clare; it merely suggests a preference for an uncluttered palate. In Tom’s singing much subtlety is to be heard by the attentive listener: melody, story, and feelings are all expressed with the clarity and deftness found in a Japanese ink drawing.”

Munnelly also goes on to say that “with the death of Tom Lenihan of Knockbrack, an era in the traditional life of West Clare came to an end. Singers of his caliber are no longer to be found in the region…his repertoire came from many sources, including broadsheets and gramophone records, but was mainly acquired through oral channels. With the advent of electronic media this method of dissemination has suffered with the consequent loss of regional stylistic traits and colouring”.

Munnelly, T. “The Mount Callan Garland: Songs and Reperitor of Tom Lenihan of Knockbrack, Miltown Malbay, County Clare”. Dublin: Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, 1994.

Other Articles:

YouTube Videos:
Tom sings Stick to the Cratur, 1967

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Tom Lenihan