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!