The death last week in Cork of Tomás Ó Canainn robbed us of another remarkable character from a golden generation which went through St Columb’s College in Derry.
A native of Barry Street in Derry, Tomás lived a busy and full life, and died after a period of ilness at the age of 82.
He had been living for many years in Glenmire, not far from Cork city.
It ‘s probably for his involvement in traditional music that he is best-known. This was the ‘Pennyburn Piper’, who came to prominence as a performer with the group Na Fili. They toured internationally in the 1970s.
But as well as being a gifted player of that demanding instrument, the uilleann pipes, he was deeply knowledgeable about the music itself. His book, Traditional Music in Ireland, is a classic.
Tomás was proud of the fact that he took over the lectures on Irish music in Cork University after the premature death of his famous friend Seán Ó Riada in 1971. It meant that for a period he was lecturing in two departments at the university, as he was attached to the engineering department, where he later became dean.
Tomás had a lively mind, a great wit and a busy life. He wrote or put together a number of books, including his autobiography, A Lifetime of Notes; a charming look at his childhood years in a book lightly dressed as fiction, Home to Derry; tunebooks; a book on O’Riada; and poetry in Irish and English.
He loved languages. His love of Irish saw Tom Canning became Tomás Ó Canainn, and he and his wife Helen helped set up a mini-Gaeltacht in Glenmire.
He also spoke Spanish, Greek and Polish.
Several years ago when he was on a visit home to Derry he was learning Chinese. On his next trip back it was Japanese!
Although Tomás had spent decades in Cork and clearly loved his adopted Glenmire, he remained a Derry man. Born in 1930, he was the son of Hugh Canning and Bridie nee Murphy. The family lived in Barry Street, just off the Strand Road. There were strong connections on both sides with the Dungiven area.
Tragedy struck the family when Hugh, a seafarer, died at 36, a few days after rupturing his appendix at sea.
Tomás attended St Columb’s College. After university, he worked in England and was a founder member of the famous Liverpool Ceili Band, playing with them when they won the All-Ireland Ceili Band competition in 1963 and 1964. He lifted an All-Ireland title himself on uilleann pipes.
Tomás was active in Comhaltas Ceoltoirí Éireann, the Irish music and cultural organisation, throughout his life. Derry’s successful hosting of the All-Ireland recently would have been a source of pride. He was president of the Cork County Board of CCÉ at the time of his death. In 2004 he was the second-ever Ard Ollamh, a prestigious title awarded annually by CCÉ.
Tomás, who died on Sunday 15th September, is survived by his wife Helen and daughters Nuala, Una and Niamh.