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 is, 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.
After settling in Minneapolis in 1983, Paddy began touring the United States with Cork banjo player Seán O’Driscoll and Saint Paul singer and guitarist Tom Dahill. That group, known as Hill 16, released an album of the same name on Shanachie’s Meadowlark label in 1984.
Since the mid-1980s Paddy has toured with a number of different artists. With singer Peter Yeates, he appeared on National Public Radio’s Mountain Stage program in Charleston, West Virginia. In 1988, he released his first solo album, Stranger at the Gate, on the Green Linnet label. Along with Dáithí Sproule, Patty Bronson, and Laura MacKenzie, Paddy O’Brien represented the Twin Cities in a “Midwest Irish All-Stars” concert sponsored by Cityfolk of Dayton, Ohio in 1989. The concert also featured Chicago players Liz Carroll and Johnny McGreevy.
In June 1992, Paddy O’Brien was invited home to Ireland to appear on The Pure Drop, a traditional music showcase on Irish national television. With various other musicians, most recently Clare fiddler Martin Hayes and and Dublin piper Pat Broaders, Paddy became one of the anchor artists for John D. McGurk’s in Saint Louis, at the time the only pub in the nation boasting Irish traditional music seven nights a week.
In 1994, Paddy conducted a week-long workshop and performed in concerts at the prestigious Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay, County Clare, and organized a solo tour of Ireland. After receiving a $6,500 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in September 1994, he spent a good portion of the fall and winter recording the 500 tunes that make up The Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection—Volume One: A Personal Treasury of Irish Traditional Music, an unprecedented undertaking for a single player. Volume One was released in July of 1995, and has been hailed as a priceless and indispensable resource by Irish musicians on both sides of the Atlantic. The Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection—Volume Two (which includes 150 double jigs, 120 hornpipes, 100 polkas, 100 reels, and 30 slip jigs) was released in April 2011.
Paddy currently tours and records with Irish traditional trio Chulrua, including fiddle, guitar, and vocals. He also tours and records solo, and with The Doon Céilí Band, a seven-piece ensemble specializing in traditional céilí band music with a distinctive West Clare kick, and O’Rourke’s Feast, a seven-piece Irish traditional chamber orchestra.
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, and at the Yachats Celtic Festival, among others. He has beeen recognized as a world-class master artist by the Minnesota State Arts Board Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program, and is 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, Paddy received international honors as Cumadóir, or Composer of the Year at the Gradam Ceoil Irish Traditional Music Awards, sponsored by TG4, the Irish language television network. (See full news release.)
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.