Jimmy O’Brien’s Pub

Before it closed its doors in 2013, Jimmy O’Brien’s pub in Killarney was an important focal point for the local music community. The following essay tells the story well:

from http://www.terracetalk.com/articles/420/The-Closing-of-Jimmy-O-Briens-Pub-in-Killarney

The Closing of Jimmy O Briens Pub in Killarney, June 18th, 2013, by Weeshie Fogarty

Let me say at the very onset I am very much aware that the closing down of one single public house in College Street Killarney is, in the overall context of events in the great wider world a very minor matter and of little significants to most people. However on the other hand for thousands of others from home and abroad who were fortunate to have frequented this particular house either on a continuous basis or just once in a while during the course of the last fifty two years the demise of this hightly popular institution has left a massive void in many lives. I refer of course to Jimmy o Brien’s renowned football and musical pub which served its last pints last Saturday week, June 8th. Indeed this very newspaper considered the event so momentous that it was granted front page prominence just a couple of week ago.

Regular callers to Jimmy’s did not regard the house as just a pub, no; it was so much more than that. It was for many an institution, a place of refuge, a meeting place, a drop off and pick up point, a post office where mail was collected and left, football matches and musical weekends were advertised. GAA clubs weekly lotto cards were always available. It was in essence a home from home, a place where one could while away the hours participating in conversation where the troubles of the world but in particular Kerry football and traditional music were generally the main topic of conversation. To others it was a refuge from the hustle and bustle of Killarney life. Step inside the brown paneled door and you entered a totally different world. Just a couple of steps from the pavement and you had entered a sanctuary of peace and calm far from the madding crowd. I have even heard mutterings that a preservation order should have bee slapped on the place.

And yes, two topics of conversation dominated morning, noon and night here! The first is football, mainly of the Kerry variety. References to Cork or Dublin football are endured only if spoken of in jest or ridicule but despite that a genuine and warm welcome awaited GAA players and followers, past or present, here. This little watering hole has become a place to where many Kerry exiles regularly made a pilgrimage in search of spiritual renewal and sustenance to help them survive in lonely outposts far from the homeland. They returned to their homes in Cork and other strongholds of the enemy fortified with hope and resolve and with a steely glint in the eye after assurances from the several icons of the game who are regulars in Jimmy’s that the Green-and-Gold will rise again! The other passion and topic of discussion here is traditional music and the pub is regarded as the unofficial embassy in Killarney of Sliabh Luachra, an area unusually rich in traditional music and song.

But the real secret, the real treasure, the heart and soul of this remarkable establishment lay not with its wonderful furnishings, magnificent creamy pints or the stunning collection of photographs and memorabilia which adorned the walls. Indeed no, the real essence, that special character of the place was inspired by its exemplary owner and landlord Jimmy and his lovely son Jim, or as he is known affectionately to us regulars as “Jim Bob”. It was always for me their forever warm welcome, their cheerfulness, optimism and brightness even during those dark, dreary, gloomy winter days or following demoralizing Kerry defeats which drew the faithful into its comforting embrace.

Jimmy o Brien as he often told me “was born on the side of a bog”, Lyretough bog to be precise in the eastern part of Kilcummin parish. His home was a house of music and song and it was here that his tremendous love for all things traditional was engrained into his life. He qualified as a mechanic in Culloty’s garage in Killarney, immigrated later to America with his future wife Mary Cronin who sadly was to die as young woman in later years. They both worked hard far away from their native land and at the first opportunity after two and a half years Jimmy as he remarked to me once “faced the horse for home”. He answered an add in The Kerryman, rang Killarney solicitor Con o Healy who was selling a pub, the deal was struck over the phone and the price was agreed at 2,750 pounds. Mary and Jimmy returned in 1961 opened the pub and as they say the rest is history.

I have met callers from all over the world in Jimmy’s from both the musical and sporting world. Legendary musicians have all either performed or called to worship at the shrine of Jimmy o Brien’s renowned establishment. Ciaran Mac Mathuna recorded there, Sean o. Riada, Con Houlihan, The Dubliners, Johnny o Leary, Denis Murphy, Jimmy and Paddy Doyle, Johnny o Leary, Liam o Connor and many more too numerous to mention. I have been privileged to have presented two memorable Radio Kerry Terrace Talk shows live from there and was honored to have a galaxy of GAA and Sliabh Luachra legends take part in the programs. When packed with the faithful on such occasions as this it generates this amazing atmosphere which is rarely experienced anywhere else.

But of course Kerry football and indeed hurling dominated everything else within those hallowed walls and this message, Jimmy’s all consuming passion for his county was announced loud and clear to one and all in the most blatant manner possible. The building sandwiched between The Royal Hotel and McSweeney’s is painted in the county colors, a beautiful vivid green and gold from top to bottom. Enough said. And boy would you want to know your football from a to z when you venture inside. Frequent visitors included Kerry greatest such as Tom Long, Mick Gleeson, Donie o Sullivan, Ambrose o Donovan, Paudie o Mahoney, Din Joe Crowley and the late Garry McMahon whome I often heard regaling the crowd with one of his fabulous Kerry football songs. On one memorable occasion following some big victory I counted thirty eight All Ireland senior medals having been won by men scattered around the bar. I could literally have written another two thousand words in honor of a man and his place that was for years a massive part of my life. So finally our dearest wish is that Jimmy and his son will have a happy and long retirement and enjoy special times with his family and close friends from the world of the GAA and Sliabh Luachra. No two people deserve it more.

Another fine article on O’Brien’s pub and his place in the musical culture of Sliabh Luachra: http://www.mainevalleypost.com/2014/10/24/jimmy-obrien-to-get-dedication-award/

Traditional singer, Jimmy O’Brien pictured in the Killarney pub which carried his name – with RTE Radio presenter, Peter Browne. Included are seated: Paddy Cronin, Paudie O’Connor, Aoife Ní Chaoimh and Connie Cronin. ©Photograph: John Reidy 10-9-2006
Dan O’Leary, Julia and John Clifford, and Jimmy O’Brien in O’Briens bar, July 1976

Singer and publican, Jimmy O’Brien giving a bar at the door of his bar in Killarney to Sliabh Notes trio: Donal Murphy, Tommy O’Sullivan and Matt Cranitch. ©Photograph: John Reidy 14-4-1996
The late Johnny O’Leary (right) pictured with the late Ciarán Mac Mathúna (left) with Jimmy O’Brien and Ciarán’s wife, Dolly McMahon on the occasion of the celebration of his 40th year of Radio Éireann broadcasting at the River Island Hotel in Castleisland in March 1995. ©Photograph: John Reidy 11-3-1995


Scartaglin (affectionately shortened to “Scart”, and deriving from Scairteach an Ghlinne, meaning valley of scrub, hedge, or underbrush) is a small rural village which serves as one of the focal points of Sliabh Luachra music and culture. Situated on a small hill half way between Castleisland and Ballydesmond, it has always been a destination for music and events. Two pubs which stand abreast on the main square, Fleming’s and Lyons’, provide a welcoming space for musicians from all around. Pádraig O’Keeffe would often end up at Lyons’ after his day’s travels, and was something of a fixture there. For many years the town hosted a very popular Féile Cheoil, and not long ago the Scartaglin Heritage Centre was built to house collections of local cultural significance and to host events and gatherings. In recent years, the Handed Down series of concerts and presentations have been a big source of local pride, and the annual World Fiddle Day celebration there is quickly becoming an event not to be missed. In the center of town an impressive bust of Pádraig O’Keeffe by the late local sculptor Mike Kenny stands to remind all visitors of the major role Scartaglin plays in the musical history of Sliabh Luachra.

Dan O’Connell’s Pub

Dan O’Connell (1921-2009) was from Tureenclassaugh (usually called Tureen), just outside of Knocknagree village, Cork. He spent his youth immersed in athletics, but when it came time to retire from sport in 1957, and unable to work as a farmer due to an injury, he set his sights on the life of a publican. He took over O’Herlihy’s pub in Knocknagree, then one of 14 pubs in the village, and rechristened it with his own name. Knocknagree, just over the county line from Gneeveguilla, was the site of a popular cattle fair and therefore a natural rendezvous for the local population. Nonetheless, the new pub was not instantly a rousing economic success, and Dan had to supplement his income selling milking machines and farming equipment. One night inspiration hit on a visit to Cahill’s Bar in Rathmore, where Johnny O’Leary and Denis Murphy provided the music for a rousing evening of set dancing. Dan came away determined to bring that energy to his own place. He built an extension onto his bar with space enough for a large number of sets, and on St. Stephen’s Night, 1965, the set dancing began at Dan Connell’s, and never stopped for 40 years. Dan poached Denis and Johnny away from his competitor, and they soon began a regular occupancy playing for the weekend set dancing. (Johnny’s LPs “Music for the Set” and “Dance Music from the Cork-Kerry Border” were both recorded there, as well as “In Knocknagree” by Tony MacMahon and Noel Hill.) When, a decade later, Denis Murphy died of a heart attack in 1974, he was replaced by fiddler Mickey Duggan. Mike and Johnny continued playing there until Christmas 2002, when Johnny had to retire due to illness. The following May, Dan hosted a blow-out of a party for O’Leary’s 80th birthday (which was sadly to be his last.) It was a raucous night of music and set dancing, with an incredible 35 musicians from Cork, Kerry, Clare and Limerick in attendance.

Once the dancing at Knocknagree caught on, Dan became an enthusiastic admirer, and then a tireless supporter, of the music and dance of Sliabh Luachra. In a 2004 issue of the publication Set Dancing News, Dan was quoted as follows:

“Culture is far different here in Sliabh Luachra. A lot of people thinks now that culture is only music and dance and singing and things like that. Culture was a complete way of life which the people had to develop and grow within ’em to meet the hardships and the trials of living here in Sliabh Luachra. We suffered more than any part of Ireland from evictions, executions, emigration. Something must have kept our spirits alive. A culture was a way of life which the people had perfected. We’re not a culture from a small area, from one village or town. It was a culture that came in from part of Leinster and all Munster into Sliabh Luachra as a haven because ’twas the only place they had a refuge from British rule. Here they developed a way of living. The way they handled death, the way they handled starvation, the way they handled their problems, the way they treated their neighbours, the whole combined with music and with song and with dancing.”

Dan O’Connell received the Friends of the Culture Tradition of Sliabh Luachra Award in 2005. In July 2007 the O’Connell family decided to close the public house, thus ending an era. Some feel that there has never been such a strong focus for the music and dance of Sliabh Luachra as when O’Connell’s was in its prime.


Castleisland (Oileán Ciarraí) could be considered the cultural capital of Sliabh Luachra. The town was long renowned for the width of its main street, and in fact Castleisland was described by one of its most well-known citizens, journalist Con Houlihan, as “not so much a town as a street between two fields”. In addition to being the largest local center of commerce (unless you’re up for braving Tralee or Killarney), Castleisland hosts The Patrick O’Keeffe Traditional Music Festival. Every year during the October bank holiday, the brightest stars of Sliabh Luachra music gather to share the tradition, and the nights are long and yet much too short.


Patrick O’Keeffe festival on Facebook

Glountane School

Pádraig O’Keeffe was the schoolmaster here for some time, and though he was remembered by his pupils as a fair, if distracted, tutor, he eventually lost interest in being a teacher and gave it up after only five years for a less stable but wilder life. His father Sean was schoolmaster before him, nicknamed “The Roaster” for being an especially hard disciplinarian, and Pádraig’s sister Nora took over after him. One of his young pupils was Terence “Cuz” Teahan, who grew up to be a notable musician in his own right. In his book, The Road to Glountane, he wrote “Pádraig came to the school when I was probably in the first grade. I had already been three years with his father, Sean O’Keeffe. Then later Nora O’Keeffe Carmody became the teacher. So I had all three while I went to school. The O’Keeffes lived right across the road from the school. You’d have forty-five minutes for lunch, and in the summertime they’d come out with two fiddles and they would march us maybe a mile and a half up the road and back. We were drilled in school. We were drilled by Pádraig O’Keeffe, the whole bit like the army would do around here.”