Tony had a deep commitment to the tradition. He had a far-reaching influence, with strong opinions on many facets of the Irish music scene, and the impact of his deep thinking can be felt in the Irish music scene today.
Legendary accordion player, broadcaster and producer, Tony MacMahon, died on 8 October 2021 at St James’ Hospital in Dublin, at the age of 82, after a period of ill-health. In recent years he had battled with Parkinson’s, with bipolar disorder, and also more recently with dystonia.
With a musical career going back to the 1950s, Tony had a deep commitment to the tradition. He had a far-reaching influence, with strong opinions on many facets of the Irish music scene, and the impact of his deep thinking can be felt in the Irish music scene today.
Born in Ennis in Co. Clare, one of his earliest influences was Galway accordion player, Joe Cooley, who was working in Ennis in the 40s and 50s, and who was a frequent visitor to Tony’s home. Tony moved to Dublin in 1957 to become a teacher, and while there he also fell under the influence of accordion player Sonny Brogan and fiddler John Kelly. He later shared an apartment in New York and Dublin with piper and singer Seamus Ennis, who reputedly influenced his performance of slow airs – something for which Tony became well known. He described that experience as “the most enriching month of my life”.
He joined RTÉ in 1969 as a freelance television presenter and also worked for them as a radio producer. His work included programmes such as The Pure Drop and The Long Note, and he was the instigator of the series, Come West Along The Road, which ran for two decades, presented by Nicholas Carolan. He retired from RTÉ in 1998.
Over his long career he released six albums, the first, Traditional Irish Accordion, in 1972 and his last, Farewell To Music, in 2016. In between were three collaborative albums (with Noel Hill, Iarla Ó Lionáird and Steve Cooney) and his retrospective recording, MacMahon From Clare, which contains 17 tracks of recordings from various points throughout his career until then, many having been rescued from archives. His final release, in particular, is very poignant; recorded at a time when health issues were beginning to affect him, it’s an album of slow airs played with aching honesty, coaxed out of him in 2009 by fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, and released on the Raelach Records label.
Tony was renowned for his articulate opinions about traditional music and for never being afraid to express them. He sparked national debate when he said of a BBC/RTÉ series of TV programmes that “…innovation is taking over, steamrolling tradition… Irish traditional music is being lost.” He also famously said in an interview: “There is a big difference between playing notes and playing music. Millions of people play instruments and make the same sound, like a cat that presses its paw against a note in a piano, but only the person who feels for music and has a high understanding can play soulfully.”
His outspoken nature and strongly held views made him quite unique, but his thinking has had a huge effect on future generations of players. One of Ireland’s truly great musicians, he was an inspiration to and encourager of many, and his legacy will be felt for many years to come.