Johnny O’Leary of Sliabh Luachra: Dance Music from the Cork / Kerry Border

Produced as a companion piece to Terry Moylan’s book of the same name, this is a very good recording of Johnny O’Leary in his natural element, playing at Dan O’Connell’s pub in Knocknagree. Though the guitar backing can sometimes feel obtrusive and some of the chord choices misguided, the rhythm is steady, and the box is quite clear throughout.  Johnny’s playing is spot-on, as always. The sound of dancing heard on a number of tracks only adds to the ambiance and doesn’t obscure Johnny’s lively music.

SAMPLE: Johnny plays The Annaghbeg Polkas, eliciting whoops and hollers:

Liner notes: (as found at

Craft Recordings – CRCD01

Johnny OLeary 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 OConnells 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 Johnnys 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. Breandáns 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 Johnnys 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 Johnnys 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 apparently 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 Johnnys 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 OConnells daughter Mairéad.


1. John Walshes 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 Murphys father.

3. Murphys / The Greencastle (305)
This recording of Murphys 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) / Sweeneys (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 Burkes (298) / The Cobbler (80)
The Cobbler was learned from Din Tarrant, Jerome Burkes 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 OKeeffe, 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) / Thadelos Slide (76)
Two slides that Johnny learned from Thadelo, Tim OSullivan 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. Thadelos (246) / Turkey in the Straw (247)
Two more of Thadelos 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 wasnt 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 OSullivan refers to a tune published in Oswalds 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 OKeeffes New Reel (304) / Pádraig OKeeffes Woman of the House (210)
These are two tunes that Pádraig OKeeffe 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 mouses hole.
The cat jumped into the mouses hole.
The cat jumped into the mouses hole
And didnt come down till morning.

The second has:

If I had a wife, the plague of my life
Ill tell you what I would do.
Id 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 Weavers (219) / The Blue Ribbon Polka
Johnny associates these tunes with Julia Clifford. A version of the Blue Ribbon Polka may be found in Matt Cranitchs Irish Fiddle Book.

16. Paddy Spillanes (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 Johnnys, 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 Mahonys (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 OLearys / Dan Sweeneys (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 OLeary was Johnnys uncle, Dan Sweeney is a box-player from Tuar Mór.

20. Keeffes Slide / Pádraig OKeeffes (132) / Julia Cliffords 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 Cliffords repertoire.

21. Crowleys Reels (309/310)
Johnny attributes these to the great box-player Joe Cooley.

22. Dan OLearys (140)
Another tune that Johnny learned from his uncle Dan OLeary, who had it from Tom Billy Murphy.

23. Thadelo Sullivans (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 Connells
Molly Myers, another fiddle student of Tom Billys 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 Flemings 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 ONeills 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 ONeill 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 OConnells 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 OReilly
Notes and photographs by Terry Moylan
All tracks traditional arranged by Johnny OLeary and Tim Kiely

Special thanks to:
Tim and Mairéad Kiely, Dan OConnell, John OConnell and friends, and Anne and Olive Keane.

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

I’ve been unable to find anywhere online to order this album, so for the time being, you can click here to download.

(If anyone wants to assert ownership or make a case for not providing this free download in the interests of the public good, please get in touch.)

2 thoughts on “Johnny O’Leary of Sliabh Luachra: Dance Music from the Cork / Kerry Border

  1. The dancing you mention in the background is done by John O’Connell (Sean nos dancer of old traditional dancers steps) and acknowledged on that CD it to me is as if like another instrument and only adds to Johnny’s music.

    Liked by 1 person

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