Johnny O’Leary of Sliabh Luachra: Dance Music from the Cork / Kerry Border

Produced as a companion piece to Terry Moylan’s book of the same name, this is a very good recording of Johnny O’Leary in his natural element, playing at Dan O’Connell’s pub in Knocknagree. Though the guitar backing can sometimes feel obtrusive and some of the chord choices misguided, the rhythm is steady, and the box is quite clear throughout.  Johnny’s playing is spot-on, as always. The sound of dancing heard on a number of tracks only adds to the ambiance and doesn’t obscure Johnny’s lively music.

SAMPLE: Johnny plays The Annaghbeg Polkas, eliciting whoops and hollers:

Liner notes: (as found at

Craft Recordings – CRCD01

Johnny OLeary was born in 1924 in Maulykeavane which is about half-way between Killarney and Ballydesmond, in the centre of Sliabh Luachra. He has lived in the area all his life, and has spent his whole life learning and playing the local music. It is an area that has surely produced more musicians for its size and population than any other part of Ireland. Johnny has played with them all, learning tunes and passing on tunes and creating with his fellow musicians an unequalled tradition of music-making. He started picking out tunes on the melodeon at the age of five and by his early teens he was regularly playing for local dances. By the time he was 15 he had struck up a musical partnership with Denis Murphy that was to last a remarkable 37 years, ending only with Denis death. In 1964 Johnny and Denis accepted an invitation to play in Dan OConnells newly opened pub in Knocknagree, and Johnny has been playing for the sets there ever since, every Friday and Sunday night.

The great scholar of Irish traditional music Breandán Breathnach had for many years been visiting Sliabh Luachra and collecting music from Johnny. He intended to publish this material because he regarded Johnnys playing as preserving the style and repertoire of the area and of its famous musicians Pádraig OKeeffe, Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford, Tom Billy Murphy, Din Tarrant & Thadelo Sullivan to name only a few. Breandáns project was taken over by myself after his death in 1985 and was brought to completion in July 1994 when a collection of 348 of Johnnys tunes was published by the Lilliput Press in Dublin.

This recording is intended to complement that publication. The numbers in brackets after the tune names in the notes refers to the number of the tune in the book. I hope that the issuing of these recordings, in association with the printed collection, will assist in making Johnnys tunes, and his way of playing them, as well known and popular as they deserve to be. His reels, jigs and hornpipes are generally part of the broader national store of music, but his polkas, slides and barn-dances are often quite unusual and little known. Also, with his style of playing he is able to invest such apparently simple forms with considerable complexity. They always sound far more interesting in his hands than in the hands of others. This is an observation that applies to other local players also. The Sliabh Luachra musicians seem to be able to get more out of these tunes than musicians from outside that tradition. As his playing here demonstrates, he can also inject an infectious energy into the music without a crude resort to excessive speed. He has always been regarded by discerning dancers as a joy to dance and listen to. I hope this recording will enable you to understand and share that joy.

Johnny is joined on these recordings by guitarist Tim Kiely, who has become Johnnys regular partner in recent years. A player of great drive and ability, his restrained and effective backing adds considerably to the overall sound. As well as being a superb accompanist he is also a very fine ballad-singer. He is married to Dan OConnells daughter Mairéad.


1. John Walshes Polkas (260/261)
A set of polkas that Johnny always plays together, and always in this way.

2. A Night at the Fair (28) / The Cat in the Corner (348)
Two jigs that, again, Johnny usually pairs. These came from Bill the Weaver, Denis Murphys father.

3. Murphys / The Greencastle (305)
This recording of Murphys Hornpipe is the first time I had ever heard Johnny play it. A version from Sonny Brogan is included in Ceol Rince na hÉireann Vol. 1.

4. The Kenmare Polka (297) / Sweeneys (282)
This track and the following five were recorded while Johnny played for a polka set (the Sliabh Luachra Set). The figures of sets usually do not come in tune sized sections, so the playing in some of these figures ends in mid-tune. But it is dance music and you are hearing it here employed for its primary purpose. Also, Johnny is too well acquainted with the structure of the figures to be caught unprepared and always brings the playing to a satisfying halt, no matter what part of the tune has been reached. He associates the second tune here with John Clifford.

5. Jerome Burkes (298) / The Cobbler (80)
The Cobbler was learned from Din Tarrant, Jerome Burkes from Jerome Burke.

6. The Gallant Tipperary Boys (129) / The First Cousin of the Gallant Tipperary Boys (130)
Johnny learned these two tunes from Pádraig OKeeffe, and always pairs them.

7. The Annaghbeg Polka (18)
Another tune learned from Din Tarrant. It is played here for the fourth part of the set, as Johnny mentions in his book.

8. The Hair Fell Off my Coconut (135) / Thadelos Slide (76)
Two slides that Johnny learned from Thadelo, Tim OSullivan of Annaghbeg, who used to play them on a concertina. The first is more commonly known as A Hundred Pipers. A verse associated with it goes as follows:

Oh the hair fell off my coconut.
The hair fell off my coconut.
Oh the hair fell off my coconut,
And how do you like it baldy?

9. Thadelos (246) / Turkey in the Straw (247)
Two more of Thadelos tunes, barn-dances that Johnny often uses for the hornpipe figure of the set.

10. The Campdown Races (346)
As this item illustrates, the traffic in tunes between Ireland and America wasnt all one way. Johnnys version of this tune, which he learned from Jack Sweeney, is a great example of how a simple tune from one tradition can be so elaborated in another as to become almost unrecognisable.

11. The Sean Bhean Bhocht
Collected by Bunting and printed in his 1809 collection, this tune has been used for Irish political songs since the early 19th century. Donal OSullivan refers to a tune published in Oswalds Caledonian Pocket Companion in 1759 as being probably the first time it appeared in print.

12. The Bicycle (15)
Learned from Mickín Dálaigh, this is another tune that Johnny associates with a particular figure of the set. He usually reserves it for the fifth figure and reckons that only fairly competent dancers can cope with it.

13. Pádraig OKeeffes New Reel (304) / Pádraig OKeeffes Woman of the House (210)
These are two tunes that Pádraig OKeeffe developed out of Speed the Plough and The Woman of the House.

14. Barrack Hill (320) / If I Had a Wife (128)
Slides seem to share with slip jigs the quality of being easy to fit words to, often fairly risqué ones. These two are no exceptions; the first has the following verse:

Oh, the cat jumped into the mouses hole.
The cat jumped into the mouses hole.
The cat jumped into the mouses hole
And didnt come down till morning.

The second has:

If I had a wife, the plague of my life
Ill tell you what I would do.
Id buy her a boat and put her afloat
And paddle my own canoe.

Johnny says that Denis Murphy knew scores of these verses. Alas, only the odd scrap seems to remain.

15. Bill the Weavers (219) / The Blue Ribbon Polka
Johnny associates these tunes with Julia Clifford. A version of the Blue Ribbon Polka may be found in Matt Cranitchs Irish Fiddle Book.

16. Paddy Spillanes (50/49)
This and the next four sets of tunes were played for the West Kerry set. The different sound from the dancers reflects the fact that this set is danced in quite a different way to the local Sliabh Luachra set. Paddy Spillane is a neighbour of Johnnys, from Knockbeag.

17. The Knocknagree Polka (27) / John Collins Fancy (262)
When recording this set of tunes Johnny revealed to us that he had composed the first himself. John Collins is a box-player from Cnoc na Gaoithe.

18. Mick Mahonys (90) / The Kilcummin Slide (91)
The first is sometimes named If I Had a Wife. Johnny heard both from Mick Mahony of Kilcummin, a part of Sliabh Luachra that, he says, produces most of the slides and polkas.

19. Dan OLearys / Dan Sweeneys (48)
The first is another tune I had not heard from Johnny before this recording session. It seems not to have been recorded before. Dan OLeary was Johnnys uncle, Dan Sweeney is a box-player from Tuar Mór.

20. Keeffes Slide / Pádraig OKeeffes (132) / Julia Cliffords Slide (133)
The first has been recorded previously by Jackie Daly (Topic 12T358), but this is the first time I heard it from Johnny. The other two were part of Julia Cliffords repertoire.

21. Crowleys Reels (309/310)
Johnny attributes these to the great box-player Joe Cooley.

22. Dan OLearys (140)
Another tune that Johnny learned from his uncle Dan OLeary, who had it from Tom Billy Murphy.

23. Thadelo Sullivans (189)
Thadelo Sullivan seems to have had a large number of unusual tunes. Johnny often plays this one in a set with the two at 9 above.

24. Molly Myers (330) / Jack Connells
Molly Myers, another fiddle student of Tom Billys is the source of the first tune here. Like Jack Connell she is from the Ballydesmond area.

25. The Green Cottage (236)
Previously recorded under this title by Julia and Billy Clifford, and by Jackie Daly who knows it as one of the Glin Cottage Polkas.

26. The Cornerhouse (335) / Come West Along the Road
Two fairly infrequently published reels, Breandán Breathnach has versions of each of them.

27. Connie Flemings Polka (145)
This is another polka that has not, to my knowledge, been recorded or published before.

28. The Old Grey Goose (172)
Things are never static in Irish music. Captain ONeills account of how this jig assumed its modern form is a nice illustration of the point:

More than a third of a century ago a renowned Irish piper named John Hicks, a protegé of the sporting Capt. Kelly from the Curragh of Kildare, came to Chicago to fill an engagement at a Theatre. He electrified his audiences and received much newspaper notice when he died. Among the tunes memorised from his playing was . . . . . . . the lst and 3rd parts of No. 1000. Many years after, I heard James Kennedy play the lst and 2nd parts for a jig. When dictating the three parts to James ONeill I discovered he had an old manuscript setting of it in six parts. As a compromise we accepted his last three parts, and the present setting is the result. Kennedy called his tune The Geese in the Bogs but as we had a jig well known by that name another compromise resulted in The Old Grey Goose.

Recorded in Dan OConnells public house in Knocknagree, co. Cork
on the 8th and 9th of December 1995.
Recorded and mastered by Harry Bradshaw
Produced by Terry Moylan and Jerry OReilly
Notes and photographs by Terry Moylan
All tracks traditional arranged by Johnny OLeary and Tim Kiely

Special thanks to:
Tim and Mairéad Kiely, Dan OConnell, John OConnell and friends, and Anne and Olive Keane.

CRAFT RECORDINGS, 11 Merton Avenue, South Circular Road, Dublin 8. (01-4539095)

I’ve been unable to find anywhere online to order this album, so for the time being, you can click here to download.

(If anyone wants to assert ownership or make a case for not providing this free download in the interests of the public good, please get in touch.)

Johnny O’Leary — An Calmfhear (The Trooper)

Gael-Linn CEFCD 132, 1989. Recorded in 1989 in Sullane, Co. Cork.
Notes by Ciarán MacMathúna.

Maybe the best of Johnny O’Leary’s albums in terms of the listener experience, as the recording is clear, with no background noise, and no accompanist muddying the waters. Johnny is playing really well here, and gives us an excellent selection of tunes from his seemingly infinite repertoire. Some are well-known classics, some are lesser-known, even today. It also boasts a pretty bad-ass cover photo.

SAMPLE: The eponymous first tune, a version of The Orange Rogue:

Trooper verso


(If anyone wants to assert ownership and/or demonstrate that it shouldn’t be made freely available as an important part of the cultural heritage, please contact me.)

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.

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.

SAMPLE: Johnny and his daughter Ellen play the classic Tourmore Polkas:

Johnny O'Leary Music for the Set front and back

Click here for the extensive interior sleeve notes.

Still available for purchase from a number of sources.
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

23 tracks and not a reel to be found! Here’s the first track of fierce polkas to whet your appetite:

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.

SAMPLE: Some classic polkas to give you an idea

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

SAMPLE: Though the full trio’s sound has its qualities, Julia’s solo tracks are really something special. Here she glides through two gorgeous polkas:

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.

SAMPLE: The aforementioned Tap the Barrel set:

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

SAMPLE: A couple of sultry hornpipes Denis would’ve gotten from Pádraig:

To download this out-of-print album:

Read the liner notes by Peter Browne here.