Danny Ab O’Keeffe (1846-?) lived in Tureencahill, not far from the Murphys of Lisheen. He played the flute and whistle and was known to lilt a tune as well. He may have got his music directly from Tom Billy Murphy, or perhaps indirectly through his mother who could have been a Tom Billy pupil herself. He was a frequent visitor to the Weavers’, and a young Denis and Julia could get him to teach them tunes from his unique repertoire in exchange for endless cups of tea.
Johnny O’Leary remembered him: “He was a small little man that lived alone above, up the road from Denis Murphy. Danny Ab, he used to do a bit of mending in clothes. That’s how he lived, the poor man. Danny Ab, and he was an awful man for music. He never played. He had a bit on the tin whistle all right. He could start the tunes on a tin whistle. But, Jesus Christ, when Denis Murphy and them got to know him right, they followed lots of his tunes, and Art O’Keeffe the same way. He’d the nicest slides that was ever. Handed down to him. Seemingly his mother’s people used play. She was supposed to be a Welsh woman. But she had all traditional tunes. And ’tis she handed them over to him. […] I declare to Christ he started diddling the tunes and Denis above one day. And Denis said, ‘Where did you get that one Danny?’ ‘I have a share of them’, he says to Denis. And Denis started at him. Denis went up with the fiddle the following evening. Sure he got the world of slides from him, man. He called three or four of them Danny Ab’s slides.”
Click here to view the 1911 census form for the O’Keeffe household in Tooreencahill. I’ll admit to some confusion as to which of these is The Danny Ab–it seems more likely to be the senior. He would be about 80 at the time Denis and Julia might have been getting tunes from him. The Dan O’Keeffe listed as his grandson would have been of the same generation as the young Murphys.
Art O’Keeffe (born sometime around 1903), sometimes called “Aut”, was a neighbor and family friend of the Weaver Murphys of Lisheen. As a fellow musician, he would have shared many a tune with that storied clan. It’s probable he was at least a sometime pupil of Tom Billy’s, though he could have got his music from any number of less exalted sources. He is known today as having been a whistle player, though he also could play the fiddle and was a respected singer as well. He was a member of the Lisheen Fife and Drum Band captained by Bill “The Weaver” Murphy, and long after the band was defunct he could still play the tunes and arrangements with composed passages from the old days. In 1952, when Billy Clifford was sent from his home in London to stay with his widowed grandmother, Art O’Keeffe befriended him and no doubt shared with him the music Billy’s family had played in the generations before him. In 1974 he played a tune at the funeral of Denis Murphy, but after that I have no records of his doings, and I have not been able to determine the date of his death. He was recorded singing two songs for the BBC in 1947, and also provided a number of tunes to Breandán Breathnach’s collection, but in general he was not as celebrated a personage as his neighbors, the Murphys. However, a number tunes in the common repertoire still bear his name, so in that way, at least, he left his mark on the tradition.
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.
Tom Billy Murphy with his pupil, Nora Mai Herlihy from Park in Knocknagree, and her mother
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