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:

Paddy Jones

Paddy Jones (1947-2020) was the youngest of Pádraig O’Keeffe’s students. He was born in Knightsmountain, north of Castleisland, and he showed an interest in the music from a young age. Being from a musical family, this interest was encouraged, and he was sent to lessons with the fiddle master which were to have a long-lasting effect. Though he discontinued the lessons after three years out of frustration with his master’s peripatetic lifestyle, he nonetheless maintained a fondness for Pádraig, and helped look after him in his last days. He later continued his musical education with Pat and Willie O’Connell in nearby Cordal, and learned to read staff notation while in school which enabled him to expand his repertoire and scholarship considerably. As he developed in his music, he was able to play with a number of the older generation, including Jack O’Connell of The Lighthouse who mentored him and encouraged him to study of the music and heritage of Sliabh Luachra, but also to appreciate good music no matter where it came from. Like O’Keeffe, Paddy was a great exponent and master of the subtle art of the slow air. He didn’t limit himself to air melodies traditionally played in Sliabh Luachra, but found tunes from far and wide and adapted them the the local style to great effect. His great curiosity led him to explore the world, both geographically and intellectually, but he always maintained a particular love and interest in his native music. It was perhaps only natural that he himself would become a teacher and lecturer, and he developed a great number of the younger generation into excellent and thoughtful members of the Sliabh Luachra tradition. He was honored for his lifelong commitment to the culture of Sliabh Luachra at the 2016 Patrick O’Keeffe festival in Castleisland.

Learned from: Pádraig O’Keeffe, Pat and Willie O’Connell, Jack O’Connell

An interesting lecture by Paddy on the music of Sliabh Luachra. You can read the transcript here.

A series of conversations with Eoin Stan O’Sullivan on a wide range of topics; a window into Paddy Jones’ mind:

Jack ‘The Lighthouse’ Connell

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.

Learned from: Pádraig O’Keeffe, Tom Billy Murphy
Taught: Dan Herlihy

Jack with his wife Mary

John Linehan

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.

Examples of Linehan’s manuscripts:


Taidhgín an Asail

Tadgh Ó Buachalla (anglicized as Timothy Buckley) aka Tadhgín an Asail (little Tadgh of the donkey) aka Tadeen the Fiddler aka Tadeen the Cobbler was a travelling music master from Park, Knocknagree active in the latter half of the 19th century. He also lived at various times in Kiskeam and Scartaglin. It’s likely he got his music from Corney Drew, and he passed that tradition to his pupils, including Din Tarrant and Tom Billy Murphy. He made his living travelling the countryside on the back of a donkey (a noteworthy mode of transport even at that time) and mending shoes when he wasn’t teaching music. His pupil Tom Billy would later adapt the ABC notation he used (as well as the knack for donkey-riding) when he became a renowned teacher himself.

At least one slide is still commonly called Tadhgín an Asail’s, and the polka known as The Cobbler may refer to him as well.

Learned from: Corney Drew
Taught: Din Tarrant, Tom Billy

William Fitzgerald

William Fitzgerald lived in the mid-19th century in the area around Ballydesmond–possibly Glenreagh or Lacka, but information on him is spotty. It seems he was a student of Corney Drew and became a travelling fiddle teacher himself. In 1866 he produced a manuscript of his repertoire which survives to this day. It was printed, in part, in Dan Herlihy’s Sliabh Luachra Music Masters, Vol. 2 (though misattributed to Corney Drew.) The Fitzgerald manuscript represents the repertoire and style of Sliabh Luachra before the craze for polkas and slides as we know them really took hold. It contains a great many waltzes, jigs, and reels, a few English tunes, and a number of polkas in a more “continental” style than what we would now identify as a Sliabh Luachra polka.

It has been said that Pádraig O’Keeffe “studied the music of Fitzgerald,” and by this we might take it to mean that he owned a copy of this manuscript and drew some tunes and settings from it.

Not long after the creation of the manuscript, it seems that Fitzgerald emigrated to America  (perhaps coincidentally, around the same time that Corney Drew himself emigrated) and what happened to him after that is not known.

The standard known as Fitzgerald’s Hornpipe (collected by Breandán Breathnach for the second volume of Ceol Rince na hÉireann from Molly Myers Murphy in 1967) is probably named after him.

Learned from: Corney Drew

Corney Drew

Cornelius Drew (1832 – ?) was an influential figure two generations before Tom Billy Murphy and Pádraig O’Keeffe. Most of what we know about him comes from second-hand memories of musicians who are now only memories themselves. As a young man he lived through the period of the Great Famine. It seems he was a tenant farmer in either Kiskeam or Dromulton–perhaps both, at different times in his life. He may or may not have been blind, or partially blind. He may have learned his music from the travelling fiddle and dance master known as Graddy. What we do know is that Drew was a highly respected music teacher and among his many pupils were such greats as the Callaghans of Doon, William Fitzgerald, John Linehan, and Tadgh Buckley. Considering the influence these pupils then had on their own pupils, a case can be made that Corney Drew was , to some degree, the progenitor of the Sliabh Luachra tradition as we know it.

The Drew family apparently emigrated to America sometime between 1885 and 1890, though whether this was before or after Corney’s death we do not know.

Learned from: Graddy

Taught: John Linehan, Tadhgín an Asail, William Fitzgerald, Din Tarrant, Cal and Margaret Callaghan

Corney Drew's hpipe.JPG
Corney Drew’s hornpipe in O’Neill’s 1001

Tom Billy Murphy

Tom Billy Murphy (1879-1944), was one of 17 children. He was struck down by polio at the age of 13 years, following which he lost his sight and had only limited use of one leg and one arm. Tom Billy’s family were quite well off and could afford to support Tom, who was unable to earn a living by conventional means. The family owned a big house at Glencollins Upper, Ballydesmond, and Tom lived there all his life, contrary to the belief in some circles that he was a permanent itinerant.

He became a celebrated fiddle (and whistle) player and occupied his time by teaching pupils around the district. He was a near contemporary (and sometime rival) of Pádraig O’Keeffe. Tom Billy himself learned much of his repertoire from a travelling blind fiddle player named Taidhgin an Asail (aka Tadhg O Buachalla or Tadeen the Fiddler). Following Taidghin’s example, when making his rounds his form of transport was a saddled donkey, already unusual by this period, and he could rely on the animal to reach the destination after it had been shown the way a couple of times. Tom also had a keen sense of hearing and smell and it’s said he could identify people at long distances by their footsteps, or houses along the road by the smell of the smoke from their chimneys. He seems to have ranged quite widely as, for instance, he taught Maurice Leane of Annagh near Castleisland and Dan Leary of Kilcummin near Kilarney. Unable to write music he called out the notes by name and got the pupil to write them down. No recordings exist of his playing, but on the evidence of his pupils’ performances, it seems that he did not go in for a great deal of ornamentation most of the time and valued a strong rhythm and sweetness of tone. Through his breadth of distinct repertoire and facility for teaching, Tom Billy’s legacy is still with us today, and he is regarded as one of the very greats of Sliabh Luachra music.

Learned from: Taidhgin an Asail

TaughtDan O’Leary“Lighthouse” Jack Connell, Johnny Mickey BarryMolly Myers Murphy, Maurice Leane, Pete Bradley, Johnny (fiddle) O’Leary, Denis O’Keeffe, Art O’Keeffe, (possibly) Danny Ab O’Keeffe

Played with: Pádraig O’Keeffe, Din Tarrant

A few of the many tunes associated with Tom Billy

Pádraig O’Keeffe

Pádraig O’Keeffe (Irish: Pádraig Ó Caoimh) (1887 – 1963) was born and lived in Glountane Cross near Castleisland, Kerry. He is regarded by many as the towering figure of Sliabh Luachra music, as he was one of the only area musicians of his generation to have been recorded, and throughout his life as a travelling music teacher had countless pupils, many of whom became renowned in their own right. He therefore defines the Sliabh Luachra style to a large degree. Peter Browne has written an extensive biography of O’Keeffe which you can read here.

Learned from: Cal O’Callaghan, Margaret (Callaghan) O’Keeffe, William Fitzgerald, Corney Drew

Taught: Denis Murphy, Julia (Murphy) Clifford, Bridgie (Murphy) Kelliher, Johnny O’Leary, Jack “The Lighthouse” O’Connell, John Clifford, Mick Buckley, Paddy Cronin, Johnny Cronin, Jerry McCarthy, Andrew “Sonny” Riordan, Mike Duggan, Paddy Jones, Jim O’Keeffe, Terence “Cuz” Teahan, John Spillane, Annie Twiss, Maida Sugrue, Brian O’Connor, Pats Connell, Dan O’Connor, Sean B. O’Leary, John Collins, Willy O’Connell


Padraig O'Keeffe The Sliabh Luachra Fiddle Master 300 Kerry Fiddles 300 Lyons' Bar 1961 300

More resources:

Hear snippets of field recordings of Pádraig

A collection of his manuscripts