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Breandán Breathnach was born in The Liberties area of Dublin on 1 April 1912. His father Pádraig Walsh, was the last of the Dublin silk weavers and his mother Julia Parker died when Breandán was young.
From an early age he acquired an interest in the Irish language and Irish music from his father and Uncle Joe. He began playing music on the highland pipes, at an early age, and eventually took up his uncle’s uilleann pipes, this change of instrument brought him in contact with John Potts and the Potts family. Originally from Wexford, the Potts, who now lived in The Coombe, were steeped in the piping traditions of the previous century. This friendship began his lifelong love and passion for the uilleann pipes. Among some of Breathnach’s early uilleann pipe teachers were Billy Andrews, Brother Gildas (Ó Sé, Pádraig, ? 1881-1960) and Leo Rowsome (Rowsome, Leo, 1903-1970). Breandán was educated by the Christian Brothers in Synge Street and entered the Civil Service in 1930 where he served in the Departments of Posts and Telegraphs, Finance, Education and Agriculture.
Breathnach devoted his spare time to the study of Irish music. He actively sought out musicians in 1950s Dublin and noted down tunes they were playing. Since his marriage to Lena Donnellan from Mullagh, Co. Clare in 1943, he had also been in contact with Clare musicians like Willie Clancy (Clancy, Willie, 1918-1973) and Seán Reid (Reid, Seán, 1907-1978). As a result of this collecting work, he published his first collection of Irish music Ceol rince na hÉireann in 1963. Lifelong research of manuscript, printed and recording sources for Irish music lead to four more publications in this series. Ceol rince na hÉireann II & III were published in 1976 and 1985. After his death in 1985, two more volumes, edited by Jackie Small, were published in 1996 and 1999.
In 1964 Breathnach was seconded from the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Education to undertake the task of making a complete collection of Irish traditional dance music. In 1972 Breathnach succeeded in establishing a national archive of Irish folk music within this department and in 1974 the archive transferred to the Department of Irish Folklore in University College, Dublin where he became Director of Irish Folk Music. He retired from UCD in 1977. The foundation of the Irish Traditional Music Archive was the Breandán Breathnach Collection, which was donated by his family after his death.
Breathnach was involved with many Irish music organisations, including Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, where he served for a period as Assistant Secretary. He was a founder-member of Na Píobairí Uilleann, along with Seán Reid and others, and was the organisation’s chairman from 1968 until his death in 1985. He was involved with the Willie Clancy Summer School, a founder-member in 1971 of the Folk Music Society of Ireland and also co-edited its journal Irish folk music studies Éigse cheol tíre. He lectured in Irish music in Trinity College Dublin and was a member of the Arts Council.
He contributed to many publications including the Encyclopedia of Ireland (1966), the New Grove dictionary of music and musicians (1981). As well as the previously mentioned Ceol rince series. He published a handbook on Irish music entitled Folk music and dances of Ireland in 1971 and Ceol agus Rince na hÉireann was published posthumously in 1989. In 1963 he began publishing Ceol: a journal of Irish music which continued to be produced by him for twenty two years. He edited and contributed to An Píobaire, the bulletin of Na Píobairí Uilleann from 1969 until his death in 1985.