Rita Keane: Galway singer and member of an Irish folk music dynasty

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The Independent Online

She never appeared on any of the world's big stages or had a best-selling record, but Rita Keane, who sang with her elder sister Sarah, was a vital link in the chain connecting Ireland with its traditional music heritage.

She lived all her life in Caherlistrane in north-east Galway, inheriting with Sarah a glorious song tradition which they cherished and kept alive with gentle relish and a generous spirit that made them revered by the folk music community. Their thatched house became a focal point of music sessions and a magnet for visitors from all over the world, who always received a warm welcome from the sisters offering hot toddies, home-baked bread and, if they were lucky, a sample of their rare unison singing style.

In such a remote farming community, music was always at the core of family life – "as natural to us as walking and talking," Rita said. Their father, Matt Keane, was an Irish speaker who played jew's harp and their mother, May Costello, was renowned as the best singer for miles with a haunting voice and a huge fund of traditional songs. As a child Rita learned to play the accordion (Sarah played fiddle) and for as long as either could remember they sang together the songs learned from their mother, often in the Irish language. In the 1940s and '50s they played for local dances with the Keanes Ceili Band alongside brothers Matt, Tom, John, Pat and Joe, occasionally stepping forward to sing unaccompanied.

Traditional songs and music were dying out in Ireland at the time, popular only in isolated rural areas – and in America, where Irish émigrés established their own social communities built around the old music from home. The best musicians there started making 78rpm records as a small Irish recording industry emerged in America and these gradually filtered back to Ireland, re-connecting the country with its own traditional culture. The Keanes had one of the few gramophones around Caherlistrane and whenever one of their relatives in America sent home a new record or May Keane made one of her Saturday pilgrimages into Tuam to spend 2/6d on the latest release, the whole village would gather in the farmhouse to listen to it over and over again. Summers were spent visiting the fleadh cheoil festivals and many of the musicians they would meet on the way would return to the Keane farmhouse to continue more informal music-making around the hearth.

In 1969 Sarah and Rita made their first record, Once I Loved (Claddagh), sub-titled "Sons from the West of Ireland", a strikingly delicate and emotional selection of songs of stark beauty, many of which, like "A Stór Mo Chroi" (Treasure of My Heart), "Lord Donegal" and "Banks of the Moorlough Shore" have become a staple part of Irish folk song. It was an influential record, but it was to be 25 years before they made another when the Demon label released At the Setting of the Sun in 1994. Their fragile ornamentation and distinctive sean nos style of singing remained as moving as ever, notably "Ayr on the Rhine", a ballad about a dying soldier which had been their mother's favourite song. They also featured on the 1985 record The Keane Family (Gael Linn) with other members of the family. In 2006 the Irish language TV station TG4 gave them a Lifetime Achievement Award for their "outstanding contribution to traditional music and song".

Neither Rita nor Sarah married, but their brother Matt had a large family in a small house and they helped bring up their niece Dolores Keane, who lived with them from the age of four, absorbing their songs and going on to become a successful singer in her own right, fronting the band De Danann, singing with her then husband John Faulkner, recording with the Chieftains and making several solo albums. Their nephew Sean Keane is also now a successful recording and concert performer, with many albums to his name. Occasionally Sarah and Rita were lured out in public – making the odd appearance at traditional music events in the UK, Scandinavia and even the US – but they were reluctant stars who never sought public attention and were much happier to sing and play in intimate sessions at home rather than in a formal concert environment.

Shy and unassuming, they continued to live quietly in their thatched house, avidly watching Emmerdale, graciously entertaining visits from song collectors and folk music enthusiasts from as far afield as America and Australia; and enjoying their matriarchal role not only in the Keane dynasty, but the particularly rarefied Irish tradition they represented and played such a key role in sustaining. Rita is survived by her sister Sarah.

Colin Irwin

Rita Keane, Irish sean-nos singer, accordion player: born Caherlistrane, Co. Galway 31 December 1923; died Galway 28 June 2009.