The Keane house in Dublin was a musical landmark on the traditional music scene in the 1950s and 1960s. Keane's mother and father were both fiddle players from musical communities in Longford and Clare, and would play host to the legendary players who traveled from all over Ireland to perform in the capital city. These guests greatly affected James and his brother Seán Keane, the fiddler with The Chieftains, as did their summer trips to Longford and Clare where they encountered the music at its roots. By the age of ten, James had become a fixture on the late 1950's Dublin traditional scene regularly performing with Séamus Ennis, Leo Rowsome, Sonny Brogan and Tommy Reck, honing his skills under their guidance. While still in his early teens, James co-founded what would become one of Ireland's most heralded music ensembles, the Castle Céilí Band with Mick O'Connor, his brother and others.
The band would go on to win numerous Oireachtas competitions, and the All-Ireland Senior Céilí Band competition in Thurles in 1965. He won the senior Accordion Championship while still a junior in the Dundalk open accordion championships in 1964, 1965 and 1966. He won the All-Ireland junior (under 18) Championship at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Mullingar in 1963. Keane emigrated to the United States where he performed in numerous bands, including the Ellis Island Céilí Band, which was formed for the Smithsonian Institute's Centennial Celebration honoring Lady Liberty in New York Harbor. In 1991, Keane was made Traditionalist of the Year by the Irish Echo, and his album Sweeter as the Years Roll By was chosen as one of the top twenty traditional albums of the last twenty years by Irish America magazine in their anniversary edition. He is nowadays a founding member of Fingal, the critically-acclaimed group with Randal Bays and Dáithí Sproule, he tours regularly, performing music and lecturing in colleges about the history of Irish traditional music. In 2004 an event to honor Keane was organized by Luke Kelly's biographer--Des Geraghty--held at Liberty Hall, Dublin, and attended by dignitaries including Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, prime minister of Ireland.
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