Dennis Cahill, guitar great, master of Irish traditional music, dead at 68

He grew up on the South Side, won renown after switching from rock music and also performed with Sting, Paul Simon and Ricky Skaggs.

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Guitarist Dennis Cahill, a South Side native, became world-renowned as a master of traditional Irish music.

Guitarist Dennis Cahill, a South Side native, became world-renowned as a master of traditional Irish music.

Jordan Koepke

Dennis Cahill started out playing guitar in rock groups and wedding bands. But he achieved worldwide fame as a master of traditional Irish music, headlining at festivals and concert halls around the world.

He performed for President Barack Obama at the White House and Irish President Michael D. Higgins.

The Northwest Side resident died June 20 at a rehab facility after a long illness, according to his wife Mary Joyce-Cahill. He was 68.

He grew up on the South Side at 80th Street and Marshfield Avenue in Gresham and graduated from Little Flower High School. His parents Anna and Dennis Cahill were from an Irish-language stronghold — the fishing village of Ballydavid on the Dingle peninsula in County Kerry. In Chicago, his father worked as a stationary engineer.

Young Dennis studied music at DePaul University before switching to Roosevelt University to focus on classical guitar. 

“One classical music professor, who knew Dennis was gigging in a variety of styles of music during his time at school, asked: ‘What do you expect to do with that music?’ ” accordionist Jimmy Keane said. “Dennis responded: ‘Make a f---in’ living!’ ”

He started playing sets at the Earl of Old Town with Steve Goodman, John Prine, Bonnie Koloc and Ed Holstein and Fred Holstein. And he performed at the R.R. Ranch, a country-and-Western bar at 56 W. Randolph St.

In the 1980s, he met Martin Hayes, a fiddler from County Clare and six-time all-Ireland music champion by the time he was 19. Their first partnership was in the rock fusion group Midnight Court.

They shifted to traditional Irish music and played together for decades, performing in the United States, Ireland and England as well as Mexico, Australia, China, France, Germany, Holland, Hong Kong, Italy and Poland. They performed with stars including country-bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs, Paul Simon and Sting.

Dennis Cahill (right) and fiddler Martin Hayes were lauded for their mastery of the Celtic music that links the Irish diaspora.

Dennis Cahill (right) and fiddler Martin Hayes were lauded for their mastery of the Celtic music that links the Irish diaspora.

Jordan Koepke

The New York Times praised their “subtle invention,” with critic Ann Powers once writing: “Stripping old reels and jigs to their essence, leaving space between the notes for harmonics and whispered blue notes, Mr. Hayes and Mr. Cahill created a Celtic complement to Steve Reich’s quartets or Miles Davis’ ‘Sketches of Spain.’ ”

He and Hayes recorded three LPs as a duo and several more with The Gloaming, a traditional Irish supergroup they helped form a decade ago.

Dennis Cahill (right) and fiddler Martin Hayes on their recording “Welcome Here Again.”

Dennis Cahill (right) and fiddler Martin Hayes together recorded “Welcome Here Again.”

Mr. Cahill would watch Hayes closely, picking up the Celtic melodies that link the Irish diaspora but helping them sound unscripted as birdsong.

Hayes called him “the first minimalist in traditional Irish music.

“The fewer notes you play, the more meaningful each must be. And Dennis was a master at that. He also loved classical music and great jazz musicians such as Bill Evans and Bill Frisell. He looked at the Irish melodies less through an Irish music lens and more through the fact that melody is a universal musical idea. So universal harmonic principles from the wider world of music could be applied to this music.”

Higgins was a fan. The Gloaming played at London’s Royal Albert Hall in 2014 when Higgins made history as the first Irish president to make a state visit to the United Kingdom.

After Mr. Cahill’s death, Higgins said he and Hayes “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.”

“He really created this whole different style of guitar backing of traditional tunes,” said Chicago musician Kathleen Keane, who said the understated technique “allowed the melody to shine.” 

Mr. Cahill’s spare playing style “not only lifted the melody of Martin’s fiddle but extracted all these hidden sounds and hidden spaces within the notes,” Jimmy Keane said.

He described him as having evolved from a rocker producing “a million notes” on an electric guitar “to a sublime acoustic trad musician with an unstrapped classical guitar resting gently upon his knee like a baby and creating more beauty with less then he ever had previously.”

“Coming into the music late,” Mr. Cahill once said, “there’s no nostalgia to it....It kind of floats on its own merits for me. “

“After world tours, back at home, he played with all of us here in Chicago — beginners and road warriors alike,” Chicago-born fiddler Liz Carroll, the first American composer to be honored with Ireland’s top award for traditional music, wrote on Facebook.

Mr. Cahill’s wife said that when they were out and about, “People didn’t have a clue” about his fame in the “trad” world.

“He’d tell you he was a musician, and that’s all he ever said,” she said. “He’d rather talk about the beer they were drinking.”

He also liked talking politics.

Joyce-Cahill said she and her husband “loved our home. Dennis would come home from wherever he was, and the next day, we’d be out gardening or cooking. He made the most incredible omelets. I wanted to grow vegetables, and he built all the beds in the backyard. We grew tomatoes, kale, potatoes, sage, cilantro, rosemary, basil, parsley.

“He wrote a tune for me, ‘Mary’s Waltzing,’ ” she said. “I loved to dance, and I used to make him dance in the kitchen.”

A chocolate and coffee connoisseur, he ground beans for himself each day to make a perfect cup of coffee.

The couple, married for a decade, met at the Feakle Irish Music Festival in County Clare.

“It was just like we knew each other our whole lives,” his wife said.

Mr. Cahill’s first wife Gwen died in a car accident five years after they married.

He is also survived by his sister Mairéad and stepdaughter Clíodhna. A funeral Mass is planned for 11 a.m. July 8 at St. Priscilla Church, 6949 W. Addison St.

“I’m just so sad he’s gone,” Joyce-Cahill said. “I yell at him every morning, ‘What the hell, Dennis, you better come back and haunt me, or I’ll go find you.’

“He was kind to everyone. If he saw someone with special needs, he’d be kind to them. If he saw an older person, he was so kind. ‘Mary,’ he told me, ‘the most important thing in life is get up in the morning and not piss anyone off and do the best you can.’ ”

In 2019, he brought home a Labradoodle dog with curly red hair. He named her Little Orphan Annie.

“She’s so sad,” his wife said. “She’s been laying around looking at me.”

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