Legendary south Armagh musician receives Musical Icon award

September 10, 2018

Over 50 of Ireland’s leading musicians gathered in Bellini’s last Thursday night to pay tribute to South Armagh’s world renowned pianist, fiddle player, composer and teacher, Josephine Keegan, as she received the Iúr Cinn Fleadh Musical Icon Award. 

The evening got off to a rousing start when over 25 members of the 83 year old’s former Fiddle Group reunited to pay homage to their mentor and inspirationalist. They were followed in quick succession by musicians who testified to Josephine’s legacy, which includes over 500 self-composed tunes, many of which are in the mainstream of performances of today’s young musicians.  

The Dundee born musician came to live with her Irish parents in Mullaghbawn in 1939, at the age of four. A childhood spent playing piano and fiddle from the age of six – being taught by both parents at home – later led to formal lessons.  Josephine went on to study classical music on both instruments as well as playing traditional music. Her early involvement in the John Murphy céilí band developed from sessions in the houses of members. Keegan won many competitions including the Gold Medal at the Feis Ceoil in Dublin in 1955.

Fiddle playing took a back seat after that and she concentrated on being a piano player, as accompanist to pianist Seán Maguire and many other legendary musicians including Joe Burke, Seamus Tansey and Jim McKillop. 

The Octogenarian recorded her first of five solo albums in 1976 and in 2006, after a gap of twenty five years she recorded a new solo album. The Mullaghbawn woman is revered throughout the traditional music scene around the globe as a great musician, a collector composer of tunes and a generous teacher and mentor to hundreds of musicians for decades.

No stranger to awards throughout her career, Josephine received a special accolade at Boston College in 2003, in appreciation of her life-long dedication to traditional music and her invaluable contribution to Irish Cultural preservation. Two years later she won the TG4 composer of the year award and received an award from Newry and Mourne District Council for her contribution to music.   In 2014 TG4 dedicated a special Sé mo Láoch TV programme to her lifelong achievements

Last week’s Lifetime Accomplishment Award was one of the major events in this year’s  Iúr Cinn Fleadh programme, drawing musicians and fans from all over Ireland.  One determined fan refused to let a car accident on his way to the event stop him from paying tribute.  As he sat on the grass verge at the roadside waiting for a pickup truck, Oliver O’Connell from Doolin, County Clare penned a poem in her honour and emailed it through to co-presenter Tommy Fegan, who read the poem – which hails Josephine as “the greatest player of all” –  to an appreciative audience on the night. 

The Fleadh’s Musical Icon award was a fitting tribute to the much-loved south Armagh musician who has brought joy to traditional music fans all over the world for many decades.