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To a little kid, he was a huge man with a booming voice, at first a bit scary, but then the smile that lit his eyes up and warmed the room, chasing those fears away.
As I look back now, I realize how incredibly fortunate I was to have been in this man’s presence for so very many years. We lost him last month, June 10th to be exact, and Chicago’s Irish music community will never be quite the same without our Kevin Henry.

Born Patrick Kevin Henry in Doocastle, County Sligo in 1929, he was the 8th of 11 children. Music was important in his family, and while he was interested in the fiddle, being left handed, he got the whistles and flute. He added the pipes some years later, but no matter what he played, there was magic in the room.

It was a roundabout route beginning in London and making stops in Canada, Florida, New York, and Butte, Montana that brought him to Chicago in 1955. By 1956, he and musicians the likes of Frank Thornton, Jimmy Neary, Jimmy Donnelly, and Johnny McGreevy founded the Irish Musicians’ Association “To promote, teach and keep alive the traditional music of Ireland.” Kevin lived that goal his entire life. From kitchens and living rooms to the 65-11 Club, Hanley’s House of Happiness, and The Abbey to Lanigan’s Pub, Kevin and his longtime music buddies played, taught and mentored many of the prominent Irish musicians of this generation.Learning at his side were Liz Carroll, Jimmy Keane, Johnny Williams, Marty Fahey, Michael Flatley, Sean Cleland, and the younger group who have latched onto him with great enthusiasm, Devin Shepherd, Sean Gavin, Brian Miller, Brian O’Hart, and Niamh Ni Charra, to name a few.

Kevin was a great admirer of Chicago’s Chief O’Neill and the Irish music he preserved for musicians.

He showed me his copies of O’Neill’s books and the tunes he found special from them. At the same time, he strongly believed that a musician needed to play from the heart, not the written notes to make their music a living and personal part of them. He talked of a real concern he had of younger musicians emulating a popular style rather than what came from inside them.

You’d be hard pressed to find anyone more emotive than Kevin when it came to his music, Irish history, and his unforgettable storytelling. There wasn’t a session, concert, or call up to the stage for a tune, that didn’t have those in attendance crossing their fingers hoping to hear “The Hell Bound Train,” “Rex, the Piddlin’ Dog,” or another of Kevin’s recitations. How he could remember tales that could go on for over 15 minutes was mind boggling, and the emotion and theater he gave to them, outstanding. His voice was strong, his delivery riveting, and his smile and twinkling eyes at the finish, irresistible.

Kevin’s only album, One’s Own Place, is a spectacular collection of tunes, recitations, and a lovely song, “My Little Thatched Cabin.” On the album you’ll enjoy reels, polkas, hornpipes, and my favorite, his jigs. Kevin puts a lilt, or maybe just some of his magic into them, and they make you happy. He is accompanied by his daughter, Maggie, his brother Johnny and sister Verona, and his music pal, Malachy Towey. Still available, if you are fortunate to get one of the last copies, it is history and well worth owning!

It was always a treat to be able to sit with Kevin and just listen. He had a sit back in the chair style, think a minute, and then give his take, opinion, or strong belief on what ever topic be it music, history, or life. He was very honest, although not brutally so, and one never came away without feeling richer for the experience. He was the elder statesman of Chicago’s Irish community. It wasn’t just music and history that he gave us, though. He also showed us the importance of family. There was no one more devoted to his lady, than Kevin was to his Pauline. He met her just after arriving here in Chicago at a dance, and two years later, married and then started the beautiful Henry family. He was so proud of his Maggie, Kevin, Mary, and Tom, and overjoyed with his grandchildren. When he visited my show, I remember asking him if there was anything he wished he had done or could still do. He replied that when he looked back on where he came from, where he’d been, and what he has, he figured he should have been “well planted” by now so was truly satisfied with all he still was able to do.

While we all knew that he was in his waning years, it was still hard news to take when his family let us know that he had passed. He has left a void that we will always feel. He has also left a legacy that we will always be able to call up and enjoy and be thankful for. At his funeral mass, his son Tom shared some stories and beautiful memories of his dad. Some 20 years ago he asked Kevin what he wanted on his headstone. He first said a picture of him with his pipe. Then he said, “Kevin Henry, Ireland’s gift to America,” and wasn’t he just that…

Rest in peace, dear friend.

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