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Johnny O’Leary

My Life and Music
By Johnny O’Leary

I’d really want a whole book to myself to do full justice to music in Sliabh Luachra. Music was always a big thing in my life and I really can’t remember when I started to play. I was twelve and a half when I played for the first time in Thady Willie’s (O’Connor’s) hall in Gneeveguilla – and that’s not today or yesterday!

My Uncle, Dan, God rest him, had a small accordion when I was very young and whenever he’d be out, I’d start. Would you believe that my first ‘box’ cost 12/6 from Clancy’s Killarney and it took my 14 or 15 years to put the price of it together. Things have changed a lot since.

One man I’ll never forget is the late Denis Murphy, Lisheen. We played together for 38 years, sometimes three or four nights a week, and there was never a hard word between us. Whatever one of us would say ‘twas O.K. with the other.

We played in Dan O’Connell’s Knocknagree, on the night before he died. Twas a Sunday night and he never played better. He gave me two reels that nobody in the pub had ever heard before. I asked him for them and his last words were: ‘I’ll give them to the next night …” but I saw him no more.

Denis was a shy man really, but he was very witty and never off form. He had a fierce hatred of microphones and used often say to fellows: “Take that gander’s neck away from me”. He was as gramhar as you’d meet.

Back in the 1930’s and 40’s we hardly missed a wedding or a house dance. We’d often spend a couple of days in a house and they’d be dancing sets day and night. There was hardly any money that time – only plenty of porter.

Patterns were popular too, especially on Sunday evenings. We had Mick Daly’s in Maughantourig and there used to be one at the top of the wood, near Eugie Kelleher’s, on the road to Rathmore. There would often be seven or eight players and smashing jig dancing.

Jig sets were all the go, like the ‘Talavara’, the ‘Cock and the Hen’ and the ‘Jenny Ling’. The polka set is after taking over, but the dances are not near as good. I think that television has ruined music; I mean to say it comes first in most houses. When I was growing up there was an instrument in nearly every home and they’d love a few hours of a session to pass away the time.

Padraig O’Keeffe was another of the characters and one of the best I’ve ever heard. The minute I saw him I knew he was a professional musician. He used to spend a lot of time in Jack Lyon’s Bar in Scartaglen and could write music in the correct way – for any instrument. He had some famous players like Denis Murphy, Julia Clifford, Mikie Duggan, Paddy and Johnny Cronin.

I saw Padraig writing out a tune for Willie Clancy one day and Willie played it perfectly on the tin whistle. Padraig had almighty wit and was always full of roguery. A few drinks would always get him going, but for the last 10 to 15 years of his life he wasn’t inclined to play that much.

He got a ‘weakness’ once in Jack Lyons’, but a drop of brandy brought him round. A few more drinks followed and when one of the prime boys tried to get one from Padraig what did he say only “go away and get a weakness of your own”.

He taught music to half the county around here. He’d know a budding musician a mile away and he met a lot of bad ones too. “A fine thing to teach a Bonham to pray… “ he used say.

When I was learning, I’d often walk the eight or nine miles to Scart to meet him. The weather didn’t matter. It’s a big change now when you can see all the youngsters being driven to music lessons in Gneeveguilla on a fixed night every week.

The blind fiddler, Tom Billy Murphy, from Ballydesmond, was another famous player. He travelled the countryside on the back of a donkey and was well liked wherever he went. In spite of his handicap, he managed well.

Like the rest of them, he was full of humour. One night in Minnie Mac’s behind in Jib, he broke a string. The house was packed, there was only a single burner lamp and sets were flying. Next thing, Tom Billy fixing his fiddle, cocked up his head and said: “High lads, shove out of the light from me”.

Padraig was an awful boyo, of course. He was with Tom Billy and Din Tarrant in Knocknagree on one occasion. Anyway, Tom played a jig that Padraig had not heard before and Padraig asked him to play a second time. He learned it very quickly and then – to tease Tom – he played it on his own. “Blast you”, says Tom, “you’re after making a fool of me”.

Jack Keeffe’s bar in Knocknagree was a favourite haunt at that time. I remember seeing Din Tarrant playing there. He was a big strong man with a hat and very honest. He was a fine musician, renowned for jigs, slides, reels and hornpipes. A good few polkas are called after Din, who died in 1957 aged 81.

That time, the music of Sliabh Luachra wasn’t known as well as it is now. Seamus Ennis did the first radio broadcast in the early 1940’s. People like Sean Mac Reamoinn, Ciaran Mac Mathuna and Sean O Riada came after that. They put Sliabh Luachra music where it is in Ireland today. I’m glad to have known the marvellous musicians of the area and to have played with them all.

A few years ago, when the country began to get more prosperous, I thought that the music would die. People had too much money and they found other things to do. I’m glad to see that it’s back on its feet again. Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann are doing a marvellous job and it’s wonderful to see Nicholas McAuliffe giving classes here in Gneeveguilla.

However, I think there should be more traditional music on television. They had some lovely programmes in the years gone by. No doubt, the radio gives plenty of time to our music.

I love to see the young boys and girls taking an interest. They have every comfort now and are being given plenty of opportunities. The tape recorder is a great help in learning music. Instruments are better too. In the old days when a string would go, you’d have to get a piece of elastic and put it through the key. I often played with five or six elastics.

As far as I can see, there is no danger to Irish music now, particularly Sliabh Luachra music. One thing I’d like to say before I finish is that we can play reels in this part of the country as good as anywhere else and I’d argue that with anyone.

We still have some great talent inn Sliabh Luachra. Jimmy Doyle has more than made a name for himself, on radio, television and record, while Padraig Moynihan, Glenfesk and John Cronin, Killarney are outstanding. We also have Denis McMahon, Ballyhar, Con Carroll, Coolea and Siobhan Collins, Tureenamult, an outstanding flute player who as won an All Ireland, as well as Paudie Gleeson and Artie O’Keeffe.

Of course, we can’t forget. Dan Cronin, Quarry Cross, Kathleen O’Keeffe and Ellen O’Leary, all of whom have been heard on Radio Eireann. Then there is Mick Cronin, Reaboy, the brother of the famour fiddlers, Paddy and Johnny. A man I often play with is Mikie Duggen.

Sliabh Luachra has an abundance of singers, including Hannah Dennehy, a sister of the Cronin brothers; Mary Lenihan, Ballydesmond and Paddy Cremin, who is well-known for that grand old ancient song of the good old days. Jimmy O’Brien, of Killarney is a sweet singer as is his daughter, Siobhan, who has been in many All-Ireland competitions. Paddy Doyle, Maulykevane, is another man well able to give a song, not to speak of Christy Cronin, Tim Gleeson and Bill Keane.

I could keep on going, but we’ll continue the story some other day. I’m delighted to see a group of people coming together to establish Cumann Luachra. Apart altogether from music, our area is full of history and tradition and it is only right that these things should be honoured.

Didn’t we produce two of the best poets in Ireland and there was never a character like Eoin Ruadh. Aren’t they still telling yarns about him… if we could only print them.