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.