Three articles on Gwen Sale from 2002 by Charlie Madigan (Chicago Tribune) and Earle Hitchner (Irish Echo)
By Charlie Madigan with help from Kieran O'Hare
On a busy Chicago street on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, a van veered from the east bound lane on Irving Park Road and hit a young woman who was getting into her car. Hours later, a red rose marked the spot. Gwen Sale, a familiar figure on the Irish music scene, was pronounced dead at Lutheran General Hospital. She is survived by her children, her family, her grieving husband, and many friends who will never forget her.
Gwen Sale came to Chicago in late 1997, a lovely woman with a fiddle and a personality so engaging that she fit immediately into the tight Chicago Irish music scene. She was 26 years old. She was from Scotland, born in Edinburgh on November 20, 1970. At five months of age, her parents, Maggie and Michael Sale, moved to Africa, where the family lived for the first five years of Gwen’s life. Maggie Sale remembers her as a child who was creative from the beginning, a gift recognized by everyone.
An African cook at their home once held Gwen and called the baby “an old soul.” Gwen’s mother recalls a child who was born with insight and perception and quickly won a reputation for creating something from nothing, which became a virtual mantra for Gwen later in her life. In her childhood, she transformed sticks, stones and mud puddles into sand murals. It was child’s play driven by the heart and soul of a developing artist. This was a trait she carried all through her life. People who knew her only as an engaging fiddler with a rapier wit were surprised to visit her home. It was filled with her own art. She was a regular visitor to Chicago’s Art Institute, where she delighted in explaining the techniques and brush strokes used by the great masters. She was so astute that she recognized the warp and weft of the canvases on which they painted, and remarked on repairs that had been poorly completed some four centuries ago.
Gwen studied jewelry design, sculpture, painting and silversmithing at The Glasgow School of Art. She started playing the fiddle as a schoolgirl, and surrounded herself with the fiddlers and pipers on the local traditional music scene near her home in Scotland.
Gwen met the guitarist Dennis Cahill of Chicago early in 1997 at one of his concerts with Martin Hayes at Newton-Stewart in Scotland. Their relationship developed rapidly, fueled by his experience and expertise as a player of Irish traditional music, and her unending quest to improve her fiddling and expand her repertoire. They were married on Nov. 4, 1998 in Chicago. Cahill remembers Gwen as a woman who captured his attention immediately, quickly followed by his affection. “She was so beautiful I thought I could not speak to her,” said Cahill. “I didn’t say anything. I was just looking at her.”
Cahill saw her again at Celtic Connections, Glasgow’s huge Celtic music bash. Cahill was playing with Hayes. After the gig, everyone was hanging out. Cahill saw Gwen across the room, surrounded by all of her friends. They nodded at one another. Shortly after that, she walked over to the guitarist and said, “I just have to hug you.” And she did. They talked all night. “We talked about everything,” Cahill recalled. They talked the next night, too. Cahill went off on the road and Gwen went home. They wrote letters to one another. That continued for months.
He saw her next at The Willie Clancy Week in Miltown Malbay in Ireland. They had no arrangements to see one another, but Cahill knew she was there. Walking home late one night, he turned a corner and there she was. She looked at Dennis and shouted to him. They ran up to each other. Cahill recalled seeing her every day after that for the rest of the festival. Cahill returned to the road and Gwen returned to Scotland. They talked and decided to make plans for her to come visit in Chicago.
Dennis has a shortened version explaining the whole experience. “We met. We talked. We talked some more. We wrote to one another. We decided we were best friends, and we decided to get married.”
Gwen is survived by her husband Dennis, her parents, brothers Richard and Paul and a sister, Emma, and two sons by her first marriage to Alex Rigg, Oliver, 11, and Anders, 9.
Death leaves tightknit musical circle bowed but unbroken
By Charles M. Madigan
Chicago Tribune senior correspondent
Published June 12, 2002
On a perfect forest preserve afternoon, a handful of sad friends gathered Sunday way out west on Irving Park Road to set up a table and some folding chairs in the woods. On the table there were two pictures of a lovely young woman, a couple of bottles of very good scotch, a big crock of fantastic chili, a pot of coffee and lots of plastic cups.
Scattered around the site were fiddle cases, guitars, accordion cases, flutes, everything anyone would need for a rousing Celtic bash. How many times had they sat in that circle, their fiddles at the ready, looking into each other's eyes to read the clues about what was going to be played next?
One of the players was missing, which was why all those friends had gathered in the woods.
It was a tremendous burden, a sadness, for all of her friends to know that Gwen Sale would never be there again. She was getting into her car on Irving Park Road on May 8 when an eastbound van veered a bit, knocked her off her feet and headfirst into the back of an SUV.
It took quite some time for her heart to stop beating, which was no surprise to her friends.
There was no hope. She was dead at 31.
The sting of that death has lasted for weeks.
Her husband, the guitarist Dennis Cahill, shattered at first, is back playing again, still surrounded by friends who are always ready to talk, maybe to weep one more time, to summon memories of a young, talented Scottish woman who had her own unique way of moving into everyone's life.
It was Dennis' idea to have a day dedicated to the memory of his dead wife.
She loved to run in the forest preserves, so Cahill picked Che-che-pin-qua Woods, where she took him on nature walks, as the spot. Gwen made chili for every gathering at Cahill's house on North Nordica, so the uillean piper Kieran O'Hare, renowned for music and great cooking, too, stepped up to create gallons of his grandmother's recipe.
The coffee and the scotch were there because that was always available at the Cahill house, too, particularly on music nights when a few dozen friends would drop by to eat and play the night away.
Sale wanted to step up the frequency of those musical nights because what she longed for most in America was the sense of community she had left behind in Scotland.
The musical ceremony in the woods was followed by a bash at Martyr's on Lincoln Avenue, one of the favored hangouts for Irish and Scottish musicians in Chicago.
The bar was closed to everyone but the friends and family of Dennis and Gwen, a group, it turns out, that includes hundreds of people, most of them musicians. It was loud and hot and delightful, which everyone eagerly noted, would be exactly what Gwen would have wanted.
But all of that came later, after the sad 90 minutes at Che-che-pin-qua, where abundant tears mingled with insect repellent and a sad, but eternally witty Brendan McKinney, publican at Chief O'Neill's pub and a musician of the first order, looked at a mosquito that had fallen into his Glenfiddich and quipped, "He's not dead, just passed out."
Martin Hayes, Cahill's musical partner for the past seven years, started the fiddle music in the forest preserve. The fiddlers Liz Knowles and Una Sharkey McGlew were to one side and Cahill with his guitar on the other. A handful of other fiddlers joined in.
The piano accordion player Jimmy Keane, who has been rocklike in his support for Cahill since Sale's death, sat to the rear, along with the box player Tom O'Malley.
There is no echo in the forest preserve, so the music simply drifted out into the woods and then went away. They played a handful of tunes and then Ann Meehan sang a sweet, sad and soft song in Gaelic. After that, it was time for words.
Maggi Sale, Gwen's mother, in from Scotland, read from Gwen's writing and from Mother Theresa. One of Cahill's best friends, Martin O'Malley, read from a touching letter he had received from Sale.
Dennis then raised a toast to his lost wife and said he would never forget her.
How could there be such emotion attached to a woman who didn't arrive in Chicago until late in 1997?
You had to know her, and a little bit about her husband Dennis, to understand that part.
Sale arrived on the Chicago music scene the way a movie star would arrive at a premiere.
She was, simply put, a drop-dead gorgeous 27-year-old, sharp as a sewing needle and determined to make her way in Irish and Celtic music in the United States. Chicago was then, and remains, one of the key places to be for Celtic music in America.
Chops are freely available here for anyone who wants to spend the time learning them from an abundance of traditional players who call the place their home.
It would be wrong to say that when she walked into music sessions in the Irish bars of Chicago, everything stopped. But what is certain is that when she walked in and sat down to play her fiddle, everyone took notice.
A marriage back in Scotland had exploded, as they sometimes will. Her two sons stayed with her ex-husband, Alex Riggs, but she was never out of touch with them.
Sale had been born in Edinburgh on Nov. 20, 1970 and spent the first five years of her life in Africa with her parents. Her mother, Maggi remembers a little girl so gifted that she created sand murals and art with whatever was at hand. She studied jewelry design, sculpture, painting and silversmithing at the Glasgow School of Art. She took up the fiddle as a schoolgirl, learning from the locals at fiddle sessions in Scotland.
She first saw Cahill playing with Hayes at a concert in Scotland in 1997. Hayes and Cahill are unique in the world of Irish music, the perfect match of traditional fiddle with disciplined, meticulously played guitar. It is music that sounds free flowing, but is intricately crafted and presented. Sale was hooked. She wanted to know how to do it.
Cahill had been playing on the music scene in Chicago for almost 2 1/2 decades at that point, everything from folk to rock to bluegrass to country and western. He was one of those people who had earned his status the hard way, by playing well through endless collections of depressingly cheap gigs in some very bad places.
Well into his 40s by the time he met Sale, first in Scotland and later at a festival in Ireland, he had collected the two most important assets anyone can have: accolades for his musical skills and an almost endless collection of friends.
"The interesting thing about Gwen and I is that we became friends before we fell in love and got married," Cahill said just a few hours after Sale died. After they met the first time, there were letters and phone calls and occasional meetings full of long conversations about life and music.
They were married in Chicago on Nov. 4, 1998, and became regulars on the music scene.
She worked very hard at her fiddling, Cahill said, and had made tremendous progress in a very short period. Cahill helped with the music, but it was up to Sale to make her mark, which she did. She became one of two chief fiddlers in one of the "Lord of the Dance" troupes.
She also returned to her art, and filled their little house with sculpture and painting. Sale was a frequent visitor to the Art Institute of Chicago, where she would put her face right up beside the paintings by the great masters and lecture to friends on their brush strokes, their use of color and, sometimes, on their inability to paint feet properly.
At first, Sale had a critical edge on her as sharp as a well-honed knife.
She tried hard to inject into American sessions the etiquette that was central to the musical sessions she had played in back in Scotland. That edge yielded with time. The closer she became to the people in the community, the friendlier she got. The invitations would then come to drop by for chili and music on a cold winter's night. She would sit for hours with her sketch pad at music sessions, presenting players with charcoal drawings of themselves at the night's end.
Her connection with the community in Chicago might have been why her loss seemed to touch everyone so deeply. They mourned for Gwen, and they mourned for Dennis too.
They seemed to fit together so well in so many ways, two very independent people who had found one another through music.
Martyr's is one of those perfect places for musicians, because the stage is lots bigger than the bar and there is plenty of seating space in front of it. The "Gathering for Gwennie" was supposed to begin at 4 p.m. but people started arriving early. Those who had attended the ceremony in the forest preserve headed to the bathroom to scrape off the bug killer. Sale had helped organize a Robert Burns night that had been a big success at Martyr's, so it was thought that a good way to say goodbye to her would be to collect and construct a couple of haggis and arrange some appropriate music.
McKinney showed up in full battle dress, his kilt of blue the most striking piece of the ensemble. He is the Irish world champion on highland pipes. It would be interesting to see what music he selected.
He marched into the room formally, the drones on his pipes echoing off the walls as he played "Flower of Scotland." On stage, Don Stewart took a dagger and cut the two haggis as he read a Burns poem. McKinney followed with a sad and soulful, "She Moved Through the Fair."
There was not a dry eye.
When it came time for Cahill to talk, such a silence fell over the room that he would not have needed the microphone. He talked about the sadness of his wife's death, about what he so loved about her and said the message of her life was that you should always go down those roads that present themselves.
"When I took her ashes back to Scotland," he said, "We weren't quite sure what to do with them, so we thought it was best to let her sons decide."
Oliver, 11, and Anders, 9, thought for a bit, and then concluded the urn should be rolled down a 1,000 foot hill near Fisherhold, Penpont, Thornhill, Scotland, where the family still lives.
"They pushed it down and the top came off and it hit a rock and there was a big puff of ashes, and then it kept rolling all the way down the hill, with big puffs of ashes every time it hit a bump," Cahill said.
The boys and their father, Alex, then rolled down the hill through the ashes.
"I just watched from the top of the hill," Cahill said.
"Alex said, `She did good, didn't she?' And I said, `Yes, Gwen, you did good.'"
Chicago fiddler Gwen Sale killed by reckless driver
May 15 - 21, 2002
By Earle Hitchner
Gwen Sale, a former featured fiddler with "Lord of the Dance" and a popular presence in Chicago's Irish music scene, was struck and killed by a van on Wednesday afternoon, May 8, in Chicago. She was 31.
At about 3:30 p.m. that day, Sale was returning home from a gym workout when she decided to pick up some groceries at a produce store on Chicago's West Irving Park Road. As she was getting back into her car, a Chevy van driven by 42-year-old Raymond Flanagan veered from the eastbound lane and hit Sale, hurling her against the rear of the car parked in front of hers. A retired Chicago police officer, whose home was near the collision, attended to her until an ambulance arrived. She was taken to Lutheran General Hospital, where she died at 5:45 p.m. Chicago police have charged Flanagan with negligent driving, driving without insurance, and failing to exercise due care for a pedestrian in the roadway.
Born on Nov. 20, 1970, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Gwen Sale, at 5 months old, moved with her parents to Africa, where she lived for the next five years. As a toddler, she displayed the instincts and traits of a nascent artist, making sand murals with simple materials.
Years later in Scotland, Sale studied jewelry design, sculpture, painting, and silversmithing at the Glasgow School of Art. As a schoolgirl, she also took up the fiddle, playing the music of her homeland. But it was Irish traditional music, in the form of that performed by East Clare fiddler Martin Hayes and Chicago guitarist Dennis Cahill at a 1997 concert she attended in Scotland, that sparked her desire to learn more about it.
Her relationship with Cahill grew alongside her interest in Irish music, and later that year she immigrated to Chicago. On Nov. 4, 1998, she and Cahill were married, and her aptitude and ability to play Irish music on the fiddle developed to the point where she became one of two showcased fiddlers in troupe two of "Lord of the Dance."
Said Deirdre Gilsenan, a singer who was in that stage production: "I found her to be perhaps the most honest person I have ever known. A true artist in every sense."
Piano accordionist Jimmy Keane, a close friend of Sale and her husband recalled "she was a human magnet. You could see it at its best when Gwen and Dennis were together. I know it sounds corny, but you could really see and feel the love the two of them had for each other."
Keane also remembered how she "always wanted to play 'choones' with you. It did not matter if it was 9 in the morning or 11 at night. You did it because it was Gwen. She served as a touchstone and a constant reminder about why we all play Irish music in the first place."
Aside from music, her talent for design and art can be seen in "Heart's Desire," Niamh Parsons's new Green Linnet album produced by Cahill, for which she created the cover image and the interior sketches of musicians. The home she shared with Cahill was filled with her own art, and she was a frequent visitor to the Art Institute of Chicago.
This past Saturday, her ashes were taken by her husband, Jimmy Keane, Martin Hayes, and another close friend, Brian O'Malley, to Fisherholt, Penpont, Thornhill, Scotland, where her family still lives. Gwen Sale is survived by her husband, Dennis, her parents, Maggie and Michael, her sister, Emma, her brothers, Paul and Richard, and her two sons, Oliver, 11, and Anders, 9, from a previous marriage.
This past Tuesday in Penpont, a memorial service for Gwen Sale was followed by a ceilidh, celebrating her love for music. Another memorial service, "A Gathering for Gwen," will take place Sunday, June 9, at 4 p.m. at Martyrs, 3855 North Lincoln Ave., Chicago ( 404-9494). Some of her artwork will be on display there, and all musicians are asked to bring their instruments.
"She would always spur you on and encourage you in whatever you did, and she was always more concerned about you than herself," Jimmy Keane said. "That was only a small portion of Gwen Sale, and I, for one, am much better for knowing her."
In Memory of Gwen Sale