Music for the Set

Johnny O’Leary (C#/D button accordion)

Ellen O’Leary (whistle)

Mick Duggan (fiddle)

Maurice O’Keeffe (fiddle)

Ossian OSSCD 25, 2002. Remaster of Topic LP 12TS357, 1977. Recorded July 1976 and April 1977 in Dan Connell’s bar, Knocknagree, Co. Cork by Alan Ward, John Coakley, and Hugh Miller. Liner notes by Alan Ward.

The classic introduction to the music of Johnny O’Leary. Because he really made his name locally playing for dancers at Dan Connell’s bar and elsewhere, this album does a good job of framing his art in that context—a good number of the tracks were recorded live with dancers, including a full six figures of the polka set starting off the first side.

Johnny O'Leary Music for the Set front and back

Click here for the extensive interior sleeve notes.

For a full track listing and more information:

Kerry Music

Denis Doody (B/C button accordion)

Mulligan – LUN 019 – 1978

Denis Doody, born in Ballinahulla near Ballydesmond, was the grandson of the fiddler and contemporary of Pádraig O’Keeffe, Din Tarrant. He remembers hearing Pádraig O’Keeffe and Tom Billy play when he was a child, but it was the accordion that he picked up, largely teaching himself, and mostly playing alone. He emigrated to England when he finished school, settling in London until his return to Ireland in 1964, when he struck up acquaintance with Johnny O’Leary and Denis Murphy. These players were to influence his playing enormously as he returned to the music of his home region, though for ornamental intricacy and rhythmic deftness he is, in my opinion, unmatched within the old-style Sliabh Luachra accordion tradition. This absolutely cracking unaccompanied album speaks volumes of his sheer virtuosity and unrivalled lightness of touch. — Robert Ryan

Denis Doody Front and back

Download this out-of-print album:

Traditional Music from the Kingdom of Kerry

Jimmy Doyle (button accordion)

Dan O’Leary (fiddle)

Shanachie 29007 – 1977

A lovely recording of very traditional playing by two musicians from Gib, near Killarney, made in 1977, and sadly still unavailable on CD. There are no reels at all, and only one set of double jigs – the rest of the album consists almost exclusively of Kerry slides and polkas played with the strong rhythmic emphasis on the backbeat characteristic of the Sliabh Luachra region. It is very clear from their sparse, unobscured style that these musicians are of that generation whose music was played, at least publicly, for purposes of dancing, rather than for simply the pleasure of listening. — Robert Ryan

(Also a close runner-up behind The Star Above the Garter for Most Psychedelic Sliabh Luachra Album Cover Art)

Jimmy Doyle and Dan O'Leary front and back

The liner notes have more than the usual sprinkling of non sequiturs and misinformation, but if you have a pinch of salt handy, you can read them here.

Full track listing and other info:

Download this out-of-print album:

The Star of Munster Trio

Julia Clifford (fiddle)

John Clifford (piano accordion)

Billy Clifford (flute)

Topic – 12TS310 – 1977

Recorded between 1964 and 1976 this album features fiddler Julia Clifford, sister of Denis Murphy, her husband John on accordion, and their son Billy on flute. Much of it was recorded around a single microphone in Eric and Lucy Farr’s kitchen, so the sound quality isn’t brilliant, but the quality of the music shines through, and Julia Clifford’s playing is, as always, a thing of beauty. — Robert Ryan

There’s some pretty in-depth notes by Alan Ward starting on page 26 of his Topic booklet here.

julia john and billy clifford - star of munster trio front and back

Download this hard-to-find album:

The Humours of Lisheen

Julia Clifford (fiddle)

John Clifford (piano accordion)

Reg Hall (piano)

Topic – 12TS311 – 1977

This is the third installment of Topic’s Music from Sliabh Luachra series, and features the playing of husband and wife John and Julia Clifford, accompanied on piano by Reg Hall. It was recorded between 1975 and 1976, and most of the tracks were put down on two separate occasions in London, apart from track 10, which was recorded at Jack Lyons’ Bar, Scartaglin, and track 20, recorded at Dan Connell’s Bar, Knocknagree. The tunes on this album were all familiar to the Cliffords before they left Lisheen, Co. Kerry, with the exception of ‘Tap the Barrel’, a reel they picked up whilst living in Newcastle West, Co. Limerick, between 1953 and 1958. So, unlike The Star of Munster Trio, which consists almost entirely of tunes well-known on the London Irish music scene in the 1970s, this album gives an insight into the repertoire of the Sliabh Luachra region as it was played in the 1930s. As is to be expected, a number of tunes are associated with the Sliabh Luachra fiddle master, Pádraig O’Keeffe, from whom both Julia and her brother, Denis Murphy, learned their music. The production on the album is very basic, and the playing is fresh and unrehearsed, but the casual brilliance of Julia Clifford’s playing is an absolute joy to behold. — Robert Ryan

There’s some pretty in-depth notes by Alan Ward starting on page 28 of his Topic booklet here.

Track listing and more info:

Download this out-of-print album:

Denis Murphy – Music From Sliabh Luachra

Denis Murphy (fiddle)

Julia Clifford (fiddle)

Pádraig O’Keeffe (fiddle)

Andy McGann (fiddle)

Johnny O’Leary (button accordion)

Séamus Ennis (uilleann pipes)

RTÉ 183 CD – 1995

Compiled from recordings made by RTÉ between 1948 and 1969, and unfortunately out of print, it features a number of famous Sliabh Luachra musicians, as well as the Irish-American fiddler Andy McGann, and piper and collector Séamus Ennis. Sound quality is variable, as is to be expected, but the playing is, of course, nothing less than brilliant. Of particular interest is the Sliabh Luachra style rendition of ‘The Turkey in the Straw’, and the fluent sligo style duet between Murphy and McGann, as well as the array of beautifully played slides and polkas. –Robert Ryan

To download this out-of-print album:

John Clifford

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.

Learned from: Pádraig O’Keeffe

Taught: Johnny O’Leary

Played with: Denis Murphy, Julia Clifford, Billy Clifford


The Star of Munster Trio 300  Julia and John Clifford The Humours of Lisheen 300