Album Review – Bright and Early

Album Review / By Tony Lawless

TradConnect, May 12, 2015


This is a sprightly album featuring two stalwarts of traditional music and one of New York’s best up and coming fiddlers.  The names Paddy O’ Brien and Dáithi Sproule need no introduction. We have also covered Nathan Gourley earlier in the year as he delivered one of the best fiddle duet albums you are likely to encounter called Life is All Checkered with Laura Feddersen.

On this recording, defined arrangements have been jettisoned in favour of an older approach whereby all three musicians play all the music, all the time. This is somewhat rare these days and results in a very balanced and even sound throughout.

If you like the sound they achieve on The Flax in Bloom / The Flash in the Pan which we include below then you are in for a treat. This approach holds for the majority of the album as the trio effortlessly glide through 16 tracks of reels, jigs, hornpipes and a couple of slip jigs and polkas.

Different settings to some standard tunes are noted including The Wheels of the World and The Rambling Pitchfork, and other well known standards include some interesting variations. Bright and Early hasn’t received much coverage on this side of the water as of yet and deserves to be checked out. It’s low key, old style and refreshingly good.

Visit to purchase.

Read the full review AND LISTEN at TradConnect »

First Rate, Beginning to End

Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely

Irish Echo, April 8, 2015

brightearly_1528x1484Paddy O’Brien (from Offaly) is one of the great Irish musicians living in the United States. A noted composer (he was named “Irish Traditional Composer of the Year” by TG4‘s “Gradam Ceoil” program in 2012) who has played with some important groups (including the Castle Ceili Band, Bowhand, O’Rourke’s Feast and Chulrua), O’Brien is someone who always seems up to something interesting and it so happens he’s just out with a couple of terrific examples: a new CD called “Bright and Early” and a third volume of his “Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection.” Both are highly recommended.

On “Bright and Early,” O’Brien has teamed with guitarist Dáithí Sproule and fiddler Nathan Gourley and come up with an absolutely lovely album. A brilliant guitarist and member of the great group Altan, Sproule (, has also been a member of Skara Brae (with Mícheál Ó Domhnaill and his sisters, Tríona and Maighread), performed or toured with just about every great musician out there, and is a noted composer. (His song “The Death of Queen Jane” was featured in the film “Inside Llewyn Davis.”) His is a very familiar name to fans of traditional music and here, he proves his reputation as an intelligent and sensitive backer.

Currently based in Boston but originally from Wisconsin, Gourley’s name is definitely on the rise. He is a top class fiddle player who has been a member of Chulrua, the Doon Ceili Band, the Two Tap Trio, and the Máirtín de Cógáin Project. Regular readers will remember how enthusiastic I was about “Life is all Checkered,” his recent album with fiddler Laura Fedderson (www.nathanandlauramusic.c om). Here, Gourley’s strong fiddle playing complements O’Brien’s box work admirably.

Indeed, the music on this album is first rate throughout, from beginning to end. I’m partial to the reel sets “Sheehan’s / …” and “Aggie White’s / …,” both of which are wonderfully strong tracks. The hornpipe sets “Jim Erwin’s /…” and “The Midnight /…” are as well – in all cases, the tempos and swing are just right, and full of warmth and grace.

In addition, the tune selection is spectacular. Listen, for instance, to the group’s expanded setting of the familiar jig “The Rambling Pitchfork.” (It’s coupled here with “The Ballykeale.”) Taken from Tommy Potts, this setting not only adds nuanced minor key touches to an otherwise familiar tune, it includes an extra section that adds to the setting’s character. It’s just wonderful stuff. The same can be said about the clan march and a polka, “The March Of The Jacobites / Bright And Early.” It’s an unusual selection and pairing that adds a fascinating wrinkle to an entirely compelling album.

POBTC3-500x500The recently released third volume of the “Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection” sets a similarly high musical standard, but is excellent for different reasons. Published in 2014, volume three offers musicians 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. It is a massive and valuable resource and recommended to any musician interested in developing his or her repertoire.

This new volume brings the total number of tunes across the Collection’s three volumes to 1,500 and it includes great versions of many common and not-so-common tunes. (Be advised, though: the collection contains no written music at all and is intended for those who learn by ear.) The full physical package for each volume includes a spiral bound booklet that groups the tunes contained therein by dance rhythm. A short commentary is given for each tune, which offers musicians a sense of history and provenance. The collections are also available electronically, as PDFs and MP3s, the former through O’Brien’s website (see below) and the latter on a track-by-track basis through CD Baby.

The Collection reveals O’Brien as an excellent teacher. On the recordings, he plays each tune multiple times at a moderate (but not particularly slow) pace, which allows learners, through multiple listenings, not only to get to know the tune and its intricacies, but also its particular lilt, which is crucial for anyone really wanting to know the music at the highest level. It’s an effective approach that follows a very “traditional” style.

Both “The Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection” and “Bright and Early” are absolutely worth having, the former not only for motivated learners, but for libraries and institutions that support Irish music; the latter for fans of Irish music who want a delightful album to listen to and enjoy. Thumbs up all around! For more information about how to acquire both “Bright and Early” and the “Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection,” visit



The Layered Legacy of Paddy O’Brien

Trasna na Ghabhail (Across the Transom), newsletter of the Celtic Junction
August / Lúnasa 2014

by Siobhán Dugan

First published in Trasna na Ghabhail (Across the Transom), the newsletter of the Celtic Junction in Saint Paul. Used with permission.

If there is possibly someone in the community unfamiliar with him, let me introduce you: Paddy O’Brien is a living treasure trove of Irish traditional music. It is not hyperbolic to describe Paddy’s contribution to Irish traditional music to date as ‘Legacy’. Read on to learn more.

Man of Many Parts

Paddy is a master accordion player; he was named Oireachtas champion four times, and All-Ireland senior accordion champion in 1975, and has a discography of nearly 30 CDS.

Paddy is also a composer of several dozen tunes, and won the Irish language television network’s TG4 Irish Traditional Composer of the Year Award in 2012. Well-known for the vastness of his repertoire of Irish traditional music, Paddy treasures most tunes with “old Gaelic melody structures that give expression and warmth, and spiritual energy to the music.” Just listen here to his playing of ‘The Lament for Owen Roe’, lovely and soulful.


Paddy is also a teacher and an author whose autobiography The Road From Castlebarnagh is set in the 1950s in rural Ireland’s Midlands and is best described by its subtitle: ‘Growing Up in Irish Music.’

Strong New Link in a Fragile Chain

All of that is abundant achievement. For me, even more significant is Paddy’s role as a collector and preserver of tunes from the Irish tradition. Let’s give that statement its due context.

Piob-Mhor_696px-RosgallThe history of Ireland has hugely influenced the fate of Irish music, along with the other Gaelic arts and the Irish language as well. Early on, the arts were supported by the Gaelic aristocracy, just as those of other classical traditions in Europe—and indeed the world—were supported by their courts and nobles.

The English conquerors had been making some inroads into Ireland as early as the 12th century in displacing the native aristocracy, but got cranky when their representatives tended to go native and switch allegiances. Accordingly, laws were enacted in the Tudor period and beyond aimed at smashing Gaelic culture, such as the mandate from Queen Elizabeth to “…hang the harpers wherever found, and destroy their instruments.” (Ironically, dear ole Liz employed an Irish harper at her court!)

George PetrieThe Flight of the Earls in 1607 was essentially the end of the line for the Irish bardic tradition, with only a few moribund stragglers after that, wandering around trying to eke out a living between the few great houses left that would welcome them and their proscribed art. Enter the first great Irish music collector, Edward Bunting, who as a spotty youth of merely 19 years was hired to write down the music of the mostly elderly harpers at the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792. He then went on to spend the rest of his life collecting and preserving the remnants of old Irish music that yet survived. Had he not done so, much would have been lost forever. A young collector named George Petrie (at right) began work with him in Bunting’s later years and added greatly to what was saved.

Irish-dancers-from-CJ-newsletterOverwhelmingly, stewardship of the tradition passed into the cottages of the Gaelic common folk who were by law denied access to formal education and had means little to spare beyond that required for sustaining their families at a subsistence level. These poor folk in turn were devastated by the Irish Potato Famine (1845-1852) and the music they loved with them. A tune-loving Irish immigrant to Chicago named Francis O’Neill understood the danger of losing this heritage and took action by collecting thousands of tunes.

In the 20th century, politics (with the birth of the Irish Republic) and technology certainly made it easier to collect and preserve traditional music. At the same time, ongoing emigration and an association of traditional music (and the Irish language) with backwardness and poverty depressed interest in it in the first half of the century. The folk revival of the 1960s and 70s created a huge increase in attention and a renewed creative impulse. But a decade or so later, Ireland became rapidly globalized economically and culturally, with a fire hose volume of external influences shooting in, sometimes with little discernment in the sieving of what was wheat and what was chaff. Traditional music, including its regional nuance, was at risk of becoming homogenized within this blur, muddling its particular flavor and uniqueness of style.

Tune Steward

Into this background comes Mr. Paddy O’Brien, born in 1945 in County Offaly, Ireland, with an uncanny ability and a deep passion for collecting Irish traditional music. Of course, there have been other collectors in between, some of them significant, but Paddy is a stand-out.

“Learning tunes—and especially getting deeper and deeper into intricacies of Irish music—has always been a rejuvenating, regenerating process for me,” Paddy comments, “I am generally looking. I’ve built up this repertoire by seeking out certain players, not just for the tunes or virtuoso playing, but for their settings of the tunes, particular notes and phrasings that seem to bring out the life and the character of the music. I’m also interested in traditional musicians whose playing reflects regional or local styles.”

Paddy O'Brien scan 07The sheer vastness of the numbers in Paddy’s tune collections can almost be a distraction from noticing the individual character of the tunes themselves. It’s like a massive bouquet full of textures, forms and colors, scents. But perhaps the discerner is best off slowing down and tuning into each by each. Well OK, not all at once, as that might take some time! Paddy knows literally thousands of tunes and Volume Three of the Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection alone includes 150 reels, 80 double jigs, 50 single jigs, 16 hop jigs, 29 slip jigs, 44 slides, 30 set dances, 13 slow airs, 43 harp compositions from the 17th and 18th centuries, and 45 marches that vary in type from clan marches, walking marches, to a more modern style of military march.

“I’ve had a lot of obscure tunes for years and years. Most people, musicians tend to gravitate towards jigs, reels and hornpipes, but with this collection, I’ve dug up a lot of set dances too, and slow airs—a number of slow airs that usually wouldn’t be recorded at all.”

Sundry Sources

“A lot of these tunes come from old recordings from the 1960s as well as more contemporary recordings that I listened to and learned tunes from. There was a lot of research involved especially with the slow airs and harp tunes. There was another category as well, which was the walking marches and clan marches. There’s amazing history behind some of those. So I was able to dig up a lot of that.” Paddy recounts, “The clan marches and some tunes are very, very old. Most of them I’ve recorded I suppose would be from the 16th century. There are a couple [in Volume Three] that were played at the Battle at Clontarf in 1014 when Brian Boru marshalled all the Irish soldiers together and defeated the Vikings—I’m sorry to say!” says Paddy laughingly, with a nod to the Scandinavian background of many Minnesotans. “So we have music—a lot of music from those days, some of which is written down, some of which is not, and some of which has rarely been heard.”

Of these ancient tunes Paddy says, “They’re very melodically satisfying. And of course, this project, these recordings, are for musicians—both learners and advanced musicians. As Irish traditional musicians, it’s so good for them to experience as many different kinds of melody as possible. Some of the older melodies are very influential. Melodies like the ‘March of the King of Laois’ to me are very fulfilling and inspirational. The first time I heard the playing of the ‘March of the King of Laois,’ I thought it was heaven.”

Paddy also learned many of the tunes from living musicians. “I didn’t care who they were, you know, and I didn’t care about the musicianship. If they had a nice tune, I’d go after them.” That said, Paddy was lucky enough to collect from many gifted musicians. “I got great tunes from Paddy Cronin, who died a few months ago, the County Kerry musician. Of course, John Kelly and the tunes that came with him from County Clare. I knew him when I lived in Dublin. I played a lot of tunes with him. He played in the same bands I was in and he had a vast repertoire. He was a walking encyclopedia of music, music for the concertina and the fiddle. He was great at both. And of course I learned lots of tunes from the Castle Céilí Band—Seán Keane and Michael Tubridy, Mick O’Connor—when I was practicing with the band. We would usually try to dig up new tunes—new old tunes, you know—for to impress the audience! At that time it was the folk revival and there was a whole slew of young people learning flutes and fiddles and whistles and they were dying for new tunes.”

The late Tommy Potts, legendary fiddler, was among these artists Paddy collected from. Of Tommy playing his own music, there is but one album available, so it is particularly valuable to hear the echoes of Tommy’s musicianship in Paddy’s collection. An example of a well-known tune collected in an unusual, particularly musical setting is Tommy’s 3-part arrangement of ‘The Rambling Pitchfork.’

Paddy is an eminently practical person as well as an artist. So as well as handing down rare and inspirational melodies, the collection is very much intended as a reference source, with types of tunes separated spatially on 33 different albums, such that a person wanting to learn and expand their knowledge of, say, slides can focus on that section, or focus on adding to their repertoire of jigs and reels, etc.

Saving the Tunes

“The foremost thought was saving the tunes,” says Paddy, getting to the heart of the matter, “I was afraid as I got older, I wouldn’t remember them. And they’re very handy to have. I wish I’d had something like that when I was younger and learning tunes, trying to scrape up a tune or chase it down, or a version of it. You’d hear a bit of a tune back in the 1950s or 60s and it would be just absolutely beautiful…” Paddy recalls, “… and you’d be waiting for it to be played on the radio again and it could be weeks… I wasn’t able to get a tape recorder until I was 18! It was like a miracle to be able to order a tune and play it over and over as many times as I wanted so I could learn it!”

Owing to Paddy’s musicality and staggering diligence, generations of learners into the future will have the gift of a bountiful source to look to.


Read the full article online HERE.

The Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection has been supported over the years, in part, by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bush Foundation Artist Fellowship Program, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and the Irish Fair of Minnesota Legacy Fund as well as individual members of the community through Kickstarter campaigns and direct donations. Gratitude to each and all!

Bright and Early review – Irish American News

Irish American News  February 2015

Piping It In

by Jack Baker

brightearly_1528x1484The second CD on my list this month is yet another gem from New Folk Records ( Led by Ken Onstad, New Folk has been releasing a steady stream of top-notch traditional Irish music recordings for some time now, and, despite declining CD sales, it looks like they’re going to continue doing so for folk like me, and others, who like their music in that format. I may be jumping the gun a bit on this CD since it won’t be released till next month (March) but I got my review copy and it’s just too darn good for me to be quiet.

The CD is “Bright and Early, Something to Crow About” and boy, is it ever. Coming together on the album are the combined talents of Paddy O’Brien on button accordion, Dáithí Sproule on guitar and Nathan Gourley on fiddle, three giants of Irish music. The CD features 16 tracks of reels, double jigs and hornpipes that will keep the dancers moving and the non-dancers tapping at least one toe. No vocals, all instrumental, this CD will introduce you to a bunch of tunes that Paddy has collected over the years and trots out now to let us enjoy the musical magic to this talented trio. I love this stuff, it flows like water, wraps itself around my soul and makes all the daily troubles go away, exactly what good music is supposed to do. Sorry to say that this one won’t be in the store till next month but I can honestly say that this one was worth waiting for.

Bright and Early review — from

8 March 2015

by kuec

brightearly_1528x1484Paddy O’Brien has been dedicated for over sixty years to the two-row button accordion. From Offaly he emigrated to Minnesota/USA, but often returns back to Ireland. Besides his championship titles, he is known for his huge repertoire: approximately three thousand pieces. He’s chosen some of the most beautiful for his new album with this trio. He concentrates primarily on the great Irish musicians of the 20th century, some of whom composed the tunes included. Paddy is assisted here by the young violinist Nathan Gourley. The unison playing is so tight that you may discover the fiddle only when listening very carefully. The third member of the trio is Dáithí Sproule on guitar, who is in great demand as a member of Altan internationally, and provides his distinctive, never-intrusive backing guitar here.

OBrienSprouleGourley700This is an instrumental album; the 16 tracks are pure accordion plus fiddle. The dynamics remain the same throughout, so it’s the responsibility of the individual tunes to create different emphases, and this is done with beautiful melody phrases or unusual changes of key. With his steady, relaxed, and flowing sound Paddy O’Brien creates an accordion-trance. This album is especially enjoyable for professionals who are looking for beautiful pieces to learn and play along.

See original review in German

Feature: Paddy O’Brien – Growing Up In Irish Music

A recently published memoir is an account of a life, and community, steeped in music

By Siobhán Long

Irish Times | 03/18/13


Memoirs, like memories, are subject to the usual vagaries of life. Often selective, romantic, self-aggrandising and sometimes downright fictionalised, they serve as many purposes as an author’s ego dictates.

A recently published memoir by Offaly accordionist Paddy O’Brien certainly plays hostage to sentiment at times, but it’s a colourful and often compelling evocation of a life consumed by music, and by the sense of community that underscored it.

O’Brien, who was TG4 Traditional Composer of the Year in 2012, has a particular love of clan marches. Unlike many tunes written in the traditional idiom, O’Brien’s compositions often slide outside the shapes normally associated with the accordion. His musical contours betray the key influence of fiddles and flutes, instruments that made a deep impression on his listening from an early age.

Intriguingly, O’Brien describes the experience of embarking on his memoirs as akin to getting acquainted with his family all over again. O’Brien, long a resident of Saint Paul, Minnesota, admits The Road from Castlebarnagh is shot through with a warm sentimentality bred of distance.

“This feeling of getting to know my family all over again manifested itself in the images as they came to me as I wrote”, O’Brien says, as he describes the unexpected ease with which his memoir took shape. “When I’m playing the music, I see images of different people, different landscapes and situations where I was when I got a tune. It was like going home again – into the past. It was remarkable, although it brought on a certain amount of home sickness as well.”

O’Brien’s writing is at its best in his recollection of the transformative impact of radio on rural Ireland back in the 1950s.

“The radio introduced Ireland to its own culture in many ways,” O’Brien says. “It introduced us to musicians from all parts of Ireland. We didn’t know there was so much great music being played by people like Paddy Canny or Mrs Crotty, who became popular through the radio. We were being informed from week to passing week. It was great.”

The status of traditional music grew inexorably through what O’Brien affectionately calls Radio Éireann’s “job of journeywork”.

“We hadn’t been aware of the magic that was within the boundaries of our own country, in terms of music and set dancing, and so on,” he says.

As a composer, O’Brien quickly came to an understanding of the value of a good tune title. “Sometimes it’s a great tune, played well with great feeling, like Joe Cooley playing Last Night’s Fun . Everyone remembers last night’s fun. The name and the sound of tunes are tied together forever.”

road from castlebarnagh cover jpegO’Brien’s recollection of the All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoils is rapt with detail of individual musicians and musical ensembles that transformed his own conception of what was musically possible within the tradition. The merits of competition within the world of traditional arts aside, O’Brien recognised the key social benefit that the fleadh ceoil culture bestowed on his and subsequent generations.

“It gave a lot of musicians, young and old, something to play for. Musicians banded together and travelled miles for the céilí band competitions, and it wasn’t for the value of the prizes, because there was no money. But attitudes have changed. I used to love to play to win, because the band competition gave us all a chance to perfect the idea of playing together, but I don’t see any great purpose in [competition] now. Still, you have to recognise that getting feeling and expression in the music with six or seven musicians playing together is not that easy. It’s much easier to do that on a solo basis.”

The magical impact of the accordion, O’Brien’s chosen instrument, is richly evoked in his memoir.

From the moment he, as an eight-year-old boy, laid eyes and ears on the instrument, he was hooked. “I loved the sound of it,” he says, “and the tone of it. I’d never heard anything like it before. I thought it looked great, too: the bellows going in and out, and the colours of the ribs. I was fascinated by it from the moment I saw it. And you know, you can find notes on the accordion, whereas you have to make notes on a fiddle.”

The accordion has had its own share of detractors over the years but O’Brien is sanguine about the negative press sometimes associated with his beloved instrument.

“From time to time I was in the company of ‘purist-type’ musicians but I always got along with them. They sympathised with me, even if they weren’t particularly gratified by the accordion itself. Buying a pint for someone goes a long way.”

The Road from Castlebarnagh by Paddy O’Brien is published by Orpen Press. Orpenpress. com


Review: Melody Man

By Syd Bluett | 06/07/13

Books Ireland | Summer 2013, No. 349 Page 110-111

road from castlebarnagh cover jpegIn early 1950s County Offaly, having laboured all day in a vast Bord na Mona bogland prairie, harvesting furnace fodder for electricity generators, Christy O’Brien would begin his long cycle homewards to his wife, four daughters and son Paddy—the writer of this lovely book—then a shy little boy permanently distracted in his love for Irish traditional dance melodies.

The family home, a thatched cottage, had no electricity and water had to be drawn and carried from a well a half­-mile distant. The O’Brien farm had few acres with some vegetables, grass, a cow, a horse, a dog and three hyperactive pigs.

Neighbours and relatives ever kindly and practical could be depended on to arrive eager to pitch in when sent for. Everyone had to be either a give-it-a-go expert or a helper at something; be it building a house, brewing a tactful cup of tea (Paddy’s mother’s special calling), clamping a ring into pig’s snout or turning a calf in a cow’s womb. People operated their own—largely efficient—non-professional outreach-assistance network, as it might be grandly termed nowadays. However, in National School there was the workaday spite and thuggishness of most teachers: a familiar tale to almost everyone who came up through the 1950s.

The O’Brien house was an open and hospitable one for passing storytellers and singers and—to little Paddy’s delight—musicians carrying tunes to be savoured, dissected and memorised (to this day he doesn’t read written music). His only other sources of tunes were old 78s played on his grandfather’s wind-up gramophone, and music programmes on the radio.

Unfortunately, the radio, being battery-operated, was regularly out of commission, often for a week at a time, while the family’s one battery was away being recharged. Paddy developed the habit of retaining fragments of different tunes in his head, hoping by chance to hear each of them again in order to complete them.

This enforced technique, coupled with his extraordinary memory and hunger for tunes he hadn’t heard before, might explain partly why the young Paddy’s cranium went on to become one of Ireland’s greatest—if not the greatest—living storehouses of Irish dance melodies.

He is renowned today as a walking national treasury of over 3,000 melodies (along with any details he retains of their provenance and stories connected with them); he is also a prizewinning master of the two-row button accordion and an award-winning composer of over fifty new tunes, many featuring delightfully inventive turns and surprises.

He is a fine writer of clear prose too, here casting his memory back more than five decades—and a cross the wide Atlantic Ocean (he has been living in the USA for longer than he lived here). A fine example is his own account of cripplements he faced all those years ago while straining to capture tunes from the radio:

I was almost twelve when my mother and father bought the new single-row accordion for me… there were no accordion teachers around or even within cycling distance… I struggled with the music and kept practising as best I could. The biggest problem was listening and learning a tune, and the need for further listening meant I’d have to hear it again on the radio. Sometimes a tune I was learning was played frequently on ‘Take the Floor’ or ‘Céilí House’ or ‘A Job of Journeywork’, but very often I might have to wait several weeks for it to be played again.

Around the little household’s fireside, Paddy’s repetitive labours on the accordion—a raucously intrusive instrument in a wrong context, it has to be said—weren’t always music to others’ ears.

“My practising was sometimes relegated to the cold interior of the bedroom with the light of a feeble candle for company. In wintertime I would intermittently come from the room and heat myself by the fire. When it was time for my sisters to retire to bed I usually got a reprieve from my mother who shouted at me to come to the kitchen… ”

A highlight of his musical education—and intellectual irritation—was the night he witnessed the real-life Gallowglass Celli Band perform in nearby Daingean:

My mother had talked to my father about both of them going but he insisted that she take me so I could hear the music and watch the accordion players… I had never seen such a spectacle of enjoyment and the sound of the music had my full attention. There were waltzes, haymakers’ jigs, military two-steps, barn dances, ‘The Siege of Ennis’, ‘The Waves of Tory.’ The band played a strict-tempo style of music which was how they communicated with the dancers… As the following weeks became months I was kept busy helping my father with sowing sugar beet, planting potatoes, cutting black and white turf on the bog, and saving hay. Most of the time my mind was busy trying to piece together sections of a reel or hornpipe, and a particular waltz was causing me a lot of unrest—‘The Valetta Waltz.’ It was the same sense of endurance that enslaved and tied me to other tunes like ‘Haste to the Wedding,’ and another reel from the radio called, ‘I’m Waiting For You.’

Further on is another telling episode, humourous this time:

It was a time in my young life when I was beginning to anticipate some note patterns in the tunes and also developing a better understanding of how jigs, reels, etc were shaped… Any time I learned a tune it motivated me for more and more playing and practice. Romantic notions about travelling to Galway or Clare and meeting box players from the radio consumed me and disrupted my concentration. As an example, one evening after school I walked into our kitchen carrying a load of hay in my arms and was about to lay it on the fire when my mother shouted, “Paddy, what are you doin’?” I turned immediately and went out the door to the calf house. When I came back, my mother said, “You’re thinkin’ too much about that bloody music. You should rest yourself from it.”

After national school, Paddy went to vocational school in Tullamore followed by apprenticeship and work in the Bord na Móna machine sheds, where he became known as the ‘whistling menace’ for his habit of whistling snatches of tunes over and over. During these latter years he finally got his arms around his life’s wish: his very own Paolo Soprani B/C accordion. He met like-minded music collectors and living resources and learned the ways and chores of playing in bands, entering and winning Comhaltas competitions. Soon he was on his way to further enriching sessions in Dublin in his first car, an old Ford Anglia—and the book ends thereabouts.

For a continuing account, including this wonderful man’s more recent musical achievements, readers can visit His influence on players of Irish traditional music—everywhere—is considerable. So far, besides what for any other musician would be a very healthy run of albums, he has recorded no less than 1000 dance melodies from his own repertoire in his two-volume Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection.



Review: Famously Precise Memory Used To Good Effect

By Daniel Neely | 06/05/13

Page 23 / Irish Echo / JUNE 5 – 11, 2013 /

road from castlebarnagh cover jpegThe name Paddy O’Brien is one most certainly familiar to lovers of traditional music. The noted button accordionist from Offaly has been a member of several notable groups, including the Castle Ceili Band, Bowhand, O’Rourke’s Feast and Chulrua (to name just a few) and in 2012 was named “Irish Traditional Composer of the Year” by TG4’s “Gradam Ceoil” program. He’s also the author of “The Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection,” a three-volume collection of rare and notable tunes he has collected throughout his life (this collection, by the way, is available through his website and through iTunes.)

However, his newest endeavor is not sound-related, but rather a memoir, “The Road from Castlebarnagh,” which focuses on growing up in County Offaly in the 1950s and 1960s, and describes the formative years of one of the tradition’s most talented musicians.

An excellent book. Music lovers will delight in its musical commentary, much of which I find brings the link between music and memory into crisp focus. O’Brien’s memory is famously precise, and in this book we get rare personal insight into how this link seems to work. For example, early on O’Brien writes candidly about the music at a house dance his family hosted, where “an all-time favorite of my father’s was also played with all its four parts. It was a jig he drummed into my head for years afterwards. The name of ‘The Lark in the Morning’ made me cringe for at least twenty years, until I eventually realized that the tune was a nice piece of music and very well composed” [p. 10]. Not very much is made of the tune and it’s mentioned somewhat regularly throughout the book with little fanfare. However, in a late chapter, O’Brien’s father, on his way out the door for his Saturday night pint, asks Paddy (who was on an infrequent visit home to prepare for the Scóraíocht competition in Edenderry [p. 258]) to play it for him before he leaves.

It’s a powerful moment that says something about their relationship but it’s one that also shows readers (especially readers who might not be as tune-minded as many musicians are) how this link can work. O’Brien expands on the role circumstance and camaraderie play in memory somewhat explicitly.

He writes, “it’s difficult for some people to understand why so many different jigs, reels, etc., come alive in my memory from the mere mention of their names. This phenomenon is the result of practice and an acute instinct for the sound of particular music, which in my case is Irish traditional music. It has been extraordinarily useful throughout my career when rehearsing with bands, recording, or suggesting music at sessions when a particular repertoire is more appropriate for flutes or other instruments. For example, if one were to say the names Seamus Egan or Tom Nolan to me I could immediately remember many of the tunes we played together over 40 years ago” [p. 249; Egan and Nolan are a banjoist and uilleann piper with whom O’Brien won the “Trio” competition in the 1967 Offaly County Fleadh]. Being reminded of this, O’Brien not only ties many of the book’s details together, he gives readers impressive insight into how this music is preserved and passed on.

What I find particularly interesting about the book, however, is the frankness with which O’Brien writes about his own musical development. Two things stand out, the first being his drive to scrape out any music he could growing up. Although neighbors like Mick Hayes, Joe & Tom Byrne and Paddy McGrath would come around the house to play a few tunes and at different points offer O’Brien encouragement and inspiration, such moments appear somewhat irregular, especially for a kid as passionate about music as O’Brien was.

The second was how important radio and recorded sound were to his development. While O’Brien describes learning the odd tune from his Aunt Maggie’s record collection, it was his family’s purchase of a radio and his discovery of shows like “Ceili House” and Ciarán MacMathúna’s program “A Job of Journeywork” that became an important turning point in his musical development. It’s fascinating to read and something many of today’s younger musicians can relate to.

This book is by no means only for the musically minded. Many readers (and perhaps especially Irish readers of O’Brien’s generation) will find some resonance with elements of his rural upbringing, including his relationships with family pets and livestock, his love for the local GAA club, the discussions about the Banshee and his early experiences in school (including those with the despicable Mr. Murphy, who surely deserved the beating he never seems to have received).

Written in lovely prose style, “The Road From Castlebarnagh” is a rewarding and highly recommended memoir about music and culture. Although it is not as narrowly focused as Ciaran Carson’s “Last Night’s Fun,” nor as deeply descriptive and analytic as Henry Glassie’s “Passing the Time in Ballymenone,” it shares with them an intellectual perspective that has a great deal to offer the curious reader.

For more information about “The Road From Castlebarnagh” or the Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection (or really any of O’Brien’s notable and multifarious endeavors) visit


Feature: A lyrical life in ‘The Road From Castlebarnagh’

Jim Walsh of MinnPost (and fellow roots musician) sat down with Paddy for an interview when THE ROAD FROM CASTLEBARNAGH was launched locally in March 2013. Jim wrote a wonderful piece about Paddy when Volume One of the PADDY O’BRIEN TUNE COLLECTION came out in the mid-90s.

Paddy O’Brien shares a lyrical life in ‘The Road From Castlebarnagh’

By Jim Walsh | 02/25/13

Paddy O'Brien

Paddy O’Brien is a world-renowned accordionist and traditional Irish music expert, but last month he received what may be the most rewarding reviews of his life – from “the neighbors,” as he calls them, when the St. Paul-based Irish music icon’s memoir “The Road from Castlebarnagh: Growing Up in Irish Music” was published in Ireland at the end of last year.

“I heard from this guy, right here,” says O’Brien, 67, pointing to a grainy photo on the cover of the book, of him and his old friend Johnny Rourke, snapped by the latter’s mother on a June night in 1957 after the boys had finished sowing potatoes on the rural Ireland farmland where they grew up. Stacks of the books fill the living room of the Highland Park home that O’Brien shares with his wife, the novelist, critic, teacher, singer and Irish music culture vulture Erin Hart.

Read the full article at the MinnPost site.



Feature: Minnesota’s Irish Ambassadors

cst Erin Hart & Paddy O'Brien  27361Paddy and Erin were interviewed for a wonderful profile in the Saint Paul Pioneer Press for March 2013, when both released new books, Paddy’s memoir, THE ROAD FROM CASTLEBARNAGH, and Erin’s new crime novel, THE BOOK OF KILLOWEN. Mary Ann Grossman of the Pioneer Press wrote a detailed story about their development as artists over the past thirty years.

Saint Paul, MN 03/02/13  — Erin Hart and Paddy O’Brien met on a September night in 1981 on the stage of MacCafferty’s Irish pub on Grand Avenue. Erin had just returned from studying in Ireland and Paddy was performing with a trio playing traditional Irish music.

Three decades later, this red-haired woman who grew up in Rochester, Minn., and her soft-spoken Irish husband are leaders of the Irish-American arts community, known for their music and writing.

Read the full story here at