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Johnny O'Leary of Sliabh Luachra
Dance Music from the Cork / Kerry Border
Craft Recordings - CRCD01
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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 Breandán 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 Pádraig OKeeffe, Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford,
Tom Billy Murphy, Din Tarrant & Thadelo Sullivan to name only a few.
Breandán’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
1. John Walshe’s Polkas (260/261)
A set of polkas that Johnny always plays together, and always in this
2. A Night at the Fair (28) / The Cat in the Corner (348)
Two jigs that, again, Johnny usually pairs. These came from Bill the
Weaver, Denis Murphy’s father.
3. Murphy’s / The Greencastle (305)
This recording of ‘Murphy’s Hornpipe’ is the first time I had ever
heard Johnny play it. A version from Sonny Brogan is included in Ceol
Rince na hÉireann Vol. 1.
4. The Kenmare Polka (297) / Sweeney’s (282)
This track and the following five were recorded while Johnny played
for a polka set (the Sliabh Luachra Set). The figures of sets usually
do not come in tune sized sections, so the playing in some of these
figures ends in mid-tune. But it is dance music and you are hearing
it here employed for its primary purpose. Also, Johnny is too well
acquainted with the structure of the figures to be caught unprepared
and always brings the playing to a satisfying halt, no matter what
part of the tune has been reached. He associates the second tune here
with John Clifford.
5. Jerome Burke’s (298) / The Cobbler (80)
‘The Cobbler’ was learned from Din Tarrant, ‘Jerome Burke’s’ from
6. The Gallant Tipperary Boys (129) / The First Cousin of the Gallant
Tipperary Boys (130)
Johnny learned these two tunes from Pádraig O’Keeffe, and always pairs
7. The Annaghbeg Polka (18)
Another tune learned from Din Tarrant. It is played here for the fourth
part of the set, as Johnny mentions in his book.
8. The Hair Fell Off my Coconut (135) / Thadelo’s Slide (76)
Two slides that Johnny learned from Thadelo, Tim O’Sullivan of Annaghbeg,
who used to play them on a concertina. The first is more commonly
known as ‘A Hundred Pipers’. A verse associated with it goes as follows:
Oh the hair fell off my coconut.
The hair fell off my coconut.
Oh the hair fell off my coconut,
And how do you like it baldy?
9. Thadelo’s (246) / Turkey in the Straw (247)
Two more of Thadelo’s tunes, barn-dances that Johnny often uses for
the hornpipe figure of the set.
10. The Campdown Races (346)
As this item illustrates, the traffic in tunes between Ireland and
America wasn’t all one way. Johnnys version of this tune, which he
learned from Jack Sweeney, is a great example of how a simple tune
from one tradition can be so elaborated in another as to become almost
11. The Sean Bhean Bhocht
Collected by Bunting and printed in his 1809 collection, this tune
has been used for Irish political songs since the early 19th century.
Donal O’Sullivan refers to a tune published in Oswald’s Caledonian
Pocket Companion in 1759 as being probably the first time it appeared
12. The Bicycle (15)
Learned from Mickín Dálaigh, this is another tune that Johnny associates
with a particular figure of the set. He usually reserves it for the
fifth figure and reckons that only fairly competent dancers can cope
13. Pádraig O’Keeffe’s New Reel (304) / Pádraig O’Keeffe’s ‘Woman
of the House’ (210)
These are two tunes that Pádraig O’Keeffe developed out of ‘Speed
the Plough’ and ‘The Woman of the House’.
14. Barrack Hill (320) / If I Had a Wife (128)
Slides seem to share with slip jigs the quality of being easy to fit
words to, often fairly risqué ones. These two are no exceptions; the
first has the following verse:
Oh, the cat jumped into the mouse’s hole.
The cat jumped into the mouse’s hole.
The cat jumped into the mouse’s hole
And didn’t come down till morning.
The second has:
If I had a wife, the plague of my life
I’ll tell you what I would do.
I’d buy her a boat and put her afloat
And paddle my own canoe.
Johnny says that Denis Murphy knew scores of these verses. Alas, only
the odd scrap seems to remain.
15. Bill the Weaver’s (219) / The Blue Ribbon Polka
Johnny associates these tunes with Julia Clifford. A version of the
‘Blue Ribbon Polka’ may be found in Matt Cranitch’s Irish Fiddle Book.
16. Paddy Spillane’s (50/49)
This and the next four sets of tunes were played for the West Kerry
set. The different sound from the dancers reflects the fact that this
set is danced in quite a different way to the local Sliabh Luachra
set. Paddy Spillane is a neighbour of Johnny’s, from Knockbeag.
17. The Knocknagree Polka (27) / John Collins’ Fancy (262)
When recording this set of tunes Johnny revealed to us that he had
composed the first himself. John Collins is a box-player from Cnoc
18. Mick Mahony’s (90) / The Kilcummin Slide (91)
The first is sometimes named ‘If I Had a Wife’. Johnny heard both
from Mick Mahony of Kilcummin, a part of Sliabh Luachra that, he says,
produces most of the slides and polkas.
19. Dan O’Leary’s / Dan Sweeney’s (48)
The first is another tune I had not heard from Johnny before this
recording session. It seems not to have been recorded before. Dan
O’Leary was Johnny’s uncle, Dan Sweeney is a box-player from Tuar
20. Keeffe’s Slide / Pádraig O’Keeffe’s (132) / Julia Clifford’s Slide
The first has been recorded previously by Jackie Daly (Topic 12T358),
but this is the first time I heard it from Johnny. The other two were
part of Julia Clifford’s repertoire.
21. Crowley’s Reels (309/310)
Johnny attributes these to the great box-player Joe Cooley.
22. Dan O’Leary’s (140)
Another tune that Johnny learned from his uncle Dan O’Leary, who had
it from Tom Billy Murphy.
23. Thadelo Sullivan’s (189)
Thadelo Sullivan seems to have had a large number of unusual tunes.
Johnny often plays this one in a set with the two at 9 above.
24. Molly Myers’ (330) / Jack Connell’s
Molly Myers, another fiddle student of Tom Billy’s is the source of
the first tune here. Like Jack Connell she is from the Ballydesmond
25. The Green Cottage (236)
Previously recorded under this title by Julia and Billy Clifford,
and by Jackie Daly who knows it as one of the ‘Glin Cottage Polkas’.
26. The Cornerhouse (335) / Come West Along the Road
Two fairly infrequently published reels, Breandán Breathnach has versions
of each of them.
27. Connie Fleming’s Polka (145)
This is another polka that has not, to my knowledge, been recorded
or published before.
28. The Old Grey Goose (172)
Things are never static in Irish music. Captain O’Neill’s account
of how this jig assumed its modern form is a nice illustration of
More than a third of a century ago a renowned Irish piper named
John Hicks, a protegé of the sporting Capt. Kelly from the Curragh
of Kildare, came to Chicago to fill an engagement at a Theatre. He
electrified his audiences and received much newspaper notice when
he died. Among the tunes memorised from his playing was . . . . .
. . the lst and 3rd parts of No. 1000. Many years after, I heard James
Kennedy play the lst and 2nd parts for a jig. When dictating the three
parts to James O’Neill I discovered he had an old manuscript setting
of it in six parts. As a compromise we accepted his last three parts,
and the present setting is the result. Kennedy called his tune ‘The
Geese in the Bogs’ but as we had a jig well known by that name another
compromise resulted in ‘The Old Grey Goose.’
Recorded in Dan O’Connell’s public house in Knocknagree, co. Cork
on the 8th and 9th of December 1995.
Recorded and mastered by Harry Bradshaw
Produced by Terry Moylan and Jerry O’Reilly
Notes and photographs by Terry Moylan
All tracks traditional arranged by Johnny O’Leary and Tim Kiely
Special thanks to:
Tim and Mairéad Kiely, Dan O’Connell, John O’Connell and friends,
and Anne and Olive Keane.
JOHNNY O’LEARY OF SLIABH LUACHRA - Dance Music from the Cork-Kerry
a collection of 348 items from Johnny’s repertoire is published by
The Lilliput Press, 4 Rosemount Terrace, Arbour Hill, Dublin 7, and
may be ordered from
Na Píobairí Uilleann, 15 Henrietta Street, Dublin 1
(phone: 01-8730093 / e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), at a cost of IR£17.00
- 1 : Polkas : John Walshe’s (3.09)
- 2 : Jigs : A Night at the Fair / The Cat in the Corner (2.42)
- 3 : Hornpipes : Murphy’s / The Greencastle (4.50)
- 4 : Polkas : The Kenmare Polka / Sweeney’s (2.22)
- 5 : Polkas : Jerome Burke’s / The Cobbler (2.22)
- 6 : Jigs : The Gallant Tipperary Boys / The First Cousins of the Gallant Tipperary Boys (2.17)
- 7 : Polka : The Annaghbeg Polka (1.22)
- 8 : Slides : The Hair Fell Off My Coconut / Thadelo’s Slide (3.09)
- 9 : Barn-dances : Thadelo’s / Turkey in the Straw (2.54)
- 10 : Polka : The Campdown Races (1.59)
- 11 : Set Dance : An Sean Bhean Bhocht (1.54)
- 12 : Slide : The Bicycle (1.36)
- 13 : Reels : Pádraig O’Keeffe’s New Reel / Pádraig O’Keeffe’s ‘Woman of the House’ (3.26)
- 14 : Slides : Barrack Hill / If I had a Wife (2.43)
- 15 : Polkas : Bill the Weaver’s / The Blue Ribbon Polka (3.06)
- 16 : Polkas : Paddy Spillane’s (2.10)
- 17 : Polkas : The Knocknagree Polka / John Collins’ Fancy (2.53)
- 18 : Slides : Mick Mahony’s / The Kilcummin Slide (2.40)
- 19 : Polkas : Dan O’Leary’s / Dan Sweeney’s (2.24)
- 20 : Slides : O’Keeffe’s Slides / Julia Clifford’s Slide (3.01)
- 21 : Reels : Crowley’s (2.28)
- 22 : Polka : Dan O’Leary’s (2.03)
- 23 : Barn-dance : Thadelo Sullivan’s (1.47)
- 24 : Jigs : Molly Myers’ / Jack Connell’s (2.23)
- 25 : Polka : The Green Cottage (1.21)
- 26 : Reels : The Cornerhouse / Come West Along the Road (3.26)
- 27 : Polka : Connie Fleming’s Polka (1.21)
- 28 : Jig : The Old Grey Goose (4.41)
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