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