Two pieces on Johnny O’Leary – An Obituary & An Appraisal
Johnny O'Leary (1924-2004)
Ireland. Master box player Johnny O'Leary passed away on February 9th. Johnny hailed from Maulykeavane in the centre of Sliabh Luachra, the wet upland region on the borders of Cork and Kerry. Scattered across its rolling hills, crisscrossed by mountain streams, lives a hardy, gregarious people who pay hommage to the polka and slide (Piggot), and traditional music has tended to thrive in areas like Sliabh Luachra, where holdings are modest and the land unyielding. Bad land produces good music. (Hickey). Johnny has spent his whole life learning and playing the local music with its southern swing (Cranitch)._Young Johnny was listening when Tom Billy Murphy from Ballydesmond, the Blind Fiddler, used to teach Johnny's uncle. He started picking out tunes on the melodeon at the age of five, later switching over to a C#/D Paolo Soprani accordion and its push and draw style of box playing. Johnny played with the legendary fiddler P·draig O'Keeffe and he struck up a musical partnership with fiddler Denis Murphy. In 1964 Johnny and Denis accepted an invitation to play in Dan OíConnellís newly opened pub in Knocknagree, and Johnny has been playing for the sets there ever since. Not only has Dan provided a welcome place for musicians to play in, said Johnny, he has also made fine facilities available for dancers. I've hardly seen a place where dancing and music go together so well._Broadcaster Ciar·n Mac Math?na first met Johnny in 1955: He has a huge repertoire. Any time you meet him, he comes up with new `old tunes' that were hidden away. Johnny reckoned that after 70 years of playing he had up to 1,500 tunes stored away. Some tunes I don't know I have at all till I hear someone else playing them. Breand·n Breathnach had for many years been visiting Sliabh Luachra and collecting music from this national custodian, because he regarded Johnnyís playing as preserving the style and repertoire of the area. In 1994 a collection of 348 tunes was published. _Scientists say that Sliabh Luachra people have one of the longest and healthiest lifespans of any community, men are living to an average of 77 years and outliving women by about 2,5 years. Johnny O'Leary was allowed to celebrate his 80th birthday, but now to cite Yeats: Romantic Ireland's dead and gone, it's with O'Leary in the grave.
Johnny O'Leary of Sliabh Luachra
Dance Music from the Cork / Kerry Border
Johnny O’Leary was born in 1924 in Maulykeavane which is about half-way between Killarney and Ballydesmond, in the centre of Sliabh Luachra. He has lived in the area all his life, and has spent his whole life learning and playing the local music. It is an area that has surely produced more musicians for its size and population than any other part of Ireland. Johnny has played with them all, learning tunes and passing on tunes and creating with his fellow musicians an unequalled tradition of music-making. He started picking out tunes on the melodeon at the age of five and by his early teens he was regularly playing for local dances. By the time he was 15 he had struck up a musical partnership with Denis Murphy that was to last a remarkable 37 years, ending only with Denis’ death. In 1964 Johnny and Denis accepted an invitation to play in Dan O’Connell’s newly opened pub in Knocknagree, and Johnny has been playing for the sets there ever since, every Friday and Sunday night.
The great scholar of Irish traditional music Breandan Breathnach had for many years been visiting Sliabh Luachra and collecting music from Johnny. He intended to publish this material because he regarded Johnny’s playing as preserving the style and repertoire of the area and of its famous musicians Padraig OKeeffe, Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford, Tom Billy Murphy, Din Tarrant & Thadelo Sullivan to name only a few. Breandan’s project was taken over by myself after his death in 1985 and was brought to completion in July 1994 when a collection of 348 of Johnny’s tunes was published by the Lilliput Press in Dublin.
This recording is intended to complement that publication. The numbers in brackets after the tune names in the notes refers to the number of the tune in the book. I hope that the issuing of these recordings, in association with the printed collection, will assist in making Johnny’s tunes, and his way of playing them, as well known and popular as they deserve to be. His reels, jigs and hornpipes are generally part of the broader national store of music, but his polkas, slides and barn-dances are often quite unusual and little known. Also, with his style of playing he is able to invest such apparantly simple forms with considerable complexity. They always sound far more interesting in his hands than in the hands of others. This is an observation that applies to other local players also. The Sliabh Luachra musicians seem to be able to get more out of these tunes than musicians from outside that tradition. As his playing here demonstrates, he can also inject an infectious energy into the music without a crude resort to excessive speed. He has always been regarded by discerning dancers as a joy to dance and listen to. I hope this recording will enable you to understand and share that joy.
Johnny is joined on these recordings by guitarist Tim Kiely, who has become Johnny’s regular partner in recent years. A player of great drive and ability, his restrained and effective backing adds considerably to the overall sound. As well as being a superb accompanist he is also a very fine ballad-singer. He is married to Dan O’Connell’s daughter Mairiad.
You can listen to short samples from some of the tracks from this artist using the player below.
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