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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 Mairéad.



1. John Walshe’s Polkas (260/261)
A set of polkas that Johnny always plays together, and always in this way.

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 Jerome Burke.

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 them.

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 unrecognisable.

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 in print.

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 with it.

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 na Gaoithe.

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 Mór.

20. Keeffe’s Slide / Pádraig O’Keeffe’s (132) / Julia Clifford’s Slide (133)
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 area.

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 the point:

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 Border,
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:, at a cost of IR£17.00 plus pp.

CRAFT RECORDINGS, 11 Merton Avenue, South Circular Road, Dublin 8. (01-4539095)

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