RIP Dennis Cahill

Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill

RIP Dennis Cahill

Guitarist passes away aged 68.

The renowned guitarist Dennis Cahill has passed away. He was 68. Known for his musical partnership with fiddle player Martin Hayes, and as a member of the Gloaming and the Martin Hayes Quartet, Cahill had a significant impact on the Irish music scene with his subtle playing, live performances and influential recordings.

Born in Chicago in 1954, Cahill’s parents were both Irish. He studied classical music for several years but had wide musical interests and began playing on the Chicago bar and club scene in the 1980s.

Cahill first met Hayes in Fox’s pub in Chicago during that time when the guitarist was part of a duo, playing and singing, with a repertoire that ranged from the Clancy Brothers to Neil Diamond. Cahill and Hayes regularly played on the Irish music scene in Chicago and the guitarist subsequently asked the fiddle player to join him and bassist Erwin Yasukawa in a jazz-rock fusion group named Midnight Court. After a couple years of playing together, Hayes left the band and returned to solo traditional fiddling. Following his second solo album, Under the Moon, Hayes invited Cahill to join him for a Norwegian tour. As Hayes later wrote in his memoir Shared Notes, ’Immediately he cancelled all his bar gigs and packed his bags… He was ready to experiment and was up for anything.’ 

The duo began to develop their unique sound over the course of that short tour: ‘I asked Dennis to join me in that effort to be in service of the melody. That way he wasn’t just following me; we’d both be following the tune.’

The album that they released together in 1997, The Lonesome Touch, was unique in Irish music, bringing a minimalist aesthetic to the genre with Cahill’s crafted guitar-playing and the space he brought to harmonic accompaniment a key element. This was followed by Live in Seattle (1999), which included an extended 28-minute set that again displayed Cahill’s innovative accompaniment to Hayes’ fiddle playing. In 2008 they released Welcome Here Again, which reversed the trend of ever-longer sets and contained a set of 18 crafted miniatures.

In 2011, Cahill became part of the new group the Gloaming, with Hayes, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett. This brought his playing to an even wider audience and the band played many sold-out concerts at the National Concert Hall in Dublin and abroad and released four successful albums. In 2017, Hayes and Cahill, with Liz Knowles and Doug Wieselman, pursued new musical ideas with a chamber group titled the Martin Hayes Quartet, which released the popular album The Blue Room.

Writing about their partnership, Hayes says, ‘We … avoided cluttering the tune with ornamentation. This minimalist approach required every note to really count, for every chord to contain only the most necessary and meaningful notes, not just the ones that were most convenient. This approach often pushed Dennis into creating some very demanding and taxing finger patterns and chord progressions. Though his playing sounded beautiful and disarmingly simple, in reality his musical constructions were incredibly complex…’.

Cahill passed away on Monday 20 June. An announcement by musician and friend Jimmy Keane on Cahill’s
website reads:

Our dearest Dennis passed away peacefully on Monday evening, with his beloved Mary by his side as she has been throughout his journey. Just moments before – we were comforting Dennis while ‘The Lament for Limerick’ from Dennis’ album with Martin was on in the background – and as the track advanced to ‘My Love is in America’, Mary turned off the player, leaned over to hug and kiss Dennis one last time – and then he was gone

Too heartbroken to write any more…

​Play a tune today.
Sing a song.
Tell a corny joke.
Sip a whiskey.
Cherish a memory…

My loving condolences to Mary, Cliodhna, the Cahill family, and all of Dennis’ many friends…

President Michael D. Higgins released a statement on Cahill’s passing yesterday, commenting:

It is with great sadness that those with a love of traditional Irish music across Ireland, his native Chicago and around the world will have heard of the death of Dennis Cahill.

Dennis brought a unique and innovative style to his guitar playing, while being deeply respectful of the essence of traditional Irish music. He will, of course, be best remembered for his collaborations with Martin Hayes both as a duo and within the group the Gloaming. Together they explored new musical territory and helped create a phenomenal interest in traditional music among a whole new generation of people both within Ireland and across the world.

I had the pleasure of hearing Dennis perform on many occasions and will always remember in particular the performance by the Gloaming as part of the concert ‘Ceiliúradh’, held in the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2014 as part of my State Visit.

He added: ‘On behalf of Sabina and myself, I would like to express my deepest sympathies to Dennis’s wife Mary, to his family and to all his friends and colleagues across the world. Tá oidhreacht luachmhar cheoil fágtha ag Dennis do na glúinte atá le teacht. Suaimhneas síoraí dá anam uasal.

Published on 21 June 2022

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