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.

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.

Read My Life and Music by Jimmy O’Brien

Listen to a tribute to Jimmy O’Brien on Terrace Talk radio:

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.”