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Alec Finn - 1944-2018

The death of bouzouki player, guitarist and artist Alec Finn on Nov 16th following a stroke deprived the traditional music world of a unique, colourful and admired musician. Born in Yorkshire to Irish parents, he was reared with two brothers and a sister in Rotherham while his father worked in the local steelworks. His mother played piano and his grandmother had ceili band records, which Alec heard as a child. He took up guitar, and in the early 1960s attended the local art school where his teacher introduced both him and fellow guitarist Rick Ward to the blues music of ‘Blind Lemon’ Jefferson, ‘Lightnin’’ Hopkins and others. He and Rick played in local folk clubs before Alec moved to Dublin where he worked as a commercial artist, and for a time shared his flat with Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy. Around Dublin, he played in the Cana Band with the blues singer Red Peters, creating a sound resembling the 1930s Memphis Jug Band.

His life-long interest in hawking frequently took him to County Galway with Johnny Morris, from whose father, Lord Killanin, he had rented a gate lodge in Spiddal for the sum of a shilling a year. There, in the early 1970s, he started to play the bouzouki by chance, when a friend brought him back a three-course (six-string), DAD-tuned, round-backed instrument from Greece. With it, Alec joined the regular Sunday morning traditional music sessions in Tigh Hughes, where his accompaniment developed as a mixture of simple chords, rhythm and countermelody, putting in as many harmonies as possible to whatever the lead musician was playing. This unique and apparently inimitable approach gave the music considerable colour while never dictating the rhythm in the way that an eight-string strummed bouzouki or guitar might. Alec’s simple but brilliant playing, with its down-strokes and up-strokes tastefully weaved its way through the tunes.

While in Spiddal, he co-founded the band Dé Danann with a teenage Frankie Gavin (fiddle), Charlie Piggott (banjo), Johnny McDonagh (bodhrán) and Dolores Keane (singer), and their debut album released by Polydor in 1975 was the first of many acclaimed recordings. His accompaniment also featured on albums of prominent traditional musicians including Mary Bergin, Noel Hill & Tony Linnane, Frankie Gavin and Tommy Peoples. Dé Danann played together until 2003 after which Alec and Frankie Gavin went their separate ways - with each independently using the band’s name until they reunited in 2017. The relationship between Frankie Gavin’s fiddle and Alec’s bouzouki was the basis for the magical sound of Dé Danann, and it was fitting that both went into the studio together in 2018 to record what turned out to be their final joint opus, released in October 2018.

Alec’s four-decade sojourn with Dé Danann still allowed time for much storied overseas jaunts with his old friend the whistle maestro Seán Ryan; and lateral collaborations with harpist Kathleen Loughane produced elegant and sparse harp/bouzouki interpretations of the work of Turlough O'Carolan (1670 –1738). Underrated as a guitarist, Alec’s playing benefitted the careers of many singers who passed through the ranks of Dé Danann; best known amongst them, Dolores Keane, Maura O’Connell and Mary Black all leaned on his steady hand and unerring musical sense. His facility to accompany traditional sean-nós singers such as Tom Pháidín Tom and Ciarán Ó Gealbháin demonstrated his instinctual musical intelligence. Alec’s musical peregrinations were occasionally enriched by his often-satirical cartoons of colleagues and situations on tour; and his artwork at home reflected his keen interest in natural subjects. The Sé Mo Laoch documentary celebrating his life was broadcast on TV five days before he died. He is survived by his wife Leonie, his son Cian, daughter Heather and granddaughter Ruby Rose.

Aidan Coffey