Paddy O’Brien Reels in Lost Irish Music For Posterity

by Jim Walsh, Music Critic
Saint Paul Pioneer Press
Friday, March 10, 1995

In the 1500s, during the time of the Gaelic chiefs in Ireland, there were people populating the Emerald Isle known as “carriers.” They possessed extraordinary memories and communication skills and, as such, were entrusted with passing down stories, tunes and folklore to the next generations.

Paddy O’Brien is such a person. Among his many credits, including world-champion accordion player, recording artist and perhaps the most respected player on the Twin Cities traditional Irish music scene, O’Brien has an ability to recall thousands of traditional Irish tunes. Over the years, this transplant from Ireland has amassed a staggering repertoire of material, and many of his contemporaries see O’Brien as a modern-day carrier.

“I don’t know why, but I’ve just always been like that,” he said the other day, sitting in the South Minneapolis apartment he shares with his wife, writer Erin Hart. “I woke up this morning thinking of a way to play a tune. I was just five minutes awake, and I was pondering this jig. I’ve always been taken with this stuff. It just flows through me, like blood.”

Recently, his lifeblood has been flowing with a focused sense of purpose. With the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, O’Brien has just finished recording 500 reels he has been playing for most of his life. The Minnesota Folklife Society and Irish Music and Dance Association are co-sponsors of the project.

“Over the years, individuals have been urging me to record these things, for fear that they will get lost,” he said. “Because there’s always the worry that things like that – since there are so many of them – will get lost. A lot of great songs are buried in Ireland, literally, in some graveyard somewhere. And that’s a shame. I think music is worth saving.”

Thanks to O’Brien, some very important music will be saved. For most of last December and January, he was holed up in his apartment with a reel -to- reel field recorder on loan from the Library of Congress. The reels he recorded – 500 is only the tip of O’Brien’s iceberg – will be released by an independent patron in the spring and will be available only through folk clubs and Irish music associations.

In this project is a perfect illustration of why arts funding is essential – not only to further the current landscape of arts and music, but to maintain archival material. Still, the 50-year-old O’Brien contends that the $6,500 grant he received from the NEA barely covered basic recording and production costs.

“The money I got wasn’t even close enough to pay me for my time and effort,” he said. “And as far as having the arts cut off from federal money – it’s wacky, it’s crazy. They can’t be given enough money, in my opinion. I could do another project of a thousand tunes, but I need money to do it.”

After the recording process was completed, O’Brien set about the task of writing an accompanying booklet, which contains stories about the reels vital as the music itself. “I felt like I was writing `War and Peace’ or something,” he said. “It just seemed to go on forever.”

Thanks to O’Brien and the NEA, some significant music will be preserved and passed on to the next army of carriers.

“This is the way we always learned tunes in Ireland; we never bothered with sheet music or anything like that,” he said. “We learned by ear. And the tunes here are chosen fairly carefully. They’re chosen with the idea of either reviving the interest in a worn-out tune, or making people go at a different interpretation of a tune they already know. And there’s a lot of tunes that’ve never been heard before; probably the vast amount of them have never been recorded before.

“There’s a younger generation who’ve not heard these tunes at all,” he said. “They’re in New York, St. Louis, Boston, St. Paul, San Francisco and Ireland, and I know who they are, because I was just like them. They can’t wait to get their hands on this, because they’re crazy for a new tune. A new old tune. And I’d be the same, if I was in their position. I would have been first in the queue. I would have camped out all night to get these tapes.”

Paddy O’Brien photo by David Aronow