Singers Sarah and Rita Keane were born in Caherlistrane, Co Galway – Rita in 1923, and Sarah c1919. They were the daughters of Matt Keane and his wife May (née Costello). Their father played Jew’s harp, while their mother, from a family of singers and musicians, collected songs; her large repertoire included Lord Donegal, a version of an old ballad Lord Lovel.
They were aunts to singers Dolores, Sean and Matt Keane.
Rita learned to play accordion and Sarah played fiddle. With their parents and siblings they made up the Keane Céilí Band, formations of which performed from the 1930s into the 1980s.
Singer Len Graham, who often visited the Keane home in Caherlistrane, wrote in Folk Music Journal in 2010, (Full Article):
“I was to become a regular visitor at their home in Caherlistrane over the years, where I enjoyed their music and kind hospitality. They soon built an extension to their traditional thatched cottage, which they called “The Northern Wing’, to accommodate in comfort the Ulster musicians and friends, such as Joe Holmes, Cathal McConnell, and others, who would come along with me from time to time. The north-east Galway area was a Gaeltacht the day before yesterday, and one of the seminal collections of Irish song was made there in the early years of the twentieth century by Eibhlin Bean Mhic Choisdealbha, and published in 1918 under the title Amhrain Mhuighe Seola.
“Some of these songs survived in Rita and Sarah’s repertoire, including ‘Moll Dubh an Ghleanna’, ‘Sail Og Rua’, ‘Ta Mo Chleamhnas Déanta’, ‘Anach Cuain’ and others. In addition, many English-language traditional songs of local, national, and international interest are currently sung by various members of the Keane family. Sources for their extensive song and music repertoire came from family, neighbours, visiting singers and musicians, but a particular welcome was made in the past to the Irish Traveller community, who were regular callers to the Keane household and, along with their tin-smithing skills, were great carriers of the song and music tradition. This tradition continues in Caherlistrane with a whole new generation of singers and musicians in the Keane family”
The sisters came to national and, later, international prominence in 1968 through their widely-acclaimed album, Once I Loved, a collection of songs in Irish and English, produced by Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains for Claddagh Records. Paddy said they were so easy to work with and when they sang, they sang to one another and in perfect pitch and timing.
The album was warmly received. Eric Winter wrote in Folk Review that the sisters did not put a note wrong. “No pretences, no show, just an honest-to-goodness job of truly big singing.” (the album was reissued in CD format in the 1990s)
The Keane sisters graced many international stages and in the 1980s they performed on occasions with their niece Dolores and nephew Sean in Scandinavia and gave a workshop at the Stoehill Festival in the US.
In 1985 Sarah and Rita were joined by many other family members, including their singing sister-in-law Bridie Keane (nee Comer) on the album Muintir Uí Chatháin.
In 1997 Demon Records released Rita and Sarah’s album recorded in Caherlistrane by Barry Farmer and titled At the Setting of the Sun.
The broadcaster Ciarán Mac Mathúna counted Rita and Sarah among the greats of Irish traditional music, saying they had played a “crucial role in keeping traditional music alive when it was at its lowest ebb”.
In 2006 the sister were awarded the TG4 Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of their outstanding contribution to traditional music and song.
They last sang together in public in May, 2009, in Tí Coili, Galway. Rita died a month later aged 85 on June 28, 2009. Sarah died on December 21, 2010.