Tribute to Irish music legend Denis Cahill


Family, friends and fans of Dennis Cahill pay tribute to the wonderful Chicago musician who forever enriched the traditional Irish music scene.

When Chicago musician Jimmy Keane first informed many of us via social media that his longtime friend and fellow Chicagoan Dennis Cahill had passed away on Monday, June 20, the message was short but poignant.

Before taking her last breath, Cahill’s wife of 10 years, Mary Joyce, leaned over and kissed him moments after he shared two tracks from Martin Hayes and Cahill’s debut album, The Lonesome Touch for Green Linnet. Records in 1997. The tracks were ‘The Lament for Limerick’ and ‘My Love is in America’. Appropriately, they conveyed the importance of the present moment and of an extraordinary life drawing to a close.

Dennis Cahill was 68 when complications from a long illness took him to Chicago last week. Born in Chicago on June 16, 1954, he was raised on the South Side but was an ardent Cubs fan.

He started playing the guitar at the age of nine and would make music his lifelong profession, playing a wide range of genres before becoming one of the most creative and famous guitarists in traditional music. Irish. Many of us in the tradosphere were unaware that his early performing career was as a singer/songwriter in the folk/rock scene around Chicago and the Midwest who had a successful partnership with another Clareman, George Casey of West Clare .

More than 35 years ago, his life was about to take another turn when he met a newly arrived immigrant from Clare, Martin Hayes, who landed in Chicago in the mid-1980s. They played in a Celtic jazz band -folk-rock called Midnight Court into the Chicagoland bar scene and festival circuit.

Then something clicked between them and Martin persuaded Dennis to get into traditional music as a duo, and there was something very rare but magical about the way the tandem explored time-worn tunes in the canon. traditional.

For 30 years, the combination of Hayes on fiddle and Cahill on guitar revolutionized the performance of traditional music as they performed on the finest stages of performing arts centers around the world, saved from being trapped in the bars of Chicago.

Their approach seemed very simple taking old Irish melodies, starting very slowly then speeding up a bit to explore all the nuances that could be gleaned from them while creating an explosive reaction between Hayes’ fiery fiddle playing and spare playing. and precise of Cahill. accompaniment merging unusual chords and rhythm all around the melody.

Siobhan Long in her obituary for Cahill in The Irish Times (June 26) put it succinctly: “Cahill’s minimalism may have sometimes been seen as simple, but it was never that. Beneath the bare bones of his guitar lines lie the most intricate and carefully crafted arrangements. Cahill was never just an accompanist.

Irish President Michael D. Higgins, who is said to have seen the couple perform together very often, including during a meeting at the White House with President Barack Obama, further suggested reflecting on Cahill’s prowess: “Dennis brought a unique and innovative style to his guitar playing while being deeply respectful of the essence of traditional Irish music.

So many friends and fans of Hayes and Cahill have gathered online over the past week to remember the quiet, gentle man who has maintained a good balance between touring the world with Hayes and returning in Chicago. There were many stories of him hosting music sessions around town, offering help and support to young musicians and also lending his very attentive ear and production skills to people who came to his house. and his North Side recording studio.

Like so many other commentators, I have always enjoyed meeting Dennis over the years at countless performances and enjoying his great sense of humor and discussions of politics or sports. A few times we stayed as logistical castmates when the Tulla Ceili Band went on tour in 1997 for their 50th anniversary, and a few years later for Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night’s Swing dance series. It was great spending time with him during the quiet hours on the road.

It was also an opportunity to see how Cahill had bonded with the Hayes family (Father P. Joe Hayes, the band’s frontman and Peggy, Martin’s mother, who kept a room for the frequent stays of Dennis in Ireland), and also with the members of the Tulla Band as well. The very definition of the hail man well met.

It was an enduring musical partnership and friendship between Cahill and Hayes that reflected the gentle and genuine natures of both men. Hayes’ exploration for further musical collaboration saw them continue to work together in the successful and innovative ensemble The Gloaming, and later the Martin Hayes Quartet with Liz Knowles and Doug Wieselman. Much of this full legacy can still be discovered in recordings at

Hayes wrote a very heartfelt and thoughtful reminiscence to his longtime partner on a trip last week that he shared on Facebook, and I’ll leave the final words here as a testament to that relationship and its impact on the world. traditional music.

“We started a musical journey many years ago in the bars of Chicago, we didn’t think we would ever make it out of those bars to the concert stage, but today the president of the ireland and the Government Arts Minister were both writing about the huge impact you have had on the world of traditional music.You have come out of the bar scene and onto some of the finest stages in the world.

“You really succeeded, you brought everything together in a more beautiful crystallization of your loves and musical influences. Nobody before you had ever played those chords and rhythms with Irish music like you did. You’ve paired the beauty of these traditional Irish melodies with your own equally beautiful hypnotic chord sequences and rhythms.

“Every night we played we gave it our all, we zigzagged around until we locked ourselves in. Some of those moments were sublime moments where our connection was truly telepathic.

“There were so many times on stage where you could just read my mind and I hope you still can…we come from different musical worlds but together we created our own musical world and I think that we made a difference. I am forever indebted and grateful to you for all those magical years of music, friendship and fun.

Condolences to Mary, Cahill’s wife, his daughter-in-law Clíodhna and his sister Mairéad, as well as to Martin Hayes and his many close friends around the world.


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