I was born and spent the first 33 years of my life in Ireland. I think of the music I play as what we would call in Irish sean nós, or the old style of playing traditional music. Many of the melodies come from ancient forms of pipe tunes and harp music. I’ve been a serious player and collector of Irish traditional music for more than fifty years, and during that span have collected more than 3,000 compositions—jigs, reels, hornpipes, airs, and marches, including many rare and unusual tunes. Since I don’t read written music, I learn by ear and keep all these tunes in memory. 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.
Irish traditional music is now played in all kinds of venues: community festivals, house concerts and dances, concert venues, colleges and universities, elementary and secondary schools, folk clubs, and pubs. Apart from public settings, the heart of Irish traditional music is the session, in which tunes are played and traded, and conversation about music is the central theme. Much of my time is spent touring and performing, teaching, and playing in sessions with local Irish musicians wherever I travel, sharing stories about the older musicians I used to know in Ireland.
When I meet fellow musicians, I like to recreate the old traditional sessions which were the foundation of my own experience in Ireland. There was a great social connection, a wonderful communication about the music and its history. I didn’t even realize at the time how much of a cultural experience it was, and now I’m working on bringing that experience to the local musicians in the Twin Cities and in other places I visit as I tour around the country. We talk about where the tunes came from, how they got their titles, the way certain players played them, the importance of different notes and emphasis in our interpretation.
I never had any formal musical training, but learned by traveling throughout Ireland to spend time with older players, absorbing music and the accompanying oral tradition by listening. My early influences came from many players I met in sessions, including Joe Delaney and Dan Cleary of Offaly, Donegal fiddler John Doherty, Paddy Fahy, Eddie Kelly from Galway, Frank McCollum of Antrim, Sean Ryan from Tipperary, and Johnny Henry from Mayo, and from fiddlers John Kelly, Joe Ryan, Sean Keane, and James Kelly; flutists Cathal McConnell and Micho Russell; and Tony MacMahon and Joe Burke on button accordion, among others too numerous to mention. Creativity, for me, comes from digging up really great settings of tunes, and working to add my own subtle variations and interpretations. Another important part of the creativity comes in putting together selections. In all the groups with which I’ve played over the years, I have often been the person to organize selections, or to suggest tunes that the group might play. There’s a lot of sensitive selection involved; it’s an elusive art, and very time-consuming, to select the right kinds of tune selections to put together. I’ve also been active as a composer. Many of my compositions have been accepted into the tradition and recorded by Irish music groups such as Solas and Danú, and by individual players such as James Kelly, Liz Carroll, and Billy McComiskey.
Whenever I perform in public, I tell the stories behind each piece, helping audiences to grasp the tunes better by understanding their historical and cultural context. Talking with people and playing music with them is the traditional way of collecting this information, and it’s something I do all the time. In the last several years, there’s been a great demand for the lecture/workshop I’ve developed, called “Reaching for the Draíocht: Exploring Irish Traditional Music.” Draíocht is a Gaelic word meaning ‘spiritual power’ or ‘soul.’ Most recently I’ve been asked to talk at the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, under the auspices of the Irish Studies Program at Boston College, and at the Minnesota Irish Fair.
As a professional musician, I’ve recorded and toured nationally and internationally since 1995 with the three-piece ensemble Chulrua. I’ve also been rehearsing, performing, and recording since 2003 with The Doon Céilí Band, an eight-piece band made up of musicians from the Minneapolis/Saint Paul area. More recently (since 2006), I’ve put together a new ensemble (with a working name of O’Rourke’s Feast) which meets weekly at my house to play and work out arrangements of traditional and newly-composed tunes in what might be called the ‘folk orchestra’ tradition.
I also spend a lot of time at home on my own, learning new tunes, putting together selections, and searching out new material by corresponding with fellow musicians and trading tapes and CDs of tunes. Learning tunes—and especially getting deeper and deeper into intricacies of Irish music—has always been a rejuvenating, regenerating process for me. I am generally looking for old Gaelic melody structures that give expression and warmth, and spiritual energy to the music. I try to delve deeply into the tunes, absorbing them into my mind and body, and then reinterpreting, even restructuring the melodies, sometimes bringing out specific phrases, sometimes adding extra notes or even extra parts of my own making. For example, there’s a tune called “The Wheels of the World,” that has always fascinated me; I’ve been playing this tune for more than thirty years, and yet I feel as though I’m only beginning to crack its code. My intention in presenting Irish traditional music—in performance, in recordings, and in teaching—has always been to concentrate on the artistic, expressive power of Irish traditional music, and to counter the commercialism that has crept into it because of attention from the recording industry.
I also spend time making and sharing music with people who are interested in learning Irish traditional tunes, but who have no access to master musicians in their own localities. I offer lessons and workshops at home and on the road.
Fellowships have allowed me some concentrated periods of artistic development, and have helped to fuel creative bursts that I hope have sent some ripples throughout the Irish traditional music community here in Minnesota, across the U.S., and in Ireland.
One of the things I’ve naturally concentrated on since my early days has been trying to meet and talk with and learn tunes from older musicians. Over the past several years, I’ve been making trips to visit with and make field recordings with older musicians—in the United States, I’ve been conducting interviews with a generation of lesser-known Irish and Irish-American players like Brendan Tonra, Jack Coen, Mike Flynn, Kevin Henry, Noel Rice, Mike Preston, and P.V. O’Donnell. In Ireland, I’ve talked with fiddler and composer Paddy Fahy of Galway; Donegal fiddlers Jamsie O’Beirne and Vincent Campbell, and Donegal fiddler Danny Meehan who now lives in London and has a store of rare old-time Donegal fiddle music.
Much of my own work as an artist is about finding and bringing greater recognition to some older (and perhaps somewhat obscure) but wonderful traditional tunes. To that end, I plan to conduct some research at places like Boston College, the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin, and the Leitrim Musical Society, among others.
I am continuing a multi-year project begun in the mid-1990s, called the Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection. For Volume One, I recorded 400 reels and 100 double jigs from my current repertoire, specifically as an artistic resource for players and learners of Irish traditional music, so that many of the great versions of tunes I’ve been given down through the years could be carried on and passed along to others. For Volume Two, I recorded another 500 tunes, this time including hornpipes, polkas, and slip jigs, along with a few more reels and double jigs. Volume Three contains many different types of tunes: reels, slides, hop jigs, slip jigs, slow airs, double jigs, set dances, single jigs, harp tunes, and marches.
In 2010 I released a new CD entitled The Sailor’s Cravat, with fiddler Tom Schaefer, Paul Wehling on bouzouki and guitar, and my wife, Erin Hart, providing vocals. The recording is being distributed by New Folk Records in the US, and by Cló Iar-Chonnacht in Ireland. I’ve just released a new solo CD in September 2011, called Mixing the Punch, also on the New Folk Records label in the US, and on Cló Iar-Chonnacht in Ireland. In 2014 I released a self-titled debut recording with my seven-piece group, O’Rourke’s Feast. Most recently, in 2015, Nathan Gourley, Dáithí Sproule and I released an album called Bright and Early, on the New Folk Records label.