Jimmy O’Brien – My Life and Music

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.

Fair Mornings

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.

Mike Duggan

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.

Learned from: Eileen Spillane, Pádraig O’Keeffe
Played with: Denis Murphy, Johnny O’Leary

Click here to read about Mike Duggan in his own words.

Timmy “The Brit” McCarthy

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.”

Some photos and text borrowed from The Irish Examiner

A lovely program from Radio 1 called “Timmy the Brit Comes Home”:

Another profile of Timmy:

Denis “The Hat” McMahon

Denis “The Hat” McMahon (1941-2018) was a respected fiddle and accordion player, teacher, and an authority on Sliabh Luachra music. Originally from Churchtown, Castleisland, he settled in Ballyhar, between Killarney and Farranfore. As a youngster he learned fiddle from Jerry McCarthy, and continued with lessons on the accordion from Pádraig O’Keeffe. At some point his friends Nicky McAuliffe and Jack Regan convinced him to pick up the fiddle again. In the late 60s he spent two winters working and living in London where he often played with his fellow expats Con Curtin and Julia Clifford. Back in Kerry he was a member of the famed Brosna Ceili Band and the Desmond Ceili Band and had a fruitful musical partnership with Connie O’Connell. When Mike Kenny broached the idea of what was to become the Patrick O’Keeffe Traditional Music Festival, Denis was an early and enthusiastic supporter. He was quite often featured on radio and television, being a great exponent and historian of the local music, and had innumerable stories about his old teacher Pádraig O’Keeffe and others of his generation. At the 2010 Castleisland Festival, Peter Browne presented Denis with an award for his dedication to the music of Sliabh Luachra.

Billy Clifford

Billy Clifford (born 1943) is the son of John and Julia Clifford and one of the few Sliabh Luachra musicians whose primary instrument is the flute. He was born in London, surrounded by a large community of Irish musicians, and hearing the music at home as well as in the dance halls at which his parents performed, it was only natural he would pick it up himself.

He frequently visited Kerry on holidays with his mother as a young boy, and at the age of nine he was sent to his grandmother, Mainie Murphy in Lisheen, for an extended stay. It was at this time that he started to learn the tin whistle, and his grandmother gave him his first tune. He was also mentored by the Murphy’s neighbor Art O’Keeffe who played the whistle himself. In fact another local whistle player, who went by the colorful name of Dan Dave Dan Cronin, befriended him as well — it must have seemed to the impressionable boy that the whistle was the predominant instrument of the area! Near the end of Billy’s stay in Lisheen, his uncle Denis Murphy returned from America for a time, and furthered Billy’s musical education.

Not long after, the Cliffords sent for Billy to join them at their new home in Newcastlewest, Co. Limerick. Perhaps upon realizing Billy’s advanced musical ability, John Clifford was inspired to form the Star of Munster Ceili Band in 1955. The core of the group consisted of John, Julia, and Billy, together with Liam, Pats, and Biddy of the musical Moloney family from nearby Templeglantine. The band was soon in demand for dances all over, as far afield as Roscommon and even Dublin. Denis Murphy would sometimes join them for the more prestigious gigs. They even performed on Radio Éireann on a number of occasions, though to his chagrin Billy was disinvited by the producers as they felt the whistle was not a “real” instrument!

Despite the relative success of the band, times were hard, and in 1959 the Cliffords moved back to London to find work. Once more they became fixtures of the vibrant Irish music scene there, and it was around this time that Billy “graduated” from the whistle to the flute, learning from Sligoman Johnny Gorman, among others. His musical development continued with the opportunity to play with the likes of Bobby Casey, Kevin Burke, Raymond Roland, Roger Sherlock, Joe Ryan, and countless others.

In 1969 Billy struck out for himself and moved back to Ireland for good, eventually settling back in Tipperary where he married and began raising a family. He soon became well-known locally as a performer and music teacher. Having lived abroad and traveled so much, Billy’s style and repertoire reflect more influences than just the Sliabh Luachra tradition. Nevertheless, he’s a proud keeper of the flame and a living connection to the previous generation, and as such is rightly regarded as a major figure of Sliabh Luachra music.


Learned from: Art O’Keeffe, Denis Murphy, Julia Clifford, John Clifford

ITMA interviews with Billy regarding his time with the ceili band:

Billy’s My Life and Music essay


Julia and Billy Clifford Ceol as Sliabh Luachra 300The Star of Munster Trio 300 Flute Solos Echoes of Sliabh Luachra