by Mac Entee
Widely regarded as one of the most gifted musicians of her generation, Sharon Shannon was born in the Village of Ruan near Corrofin in Co Clare. Her parents IJ and Mary were set dancers and the four children all play music: Sharon accordeon and fiddle, Mary (Bumblebees) banjo, Majella fiddle and Garry, flute player with the Kilfenora Ceili Band*. Sharon started like so many on the tin whistle, but by ten she was playing the accordeon. She also plays the fiddle and melodeon.
Through her father’s involvement with horses she became a keen showjumper, but the lure of playing music was probably the main reason she dropped out of competitive showjumping at 16. She had been a pupil of Ennis fiddle player and teacher Frank Custy who emphasised the enjoyment of the music rather than training for competitions. “She had a great natural talent, but she also worked hard – very hard – at her playing …,” he told author PJ Curtis. “From the moment I first heard her I knew she had the golden touch.”
At 14, as a member of the group Disert Tola, made up of Dublin and Clare Musicians, she performed in the United States. Soon she was travelling over to Doolin, at that time an out-of-the-way watering hole and incubator for young musicians such as John Williams, Davy Spillane, Mary Custy, Owen O’Neill and many more.
A short spell at University College, Cork, failed to capture her interest and instead she used her time to teach herself the fiddle. She cites fiddle playing as a major influence on her own accordeon style and constantly expresses admiration for the playing of Tommy Peoples. Success was beckoning. She played music in Jim Sheridan’s touring production of Brendan Behan’s The Hostage with the Druid Theatre Company. In 1989 Johnny Ringo McDonagh, who had left De Danann, formed the Galway-based Arcady which included Sharon Shannon, Frances Black, Sean Keane and Cathal Hayden. They recorded an unreleased album. It was while playing with Arcady at a gig in Dublin that Mike Scott of The Waterboys was captivated by Sharon’s playing. Based then in Spiddal, Co Galway, The Waterboys, (who were at that time were on the crest of international success) asked her to join them on their upcoming tour. “I suppose I realised something was happening when I was asked to join the Waterboys. They were a successful international act, so being asked by them to go on tour was a big thing looking back,” she said in 2010. Their international performances, including the Glastonbury Festival, gave her first-hand experience of huge audiences.
It was around this time also that she set about recording her first album. Released in 1991, it was recorded over three days in Winkles Hotel in Kinvara, south Galway. In terms of a first record, it was studded with top musicians Donal Lunny, Mike Scott and Steve Wickham of The Waterboys, Adam Clayton of U2 and Liam O Maonlai. Regarded as a landmark album in traditional music, Sharon Shannon, included Cajun, French-Canadian and Portuguese tunes and was a chart success on its release.
In 1992 she joined up with Eleanor McEvoy, Dolores Keane, Maura O’Connell and Mary and Frances Black to record the hugely successful album A Woman’s Heart, which became at the time the biggest selling Irish album ever.
Her career also took off on the festival circuit in the United States and Europe where she performed open air concerts with her band which included Trevor Hutchenson on bass and Gary O’Beirne on guitar.
To crown a remarkable year, towards the end of 1992 Ireland’s most popular TV host Gay Byrne dedicated an entire Late Late Show to her, a privilege extended to few other traditional acts, namely The Chieftains, The Dubliners and Christy Moore. As a top line musician in Ireland, she had arrived and was to perform at the White House.
With Out the Gap, released in 1994, she expanded her eclectic range moving the music closer to a folk-rock sound. This trend continued on Each Little Thing in 1997: one of the tracks was supported with programmed drumming. Anticipating criticism, she told journalist Roderick O’Connor: “If it was possible for the listener to listen to my accordeon playing alone, with all the backing taken away, you’ll hear it’s very rooted. It’s true to the tunes and doesn’t break any of the rules of traditional style. It’s the backing that makes them sound different.”
She has played music on the movies This is My Father and The Brothers McMullen. The accordeon she plays is a Castagnari “Tommy” in C#/D. She also owns a Castagnari in B/C.
While she has explored reggae, country, Cajun, Portuguese and French-Canadian alongside Irish music in her work, the final sound always bears her signature, a feature which sets her aside from Irish accordeonists in general. She told the Sunday Times in 2012: “People don’t want to buy albums any more. You have to find new ways of keeping it fresh. But I’ve always enjoyed doing that. My mind is working all the time, thinking of new things to do.”
Off stage she likes to take part in pub sessions in Galway and Clare. Her home outside Galway is also a domestic base for her and her pet dogs and cats.
The double CD The Sharon Shannon Collection (2006) celebrated 15 years of her career. It includes songs by artists she has performed with over the years like John Prine, Steve Earle and Dessie O’Halloran.
On May 7, 2008, she suffered a deep personal loss when her long-term partner Leo Healy died suddenly. Two weeks later her Irish fans responded warmly and her new CD The Galway Girl went to the top of the IRMA charts, the first time she had reached the No. 1 position. In March 2009 she was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the prestigious Meteor Music Achievements ceremony in Dublin and in 2010 she won the Meteor Award for best traditional/folk act. In 2011 she performed at a fund-raiser in Galway for the election campaign of Michael D Higgins and, in November, with her band played at the inaugural reception following his election as President of Ireland.
She champions the cause of ill-treated dogs. “I’ve always adored animals and am deeply upset by cruelty to them,” she says. “I have four cats and six dogs and I also foster pups and strays in need of a home as pound dogs have five days to be claimed by a member of the public or by an animal rescue centre.
“I have a new website dedicated to animals with lots of advice on how to adopt a rescue dog,” she says. “And I have done a short comedy music video to create awareness and promote rescued dogs and to show how intelligent and beautiful they are. It’s becoming a YouTube hit and people can find it at http://sharonshannonfriends.wordpress.com/
Her 2012 album Flying Circus is a departure. It’s a collaboration with the RTE Concert Orchestra, featuring orchestral arrangements of newly composed material.
Notes From the Heart, by PJ Curtis, Poolbeg.
A Woman’s Voice, by Eddie Rowley, O’Brien Press.
Flying Circus, Sharron Shannon and the RTE Concert Orchestra (2012) cacd 2415
Saints and Scoundrels, Sharon Shannon and Friends, Daisy Label, 2009
The Galway Girl, the Best of Sharon Shannon, Daisy Label, 2008
Live at Dolans, Sharon Shannon and Big Band. (2006) CD + DVD.
The Sharon Shannon Collection, 1990-2005. Compass Records
Libertango, Sharon Shannon & Friends (2004) DLCD0009
The Diamond Mountain Sessions, Sharon Shannon and Friends, 2000
Spellbound, The Best of Sharon Shannon, 1998.
Each Little Thing, 1997.
Out the Gap, 1995.
A Woman’s Heart, 1992
Sharon Shannon, 1991
Room to Roam, The Waterboys, 1990.
Renegade, with Mike McGoldrick, Jim Murray and Dezi Donnelly. (2007) Daisy DLCD 023.
Upside Down, with Mike McGoldrick, Jim Murray and Dezi Donnelly. (2006) Daisy Label
Tunes, With Frankie Gavin, Mike McGoldrick & Martin Murray. (2005) DLCD011.
*Brother Garry released a flute CD in May 2000
Loozin’ Air, Garry Shannon, Brick Missing Music
Punctured, Gary Shannon Brick Missing Music, 2006