Art O’Keeffe (born sometime around 1903), sometimes called “Aut”, was a neighbor and family friend of the Weaver Murphys of Lisheen. As a fellow musician, he would have shared many a tune with that storied clan. It’s probable he was at least a sometime pupil of Tom Billy’s, though he could have got his music from any number of less exalted sources. He is known today as having been a whistle player, though he also could play the fiddle and was a respected singer as well. He was a member of the Lisheen Fife and Drum Band captained by Bill “The Weaver” Murphy, and long after the band was defunct he could still play the tunes and arrangements with composed passages from the old days. In 1952, when Billy Clifford was sent from his home in London to stay with his widowed grandmother, Art O’Keeffe befriended him and no doubt shared with him the music Billy’s family had played in the generations before him. In 1974 he played a tune at the funeral of Denis Murphy, but after that I have no records of his doings, and I have not been able to determine the date of his death. He was recorded singing two songs for the BBC in 1947, and also provided a number of tunes to Breandán Breathnach’s collection, but in general he was not as celebrated a personage as his neighbors, the Murphys. However, a number tunes in the common repertoire still bear his name, so in that way, at least, he left his mark on the tradition.
Mick Buckley (~1925-1950) was a student of Pádraig O’Keeffe from Knocknageeha, just north of Gneeveguilla. He was known to be a gifted musician, and could be found Sunday nights playing at the dance hall at Lackagh Cross with Pádraig, Denis Murphy, and John Clifford. Johnny O’Leary played a few polkas which he reckoned he got from Buckley. Whether he would have turned out to be as acclaimed a musician as his neighbors, we will never know, for he died of tuberculosis at a young age.
John Clifford (1916-1981) grew up as a neighbor of the Weavers of Lisheen. Like the Weavers, his own family was deeply imbued in the music: his parents and siblings all played or danced or sang, so it was inevitable he would pick up the music from an early age. He played whistle in Bill Murphy’s fife-and-drum band, but he soon gravitated to the button accordion. His first tutelage came from his older brother Tim, but as he progressed, he was sent to learn from Pádraig O’Keeffe.
As a young man he was Denis Murphy‘s first musical partner. In John’s words: “Denis was working over in Co. Cork or something for a while you know, and he came on holidays or something… I don’t know whether he heard the music out in the road or not and he came in and he had the fiddle… he couldn’t get over it. I played the reel called The Broom… God he was delighted, he thought ‘Now I got a companion now and I got a mate who can play.’ And then we started. Every week one of us’d go down to Killarney. We’d get into D.F.O’Sullivan’s or Hilliard’s and get one record. We made up a collection of’m. We’d every one that Coleman made… Morrison, Killoran, Paddy Sweeney…” Around 1933 the pair began playing in local dance halls where they soon earned the admiration of the dancers and other local musicians.
It’s unclear what sort of training he received from Pádraig, but at least as far as technique on the two-row box, he seems to have been largely self-taught. He was playing on an instrument tuned D/D# and played from the inside row. This gave him the options for ornamentation and phrasing available to the modern C#/D player, but had the somewhat unfortunate result that what he played came out a half-step sharp from concert pitch. Denis would be forced to tune the fiddle up to play with him, often resulting in broken strings to Denis’ consternation. Despite this drawback, John became regarded by many as the best box player in Sliabh Luachra at this time. He was invited to perform on a number of occasions on the radio, and Johnny O’Leary, when he began on the box, came to John for lessons. In later days, and long after John’s death, Johnny would extol the virtues of John Clifford to any visiting box player who would listen. The story goes that Johnny would bend the ear of the great Joe Burke about him any chance he got. One day Joe asked Johnny ”but, was he really that good?” And Johnny was said to reply: ”You’re lucky he’s dead from you, Joe!”
As with so many others, the economy of the day forced John to emigrate to London in 1938 in search of work. Upon his arrival, he looked up his former neighbor and friend, Julia Murphy, who had moved to London not long before. She was able to find him work as a porter in the hotel where she cleaned for her own living. She had already begun playing music at some of the smaller London dance halls in various groups and combos. John, who had apparently sold or otherwise lost his old instrument in one way or another along the way, bought a new button accordion and joined Julia at one of these early dance hall gigs. To his surprise and dismay, this new box was tuned to a different system and his usual fingering made it impossible to join in with the other musicians. He also soon realized that these dance hall bands were sometimes called upon to play other types of music in a variety of keys, and that the free-reed instrument of choice amongst the local squeezers was the piano accordion. He took the ambitious and fated step of purchasing and learning this new instrument, which on the one hand made it possible for him to enter the dance hall scene, but also would change the sound of his music for good.
The piano accordion, being a unisonoric instrument (playing one note per key regardless of the bellows direction) does not lend itself to the bubbling staccato quality of Irish dance music, and even less the particular drive of Sliabh Luachra polkas and slides. Perhaps there is a kinship of sorts between the rapidly changing direction of the fiddle bow and the similarly rhythmic press and draw of the button box played along the row? In any case, the piano accordion player must exert extra energy and skill to counteract the inertia of the larger, more massive instrument. It seems John Clifford was unaware, unable, or simply unwilling. In any case, upon switching instruments, his playing became more versatile and louder no doubt, but comparatively lethargic, dragging, and muffled.
Despite these qualities, John was able to find work as a musician with his new musical partner Julia. They hit it off musically and personally, and in 1941 they were married. They soon had two sons, John Jr. and Billy, and the young family settled in the Cricklewood area of London.
In their early days in London they both worked at a variety of day jobs,and played in a variety of bands and combos at night, playing a mix of traditional tunes and other popular dance music as the tastes of the day demanded. In 1953 homesickness seems to have got the best of them and they moved back to Ireland, first to Lisheen, and then to Newcastle West in Limerick in search of better opportunities and perhaps a return to the faster pace of life they left behind in London. It was here they formed the Star of Munster Ceili Band with the Moloneys of nearby Templeglantine: Pat Moloney on button accordion and fiddle, Liam Moloney on banjo, and Biddy Moloney on the piano, with percussionist Paddy Murphy. Julia’s brother Denis would sometimes sit in, as did young Billy who was developing his skill on the whistle. For a while they were one of the highest rated and most sought-after ceili bands in the southwest of Ireland, playing dances throughout Limerick, Kerry, Clare, and Galway. They also made two radio broadcasts from Dublin. Despite the band’s popularity, it was a source of stress for John, as he assumed the roles of both bandleader and agent, traveling the countryside to book engagements, arrange for transportation and lodging, and all the other minutia that goes into professional performance. In addition, he was never able to make the economics of the enterprise work out, and expenses outstripped income more often than not. After two years the ceili band called it quits.
In 1958 the peripatetic Cliffords returned to London. At first they went back to playing in the dancehalls, now with Billy on concert flute as a full-fledged member of the group, but it was just as the popularity of the dancehalls was beginning to wane, and John quickly realized they’d need to find new venues for their music. With the decline of the dancehall scene came the rise of the Irish pubs in London, where nightly performances and sessions of traditional music were coming into vogue. The scene was different than what they were used to, and though John immersed himself in it with gusto, Julia and Billy often as not stayed home to play together in the kitchen. (It was during this period that they began to develop the tightly knit duet playing which would eventually be heard on their album Ceol as Sliabh Luachra.) At times, though, the three of them would secure gigs as the Star of Munster Trio. The London scene now had its own burgeoning local style and repertoire, and the Cliffords found little call for Kerry slides and polkas. Their old music was to some extent abandoned and forgotten (if only for a time) and they soon proved they could play the popular jigs and reels of the session scene as well as any of their illustrious contemporaries.
In in 1964 and again in 1976 the Cliffords committed some of their music to tape, and in 1977, London-based label Topic published two albums: The Star of Munster Trio and The Humours of Lisheen. John lived only a few more years, but his legacy lives on in these recordings and the memories of his family, friends, and those who danced to his music.
Donal O’Connor (b.1935) was born in Carrigeen, Brosna and can trace his musical lineage back to the travelling fiddle master Graddy through his father Paddy Jerry O’Connor who learned from his mother, Ellen Guiney, from Knockawinna, Brosna, who in turn had been Graddy’s pupil. Donal and his three older brothers were all taught fiddle from an early age and soon were playing with their father in dance-halls, house parties, and weddings in the Brosna area.
In the early 60s Donal and his late brother Patrick founded the popular and prize-winning Brosna Ceili Band. The original lineup of the Brosna Céilí Band included Patrick and Donal on fiddle, Neilus O’Connor, Aeneas O’Connell, ‘Big Pat’ Moriarty on mouthorgan, Nicky McAuliffe; Mick Mulcahy, and Micheal O hEidhin on piano, with vocals from Mary McQuinn (aka Maida Sugrue) and Séan Ahern. They won the All-Ireland in 1972.
Soon after the All-Ireland, Donal tried his hand as a publican at the Sliabh Luachra Bar in the heart of Listowel. For a while it was a popular spot for musicians from all over Kerry to meet and play. Today Donal lives in Limerick City and is a fixture of the music scene there.
Learned from: Paddy Jerry O’Connor Played with: Nicky McAuliffe; Mick Mulcahy, Denis Doody
Molly Myers (1916-2002) was a fiddle player originally from Killeagh between Farranfore and Cullane who learned her music predominantly from Tom Billy Murphy. She began lessons with Tom Billy at the age of 10 and soon became something of a star pupil of his. The recordings she left behind indicate that she seems to have retained the style and repertoire of Tom Billy, and it is through her music and that of a few other pupils that we can get the best sense of what the playing of Tom Billy might have been like. She married Tom’s nephew Willy Murphy and went to live with him in Glencollins, Ballydesmond. Over the years she transcribed a great number of Tom Billy’s tunes. She provided many of these to Breandán Breathnach for Ceol Rince na hÉireann, and the collection is said to reside in the Traditional Music Archive in Dublin.
(I have one source, unconfirmed as of this date, that she was also a student of Pádraig O’Keeffe, at least for a time. This source claims that she had a large collection of O’Keeffe manuscripts which were donated to the ITMA. I could see how the source may have confused O’Keeffe with Tom Billy in this assertion. Certainly she was known to express personal disdain for O’Keeffe on moral grounds later in life, but that in itself doesn’t preclude the possibility that she may have had lessons from him at some point. Further research is merited!)
Johnny Mickey Barry (?-1981) was a concertina player from Toureendarby, northeast of Newmarket. He played in a “two-handed” style–that is, he played the upper and lower octaves simultaneously which gave a richer and louder sound. He had a great store of tunes from his teacher Tom Billy Murphy. Toureendarby box player Timmy O’Connor considered himself Barry’s pupil, and Jackie Daly gave credit to him as an influence on his first LP.
Learned from: Tom Billy Murphy Taught: Timmy O’Connor Played with: DD Cronin, Jim Keeffe, Jackie Daly
Jack Connell (1906-1994) took his nickname from his home in Meendurragh, just north of Ballydesmond, known locally as “The Lighthouse”. The village sits at a high point along the Cork/Tralee road, and in days gone by a lantern was indeed kept lit to direct carriages travelling by night. Jack was a celebrated fiddler, teacher, and tune-maker, taught by both Pádraig O’Keeffe and Tom Billy Murphy, as well as a certain “Mrs. Cronin” of Rathmore. His sister Nonie played the melodeon.
Apparently, Pádraig O’Keeffe once told him one should practice daily for 15 minutes, and Jack took it to heart; for nearly his whole life he played, whether at a dance or session or on his own at home. In the 30s and 40s he played for dances in the nearby Clamper dancehall. In later years he took on students and had a lasting influence on the local music community. Dan Herlihy was a pupil, and remembers Jack using O’Keeffe’s accordion tablature with which to teach him. O’Connell provided tunes to Breandán Breathnach who treasured his large and rare repertoire. Along with the usual dance tunes, he was known for his large store of waltzes. Interestingly, though he played and taught the Sliabh Luachra music of O’Keeffe and Murphy, his ideal musician was the legendary East Clare fiddler Paddy Canny. Anytime Canny was heard on the radio conversation with Jack would stop until the tune ran out. “The Lighthouse” is remembered as a good-humored, easy-going man and a patient and thoughtful teacher.
Tim “Thadelo” O’Sullivan (1904-1978) was a neighbor, musical mentor, and friend of Johnny O’Leary’s in Annaghbeg, Gneeveguilla. He was probably a pupil of Tom Billy Murphy. Thadelo played the concertina and one-row melodeon, as well as the flute and whistle. In Johnny’s memory he was a very popular musician for dancers. He taught Johnny a great number of tunes which seem to have unique to his repertoire, apparently not played by Tom Billy’s other students. Thadelo’s tunes tend have a signature feel to them: hornpipey polkas, barndancey hornpipes—very squared-off, old-fashioned-sounding tunes.
Dan O’Leary (1914-1987) was the uncle of Johnny O’Leary and likely got Johnny started with the music. Described as “a gentle, courtly, diffident, a soft-voiced man of slender frame and twinkling smile”, he was one of many accomplished but relatively unsung talents of Sliabh Luachra. In his youth it seems he got his music from Tom Billy as well as other more local influences. In 1977 he recorded “Traditional Music from the Kingdom of Kerry” with his Maulykeavane neighbor and longtime musical partner Jimmy Doyle. In the liner notes to that LP he recalls playing in his own home, for his own solitary pleasure, every night of the week. (“It takes away your worries, you know, you forget —-“) He’d hear a tune on the radio and play along with it and in two or three days he’d “have it.”
John Linehan (sometimes spelled Lenihan) (1860-1932) was a fiddle teacher of the generation before Pádraig O’Keeffe and Tom Billy Murphy. He was himself a pupil of Corney Drew, although it’s difficult to find any commonality between what little we know of either of their repertoires. He lived in Glounreigh (also spelled Glenreagh or Glounreagh), Co. Cork and is buried in Kiskeam cemetery. His students included fiddlers Sean B. O’Leary and Johnny O’Leary of Kiskeam as well as Maurice O’Keeffe. He would teach out of his home as well as traveling to students’ homes. Sean B. O’Leary described him as “a dignified, serious music teacher, who took pride in his tuition and musical performance.” Whereas Tom Billy and Pádraig had reputations as easygoing and mellow-tempered teachers, Linehan seems to have taken a disciplinarian approach. If a student played out of tune or diverged from the written music, Linehan would berate him, “Where are your ears, you demon? I’ll skin you!”
Maurice O’Keeffe said that he was the last pupil of John Lenihan, who was about 75 years old when Maurice was ten. He lived within easy walking distance. Maurice was “taught the music with scales, lines and spaces at eight pence a tune”. Lenihan could not play himself at that time because his fingers had gone stiff, but though he was near the end of his days, he seems to have lost none of his strictness. O’Keeffe recalled, “As a music master he was very strict and would not accept any sloppy work or half measures. On one particular occasion when I was supposed to visit him I was so afraid that I decided to ‘mitch’. I hid in the glen and when my mother enquired if I had a new tune I told her that I did not because I had not the previous one learnt ‘by heart’. By some chance my secret leaked and Mr. Linehan informed my mother. His message to her read ‘Tell that “barrow fellow” attend me tomorrow!’ My mother escorted me and I never missed another session.”
Dan Herlihy’s book Sliabh Luachra Music Masters contains 42 of his manuscript tunes which date from around 1910. Looking through these tunes gives an interesting glimpse of the music that was played in Sliabh Luachra at that time. There are some polkas and slides, but also a number of tunes that seem to be direct from the Scottish tradition. It also contains around eight nationalistic song airs, perhaps reflecting their popularity in a revolutionary period, and supporting the contention that such songs were beginning to supplant traditional airs. His polkas are interesting in their stage of folk processing. They are two part dance tunes but lack the characteristic house dance ‘swing’ found in the Din Tarrant settings. However, these were teaching manuscripts for his students and do not necessarily represent the way the man himself would have chosen to play them.