Death of a Master Piper Joseph G Shannon

By Hal Dardick, Chicago Tribune

Joseph G Shannon left Ireland when he was 13, but the Emerald Isle’s music never left him.

After he settled in Chicago’s immigrant community in the early 1930s, his folk music talents continued to grow so much so that years later irish musicians visiting the US visited Mr Shannon’s Northwest Side home to hear him play the uilleann pipes, a form of bagpipe.

‘Any visiting musician and piper tries to stop by and see Joe,’ said Jim McGuire, a former music student of Mr Shannon’s who became a close friend.

Mr Shannon 88, a retired Chicago Firefighter who won US and Irish Honours for playing the pipes, died Sunday Dec 26 of skin cancer at his daughter’s home in Batavia.

Born in a small rural village in County Mayo, Ireland, Mr Shannon was one of six brothers who shared a passion for music. ‘It really was the brothers who were the musicians, and the village, Treenabontry, was filled with music,’ said his son, Jim Shannon.

In Chicago, Mr Shannon learned to play the bagpipe. While still a teenager, he was persuaded to take up the uilleann pipes, an Irish version of the bagpipe on which the piper uses the elbow to work the bellows and sits rather than stands, while playing.

Playing old recordings of legendary Irish musicians, he mastered the complex instrument. ‘My father, to his last day, could not read a note of music,’ his son said, ‘he taught himself to play by ear.’

As a teenager in 1934, Mr Shannon was the piper at the Irish village at the World’s Fair in Chicago.

In the early 1940s, he met Mary Cunningham at a dance on the West Sides.

The couple married and had 13 children, raising them on the West and Northwest Sides.

After working in the stockyards and in freight tunnels, Mr Shannon landed a job in 1951 with the Chicago Fire Department. he worked for the department for 11 years as an ambulance driver until his retirement in 1979.

While with the department in the 1960s, a piper gave Mr Shannon a set of highly valued 75 year old uilleann pipes that re-energized Mr Shannon’s dedication to playing. In 1968, he played in England and Ireland to great acclaim.

In 1983 he received the National Heritage Fellowship Award for master folk and traditional artists from the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1989 he received Illinois’ Heritage Award.

Mr Shannon played at numerous festivals. He always played with fiddler Johnny McGreevy, a life long friend, until McGreevy’s death in 1990. In the late 1970s, the Irish Folk Duo were recorded on ‘The Noonday Feast’ album.

Mr shannon also played with the Chieftains, a Grammy-winning Irish Folk Music Group, on many occasions in Chicago and Milwaukee from the late 1970s through early 1990s.

On Jan 1st Na Píobairí Uilleann, or The Uilleann Pipers club, of Dublin, made Mr Shannon a patron, akin to a lifetime achievement award.

Irish Folk musicians from all over the world visited Mr Shannon in Chicago.

‘They would make it a point to look up Joe Shannon and they didn’t even know him,’ his son said. ‘And he just opened up the house, serving them music, tea, sandwiches and conversation.’

‘He used to play in his kitchen, which had the best sound of all time,’ said Liz Carroll, an acclaimed Irish Folk fiddler raised on Chicago’ South Side. ‘I loved playing with him in his kitchen.’

Mr Shannon played in public as recently as 2001, when he played with Carroll at Chicago’s Celtic Fest. About 18 months ago he broke a hip adn moved in with his daughter in Batavia.

With his children, Mr Shannon was very strict. ‘He was an authoritarian kind of guy,’ his son said. ‘When it came to the family, he was unwavering.’

But he also ‘revelled (in) the successes his children had,’ his son said. ‘When he really shone was when he was with his immediated and extended family.’

In addition to his son Jim, Mr Shannon is survived by daughters Mary Rasori, Noreen Ryder, Kathleen Krywar, Ellen Ford, Barbara Dolan, Nancy Bouloukos and Patty Finegan; 21 grandchildren and 2 great grandchildren.