Paddy O’Brien is regarded by serious players and collectors of Irish traditional music as one of the tradition’s most important repositories; in a career that spans nearly forty years, he has collected more than 3,000 compositions—jigs, reels, hornpipes, airs, and marches, including many rare and unusual tunes. His collection, all the more remarkable because it is stored in his head, is the result of many years of careful listening, diligent practice, and sharing tunes with people for the sake of the music itself.
A product of County Offaly in the midlands of Ireland, Paddy traveled the countryside as a young man to spend time with older players, absorbing music and the accompanying oral tradition. His early influences came from many players he met in sessions, including Joe Delaney and Dan Cleary of Offaly, Donegal fiddler John Doherty, Paddy Fahy, Eddie Kelly from Galway, Frank McCollum of Antrim, Seán Ryan from Tipperary, and Johnny Henry from Mayo, among hosts of others. In the 1950s and 60s in Ireland, the radio also played a large part in the stimulation of interest in traditional music; he listened diligently to programs like Céilí House, and A Job of Journeywork, produced by Ciarán MacMathúna.
Paddy first played in public with the Ballinamere Céilí Band (with Peter Kilroe, Dan Cleary, Michael Lynam, and others) from 1966-1969. In 1968, on his first trip to America, he toured the eastern United States with Seán and Kathleen Ryan, playing concerts and ceilis in community halls and clubs. After moving to Dublin City in April 1969, he began to attend regular pub sessions with fiddlers John Kelly and Joe Ryan. These sessions were an apprenticeship of a sort—informal lessons on settings, augmented by stories about the music and the people who played it. In Dublin he also joined the Castle Céilí Band, playing with them from 1969-1978 and with Ceoltoiri Laighean from 1971-1978. Each group made critically-acclaimed recordings, and numerous television, radio, and concert appearances in Ireland and abroad.
Paddy O’Brien has become, by dint of nationality, experience, and talent, one of the leading authorities on Irish music, both as a scholar and as a traditional musician. His recognition as an authentic primary source for tunes was demonstrated when his music was selected for inclusion in Breandán Breathnach’s Ceol Rince na hÉireann, the foremost scholarly work on the tradition. His mastery of the two-row button accordion was also acknowledged through prestigious awards: he was named Oireachtas champion four times, and All-Ireland senior accordion champion in 1975.
In 1978, Paddy came to the United States again, to record an album for Shanachie Records, “Is It Yourself?” with fiddler James Kelly and guitarist Dáithí Sproule. The trio, known as Bowhand, began playing concerts, festivals, and other venues in Washington D.C., Saint Louis, Saint Paul, San Francisco, Boston, New York, and many places between. They recorded a second LP for Shanachie, entitled “Spring in the Air,” in 1980, and appeared several times on National Public Radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion” program in Saint Paul. Paddy has been featured on more than thirty recordings since 1970, including two critically acclaimed solo albums, Stranger at the Gate (Green Linnet/Compass 1988) and Mixing the Punch (New Folk Records 2011).
Since the mid-1980s Paddy has toured with a number of different artists, most notably with the trio Chulrua, whose lineup over time has featured piper Tim Britton, guitarist and singer Patrick Egan, and fiddler Patrick Ourceau. He has collaborated and toured with many wonderful musicians, including James Kelly, Martin Hayes, Susan McKeown, Tommy Peoples, Peter Ostroushko, and many others at concerts and festivals all around North America, Ireland, and Europe. In 2007 he was invited to play Irish traditional music for enthusiastic audiences in Moscow.
In 1995, Paddy embarked on what was to become a milestone project in Irish traditional music, to record and assemble background information on 500 jigs and reels from his vast repertoire. The result of that effort, The Paddy OBrien Tune Collection: A Personal Treasury of Irish Traditional Music (now three volumes comprising a staggering 1,500 tunes), has been hailed as a priceless and indispensable resource by Irish musicians around the world. (Volume One, released in 1995, features 400 reels and 100 double jigs. Volume Two, including 150 double jigs, 120 hornpipes, 100 polkas, 100 reels, and 30 slip jigs, was released in 2011. Volume Three, completed in 2013, includes 150 reels, 44 slides, 16 hop jigs, 29 slip jigs, 13 slow airs, 80 double jigs, 30 set dances, 50 single jigs, 43 harp tunes, and 45 marches.)
Paddy currently tours and records with Irish traditional trio Chulrua, including fiddle, guitar, and vocals. He also tours and records as a solo artist, and with O’Rourke’s Feast, a seven-piece Irish traditional chamber group, and offers book and music events with his wife, crime novelist and traditional singer Erin Hart.
Paddy is frequently consulted by recording studios and fellow artists for source material on tunes. He is sought out as a thoughtful and capable teacher for traditional music workshops, and has taught at the prestigious Willie Clancy Summer School held in Milltown Malbay, County Clare, the Swannanoa Gathering, the Catskills Irish Arts Week, Irish Week by the Sea in Nova Scotia, the Celtic College in Goderich, Ontario, the Yachats Celtic Festival, and the Center for Irish Music, among others. He has beeen recognized as a world-class master artist by the Minnesota State Arts Board Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program, and has been featured on the roster of the Minnesota Folk Artists Directory.
In 2010, Paddy was honored for lifetime achievements and contributions to the Irish traditional music and culture in Minnesota by the Twin Cities-based Irish Music & Dance Association. In 2012, he was named Cumadóir, or Traditional Composer of the Year at the TG4 Gradam Ceoil Irish Music Awards, the highest international honor in Irish traditional music. (See full news release.) Also in 2012, Paddy’s memoir, The Road from Castlebarnagh: Growing Up in Irish Music, was published by Dublin’s Orpen Press and has received glowing reviews and around the globe.
For many devotees of Irish music, Paddy O’Brien is the embodiment of the living tradition, one who understands and communicates the essence of Gaelic culture, going beyond technique to the spirit that drives the music. Paddy O’Brien captures the creativity, honesty, and enthusiasm that great traditional music is all about.