A hidden treasure of the Sliabh Luachra discography, this LP was produced by the Kerry CCE and given a relatively limited release in 1978. It features a number of well-known figures of the area, including Nicolas and Anne McAuliffe and John Brosnan, as well as some lesser-known folks. The playing throughout is of a high standard, and, perhaps surprisingly for a CCE production, the Sliabh Luachra character shines through (on some tracks more than others.) All in all, an excellent album, and a valuable snapshot of the state of The Kingdom from bygone days.
Many thanks to Friend of Sliabh Luachra Ray Dempsey for making this long lost LP available once again!
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:
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 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 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.
Gael-Linn CEFCD 132, 1989. Recorded in 1989 in Sullane, Co. Cork.
Notes by Ciarán MacMathúna.
Maybe the best of Johnny O’Leary’s albums in terms of the listener experience, as the recording is clear, with no background noise, and no accompanist muddying the waters. Johnny is playing really well here, and gives us an excellent selection of tunes from his seemingly infinite repertoire. Some are well-known classics, some are lesser-known, even today. It also boasts a pretty bad-ass cover photo.
SAMPLE: The eponymous first tune, a version of The Orange Rogue:
“Gerry Harrington and Billy Clifford have had a lifelong affinity with the music of Sliabh Luachraand have been making the music ‘purr’ in its sweetest most lyrical form for many years.The first time I heard Billy Clifford play was when himself and his mother Julia took to the stagein The Cork Opera House in the early 1980’s to play a set of slides in a concert celebrating thecomposer Sean Ó Riada. It’s a performance that still burns bright in my memory. Their music wasdelicate, sweet, full of personality and devilment and at times deceptively simple. What I heard intheir music became a standard bearer in my own endeavours to learn the music of Sliabh Luachra.It drew me into a wonderful journey of exploring the music of The Murphys of Lisheen. A journeywith no end. Billy’s playing does that to people. It gets you thinking. It reminds you of previousrecordings of The Star of Munster Trio in which he played with Julia and his father John Clifford and the many other musical webs that his mother wove with Denis, Pádraig Ó Keeffe and JohnnyÓ Leary.
“I’ve known Gerry Harrington since my teenage years back in the early 1990’s. We first played together at the Patrick Ó Keeffe festival in Castleisland when The Smokey Chimney comprising of Gerry, Eoghan Ó Sullivan and Paul de Grae were to the fore front of performing and recording musicfrom the Sliabh Luachra survives in its purest form. His recent recording of accordionist Timmy Connors ensured that Timmy’s contribution to our music was properly documented and archived. Another feature of this recording is that most tracks were recorded on Julia Clifford’s iconic Stroh fiddle that Billy had restored and brought back to life. Hearing it in full health brings back lots of memories and it contributes to the mood of the album. Gerry’s deep respect for generations that have handed us the torch is evident in this recording Now She’s Purring, a reference to Pádraig Ó Keeffe’s expression when the music was sounding good and all was well with the world. Gerry displays a great understanding of Billy’s style of playing and the result is an excellent duet album. The tunes are played in settings many will not have previously heard and the accompanying notes give a complete history. It’s a recording that will stand the test of time and I highly recommend it.” –Paudie Ó Connor
In 1961 Denis Murphy was home on holidays from America and looking forward to meeting up with his old friend and teacher Pádraig O’Keeffe. Jack Lyons’ pub in Scartaglin was the closest thing to a local that Pádraig had, and was the usual spot for the two to meet for a drink and a tune. As it happens, someone (maybe Séamus Ennis?) fortuitously recorded this session, and we can now listen back to this musical conversation between two of the great men of Sliabh Luachra music.
Here’s one of the 38 tracks: Pádraig and Denis play a unique setting of The Bucks of Oranmore
This recording came to me through circuitous means, and and as such I had no knowledge of who the original tape belonged to, or what sort of travels it had before it ended up with me. They were labelled as “secret” recordings, but for whom and from whom was the secret meant to be kept? Though these questions remain unresolved, recently it has come to light that it’s more of an “open secret” than I had realized. I spoke to someone who was given the recording early on, and is largely responsible for it being more widely known, and this person made a convincing case for sharing the recording freely. Seeing as how this is an important part of the cultural heritage, and that anyone with a keen interest in this music deserves to hear it, I’ve decided to post it here. It is an informal recording, not a performance, and some of the playing is rough and off the cuff, but I don’t think it can possibly diminish the reputation of either of these two giants.
If anyone has more information about the context for this recording, or some of the missing tune names, or anything like that, please comment here or email me!
Special thanks to Gerry Harrington tracking down some tune names and supplying some of the history behind this beautiful recording.
Originally published in The Journal of Sliabh Luachra, Cumann Luachra, Vol 12
Born on the side of the bog
I may as well start off with a line from a well-known song: “My Grandmother lived on the side of the bog”. That’s exactly where I came from – on the verge of Lyretough bog in the eastern part of Kilcummin parish. Those of you who are not too familiar with Sliabh Luachra, might think that being born in such an area might be a very dull place to live, but this is certainly not the case. Sliabh Luachra is a place of great enjoyment and merriment. All during the summer months, there were people going to and coming from the bog. The County Council also cut turf all around us. I suppose you could say it was the first industrial estate. Local farmers had plots of bog around the place and there were meitheals everywhere. Our house was like a holiday home with people calling and parking bikes in the yard, coming in to boil the kettle and leaving sleans and pikes in our shed overnight. This caused great excitement for us.
A house of Music
The house I was born in was a house of music and singing. My mother’s name was Lizzie Coakley. She had two sisters, Maryanne and Nora, and two brothers, Danny and Paddy. They could all sing and my uncle Paddy was a renowned singer – a really great singer. I learned a lot of songs from him when I was a young lad and he gave songs to lots of others too. He was a shy man. He wouldn’t go down to Petro’s or to Barraduff to sing a song in the pub, but he was a great entertainer and he always sang at the stations, or house dances, and he also played the melodeon. He was a very good polka set player.
My father’s name was Jim Brien. He was born at Inch , Kilcummin. When he married my mother he moved down to Lyretough. He was a great character and an all round man. The longest memory in my head is of him putting down a platform for dancing at Charlie McCarthy’s sandpit. They danced there every Sunday evening. Jackie Fleming and the McCarthy brothers played there and the dust was always flying.
School days and growing up
We all went to Anabla School. I never liked going to school, but I got on alright – my big disappointment was that I never made the singing class!
We grew a bit older and moved on a bit. Doyle’s was a great house for all the young lads. We had great excitement there; it was music all the time. I used to go to Doyle’s every night because they had a melodeon and I wanted to learn a few tunes. The lads would be gone out kicking ball around the field and I’d stay inside by the fire trying to learn a couple of tunes. A very nice old man from next door, by the name of Bill Doody, would call in and sit down by the other side of the fire. He liked to hear news from the town of Killarney, where I was working. I wasn’t inclined to give him too much attention because I was more interested in learning a few tunes. Something happened one day in town and he wanted to know all about it, so I was giving him the details with my head down and I trying my best to play this old tune. He got impatient with me and he said “Christ Brien , you’re there every night with your doorey darie and you’re getting nowhere. In the name of God couldn’t you throw it away from you?” I took his advice and that was the last of my musical career.
To Work and To America
I served my time as a mechanic in Culloty’s garage in Killarney. I served my full time there and I stayed on for a while after qualifying. I was courting a girl by the name of Mary Cronin, who was to become my wife. We both decided to go to America and worked in New York. I never intended staying in America. I never cared about it, so, when we got a few dollars together, after two and a half years, I saw a pub for sale in Killarney by the name of Cornelius Healy’s. It was advertised in the” Kerryman”. I knew the pub well because I had worked across the street from it in Culloty’s for seven years. I rang Con O’Healy and asked him how much he wanted and we bought the pub over the phone. The asking price was£3000.00 and after some bargaining I bought it for £2750.00. We came home in 1961 and opened the pub. I never thought of being a publican when I was young, but we said we’d have a go at it and as the saying goes, the rest is history. I must say the support we got over the years has been fantastic.
Music and song in the bar
Though I didn’t make it as a musician myself, I was never let down by the musicians of Sliabh Luachra. All were great men and women: Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford, Johnny O’Leary, Dan Leary, Jimmy Doyle, Paddy Doyle, Sonny Sweeney, Sonny Riordan, all the Cronin family that played in my pub and all the great singers like D.D. Cronin, Pat Tade Mick Cronin, Jim Kelly, Garry McMahon, Jerry Mac and Bridie and all the great characters. Mick Cronin from Gneeveguilla, Mrs. Dennehy, Jer Kelly and Christy Cronin were among the many great singers.
Over the years, we had some mighty music sessions in the bar. Ciarán MacMathúna did a lot of recording in the house throughout the 60’s and 70’s. Ciarán should never be forgotten. He made sure that all the great music and songs of Sliabh Luachra were collected. I often had the privilege of having the late Seán Ó Riada call to my pub and Con Houlihan was another person I idolised.
Stories from the pub
Publicans hear great stories. One day a man came into the bar to me with a theory that hurling originated in Sliabh Luachra. Problem was, however, that the ball kept getting lost in the rushes and they got tired of looking for it. They then got a big ball but it was too big to hit it with a stick. Then they threw away the hurleys and started kicking the ball instead. That’s how football started – at least that’s what the man told me! He swore it, ‘pon my soul. I remember great nights with the musicians. Professor Ivor Browne was in one night with Denis Murphy and when he was pulling on the pipes he said to Denis “I don’t know if I will be able to play at all. I am very busy with work.” Denis looked at him and said, “If work is interfering with your music, Ivor, give up the work.” That’s a lovely attitude to have to life.
On fair mornings we opened at six o’clock – ourselves, Christy McSweeney’s and the Arbutus were the only ones that opened, that early. A lot of deals were made in the pubs and it was great for business.
There are some lovely stories told about fair days, like the one about the woman who sent the husband off into town to sell the cow. He was a bit worried because it was his first time at the fair. She said to him, “sell that little cow whatever you do because we have no feeding and the cow is going dry. We’ll get a drop of milk from the neighbours till the springtime – make sure you sell her”. He said ” I was never before at the fair, what am I going to do? She told him to stand in the middle of the fair and you’ll know what you should get for the little cow. In the evening, he arrived home again with the cow. His wife said “Oh Jesus Jack you didn’t sell!” He said, “No Mary, but very near it. The fellow next to me sold.”
Football my other great Passion
Times were good in the bar in the 70’s, but the highlight of all for me was to see the man from the side of the bog, Ambrose Donovan, Taking the Sam Maguire Cup out home to Gneeveguilla. That was the highlight of my football world.
We have received great support from all the Kerry teams down through the years. These were the nice things that happened. I must say that all the East Kerry Clubs gave me great support and are still supporting me and I am very proud and thankful to them. It was great to see Donie O’Sullivan, of Spa, captaining Kerry. Other Kerry players such as Paudie O’Mahony, Johnny Culloty, Mick Gleeson and Din Joe Crowley also had Sliabh Luachra connections and I got to be great friends with all the lads around the place.
LP produced in the late ’60s (with poor-to-middling sound quality, I’m afraid) by Fleetwood Records, a small Massachusetts record label not particularly focused on Irish traditional music. They were notable for their “Sounds of Auto racing” LP and other sports-related albums, as well as some drum and bugle corps recordings. Maybe this is a member of the corps adding a fairly bombastic snare drum to the fiddle, flute, and piano. Paddy seems to have mostly refused to record without accompaniment for reasons of his own, but it’s a shame that the backing generally adds nothing and only serves to obscure or even drown out the sound of the fiddle. On the flute, it’s Paddy himself double-tracking as he did on some later albums. Strangely, there are a couple of tracks that are repeated, first with just fiddle, and then with flute added. What?! The explosive drumwork is credited to George Shanley, and Edward Irwin on the piano manages to keep up and match tempo with Paddy, but the chord choices are often… creative? The two of them were stalwarts of the Boston ceili band scene. OK, I won’t say anything else about the backing, except to say that if you can ignore it, you’ll hear that Paddy is really bringing his A game on most of these tracks! This would’ve been his first 33 rpm LP, and first commercial recording since his 78 recordings for Copley. At this point he seems to have largely moved on from the Sliabh Luachra repertoire and is mostly playing well-known tunes from the general Sligo-influenced New York/Boston scene. He plays with tons of energy and creativity. I’d say this album doesn’t offer a lot to the average Sliabh Luachra polka-and-slide maniac, but fans of Paddy Cronin who can listen past the rest of the noise will find a lot to love on this record.
SAMPLE: Paddy scootched a little closer to the mic to record The Cuckoo’s Nest and you can hear him pretty well over “the noise.”
This LP released in 1971 is a step up from the Music in the Glen album. Paddy is still obsessed with glens and the things you find in them, but he’s ditched the snare drum, moved to a new record label, and has even included a few polkas and slides as a nod to the “baby music” fans. Though the recording quality is only a shade better, the album as a whole is much more listenable. There are a lot of nice tune choices in addition to the aforementioned polkas and slides, and the quality of the playing is consistently very good throughout.
SAMPLE: Paddy Stack’s Favorite (a distant cousin to Morrison’s Overplayed Jig) and Apples in Winter
Mike Duggan (1921-2012) (also called Mikey or Mick) lived in Knockrour East, Scartaglin and was one of Pádraig O’Keeffe’s fiddle pupils, encouraged by his parents, both of whom played the concertina. He also learned from a neighbor, Eileen Spillane, who played both fiddle and concertina and who frequently hosted house parties and dances. He soon became a sought-after musician for local events and played in every pub and open house in Scart. He was a member of the Desmond Ceili Band with Denis Murphy, Johnny O’Leary, Jimmy Doyle, and Michael O’Callaghan.
Mike Duggan and Denis Murphy playing together in Scartaglin, 1967 (from the Comhaltas Archives)
When Denis Murphy died in 1974, Duggan took his place playing with Johnny O’Leary for the set dancing at Dan Connell’s pub, and for local step dance competitions, and the duo continued for the next 20 years. It seems he felt his true calling was to play for dancers, be it in competition or house dance.
Matt Cranitch credits Duggan with getting him started on his doctoral work on Pádraig O’Keeffe when he gave Matt a collection of O’Keeffe manuscripts and taught him how to read them.
Mike Duggan and Johnny O’Leary at the O’Keeffe monument in Scartaglin
Johnny O’Leary, Dan O’Connell, and Mike Duggan in Knocknagree
Mikey Duggan (left) pictured with the late Johnny O’Leary in Tom Fleming’s bar in Scartaglin on July 25-1991. The Scart fiddle player is to be honoured at Sunday night’s concert. Photo by John Reidy
Timmy “the Brit” McCarthy (1945-2018) was born and grew up in London but his Irish parents maintained strong ties to their native Cork. Though he was enrolled in step dancing lessons as a youngster, he wasn’t especially inspired by the tradition. “My grandfather Timmy Roche, who I’m named after, was a champion All-Ireland step dancer, in 1922 I think, with a dance called The Blackbird,” recalled Timmy. “My mother insisted that I do step dancing, and to be honest I hated it because you used to have to wear [a kilt which] I thought was a dress.” After his parents’ death at a young age, he was raised in Catholic orphanages which he remembered with some fondness as an adult.
After a short stint in the R.A.F., he moved to Cork in the 1960s to work as a butcher (where his London accent earned him his life-long nickname). There he was surprised to find less traditional and folk music being played than there had been in London when he left. In Cork city, the scene was only just beginning to shift from the showbands playing American and British pop music to the folk revival that would soon sweep the nation, and Timmy was determined to urge the change along. He stumbled upon a folk club organized by Jimmy Crowley, and when that came to an end, Timmy organized a folk club of his own in the Cork city suburb of Douglas. Through his determination and enthusiasm this would eventually morph into the beginnings of the Cork Folk Festival, still going strong today. In the course of looking for folk acts to perform at the festival, he found himself one day hunting down Johnny O’Leary and Mikey Duggan at Dan O’Connell’s pub in Knocknagree. There, he later recalled, “a woman called Eily Buckley saw me sitting down and she took me up and threw me round the floor. I didn’t know what the hell had happened to me, but that was the Sliabh Luachra set, and it changed my life.” The scene at Knocknagree was worlds away from his dance lessons as a boy in London. “I thought it was gobsmackingly beautiful, because I’d never seen a set before that was so inclusive,” he later said. “There was no age left out. It was teenagers up to octogenarians.”
He soon became a regular at Dan O’Connell’s, and found himself assuming the role of pupil and disciple to the man of the house. O’Connell was a tireless cheerleader for the Sliabh Luachra traditions, and infected McCarthy with his enthusiasm. “Dan O’Connell’s philosophy, I’ve inherited. He had a very simple way: Stay behind the people in front of you; in front of the people behind you; opposite the people opposite you, and you do it on bloody time. That means that if you’ve an old couple in front of you and the book says you have to get back militarily to the geographical place you started off, you don’t push them out of the way, you dance according to their comfort zone. I think that philosophy was wonderful.”
Inspired to immerse himself in the tradition, he moved to Baile Mhúirne where the music and dancing was a large part of local life. There, in addition to the Sliabh Luachra set and the Ginnie Ling, Timmy sought out less widely known local set dances such as the Black Valley Square Jig, the Coolea Jig, the Borlin Valley Polka Set, the Tuosist Set, and the Mealagh Valley Jig Set. At that time some of these were not danced very often, and some not at all, having fallen out of fashion. In an effort to rescue them from obscurity, he took it upon himself to start teaching, and even picked up the accordion so that he would never lack for a musician (considering taped music unacceptable). “I never set out to teach set dancing but people asked me to teach. I had a passion for the music of Sliabh Luachra, Corca Dhuibhne, Múscraí, and the dances that went with it. I set out to connect and re-teach all those old sets that were dead in the villages where they were, and have people dancing their own sets. People would ask me to teach them sets, so I used to make a deal that each week they were to go to the people that had the local set, learn it, or bring the people up to teach it to me, and I’d teach it back into the local community. We saved an awful lot of sets that way.”
He was to take these local dances all over the world, traveling far and wide to teach the sets he loved so dearly. Soon before his passing in 2018 a concert was organized in his honor, with countless luminaries of the tradition attending to pay tribute to the man who had done so much to preserve and spread the culture of the Cork-Kerry border. Timmy exclaimed, “I’m just overwhelmed. I don’t deserve it, but what a compliment. I’ve had a fabulous life and this is an amazing, gobsmacking tribute… that’s all I can say. When I see the line-up for that concert… people know me as Timmy the Brit, but they were the people that made me feel I’m home, I’m Irish.”