Paddy Keenan was born in Trim, Co. Meath, to John Keenan, Sr. of Westmeath and the former Mary Bravender of Co. Cavan. The Keenans were a Traveller family steeped in traditional music; both Paddy's father and grandfather were uilleann pipers. Paddy himself took up the pipes at the age of ten, playing his first major concert at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, when he was 14. He later played with the rest of his family in a group called The Pavees.
At 17, Paddy left Ireland for England. Before moving on to busk in the rest of Europe, he spent some time singing and playing guitar around the tube stations of London. It was here that he developed an appreciation for blues music, and began incorporating the style into his own playing.
Returning to Ireland after a few years, he played on and off with The Pavees in Dublin. Sometime later, after a month long tour with ‘Monroe’ (Mícheál Ó Dhomhnaill and Mick Hanly) in Brittany, Paddy began gigging around Ireland with Mícheál and his sister Tríona Ní Dhomhnaill, fiddler Paddy Glackin, and accordion player Tony McMahon. A little later flute player Matt Molloy came on board. Shortly after, Donal Lunny was asked to listen to the six. Liking what he heard, he joined as well, and the loosely-knit band began calling itself "Seachtar," the Irish word for "seven."
Seachtar's first major concerts were in the National Stadium and Trinity College. They played a few more gigs around the country, but circumstances soon forced Tony MacMahon to drop out. When the rest of the band decided to turn professional Paddy Glackin left as well; he was replaced by Donegal fiddler Tommy Peoples who was later replaced by fiddler Kevin Burke. All the group needed now was a name.
Mícheál Ó Dhomhnaill had recently returned from Scotland, where he happened across a photograph taken in the 1890s of a group of tattered musicians. "The Bothy Band," it was titled, in reference to the migrant Irish laborers who worked in England and Scotland and were housed in stone huts known as "bothies." Mícheál suggested that the band take this name, and the others agreed. Thus was born one of the most influential bands of the 1970s, The Bothy Band.
The Bothy Band forever changed the face of Irish traditional music, merging a driving rhythm section with traditional Irish tunes in ways that had never been heard before. Those fortunate enough to have seen the band live have never forgotten the impression they made -- one reviewer likened the experience to "being in a jet when it suddenly whipped into full throttle along the runway." Paddy was one of the band's founding members, and his virtuosity on the pipes combined with the ferocity of his playing made him, in the opinion of many, its driving force. Bothy Band-mate Donal Lunny once described Paddy as "the Jimi Hendrix of the pipes"; more recently, due to his genius for improvisation and counter-melody, he has been compared to jazz great John Coltrane.
Paddy's flowing, open-fingered style of playing can be traced directly from the style of such great Travelling pipers as Johnny Doran; both Paddy's father and grandfather played in the same style. Although often compared to Doran, Paddy was 19 or 20 when he first heard a tape of Doran's playing; his own style is a direct result of his father's tutelage and influence.
Paddy's style continued to mature in the intervening years since the break-up of The Bothy Band as he pursued a solo career. He has brought traditional music to audiences around the globe, playing at festivals including the Rainforest World Music Festival in Borneo, CeltFest Cuba in Havana, and concert tours across Japan, Europe, Australia, and North America. He is featured on the soundtrack of “Traveller”, starring Bill Paxton and Mark Wahlberg, for which he composed and arranged two pieces of music. In the mid-2000’s, Paddy and singer Liam Ó Maonlaí (Hothouse Flowers) traveled to Mali, west Africa, to embark on a 3,000 mile long journey across the desert to perform at Le Festival au Désert, the world’s most remote music festival, near Timbuktu. In 2008, a documentary of their travels was released. Directed by Dearbhla Glynn, ’Dambé: The Mali Project’, highlights their journey and collaborations with Malian musicians across the Sahara. Recently, Paddy performed at the Irish Embassies in Moscow, Russia and in Tallinn, Estonia.
Paddy’s contributions to traditional Irish music were honoured in 2002, when he received the TG4 Gradam Ceoil Musician of the Year award, which is presented to musical heroes of the modern age, and in 2011 by the Irish Music Association, with a Lifetime Achievement Award.