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.
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.
with a young pupil (maybe Nora Noonan?)
an example of his notation dictated to a pupil
the Murphy family of Glencollins Upper, Ballydesmond
Memorial stone in Ballydesmond
Tom Billy Murphy headstone in Ballydesmond cemetery
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.
Pádraig in good company with Denis Murphy and Willy Clancy
An example of Pádraig’s unique musical notation
The commemorative plaque at Glountane Cross
O’Keeffe monument in Castleisland
Fifth from the left, back row St. Joseph’s School Feis 1945