There is no new way to play Irish music…
by Yuri Andreychuk
Visiting Moscow, March 2008
Paddy O’Brien from Co. Offaly is not just one of the most famous Irish accordionists in the world but also a man who had developed so many abilities that one can hardly put into practice in a lifetime. He is also a recognized musician, collector, composer and even a poet.
Above all, Paddy is a little bit of a philosopher and a very outstanding figure. In Ireland and in the USA they speak of him like we of Peter Mamonov—“a mystery-man.” But everything he got from life – from his name to the instrument he wanted to play—could have made his career very difficult from the very start. It is not a big secret that an accordionist called Paddy O’Brien could have become a prominent and influential figure in Irish music just as well as Ivan Smirnov in Russia, for example. More to say, due to the irony of fate one of the most elder famous accordionists had the same name and surname.
Paddy O’Brien was born September 13, 1945 in Castlebarnagh, Co. Offaly. He started learning accordion on his own. When he was young, Paddy traveled Ireland a lot playing sessions with various older musicians, to name a few prominent: legendary fiddler from Donegal John Doherty, fiddler from Co. Antrim—Frank MacCollum and Paddy Fahy as well. A good experience that proved useful in creating his own manner of play was his cooperation with some pipers, for example, Tom Nolan. From the older musicians he tried to get a special attitude to music—not to look at it as a job but to consider it to be a lifestyle. And he surely managed to remember dozens of dances from those musicians. At the late 1950s, and the beginning of the 1960′s in Ireland, the radio played a great part in stimulation of interest in traditional music. Paddy was especially keen on programs like «Céilí House» and «A Job of Journeywork».
Paddy O’Brien first played in public in 1966, when he was in a band with Peter Kilroe, Dan Cleary, and others from Ballinamere.
In 1968 he decided to go on his first trip to America and toured the eastern United States with Seán and Kathleen Ryan. They played traditional music in community halls and clubs. After returning in April 1969, being already experienced, Paddy moved to Dublin to attend regular pub and club sessions with fiddlers: first of all—John Kelly and Joe Ryan, and also Seán Keane from Chieftains and Tommy Potts. James Keane, who later moved to the USA, was the accordionist who influenced O’Brien most of all. For Paddy all that seemed kind of informal lessons, augmented by various stories about the music and the people who played it. Those lessons were a great value to him. Bars became his universities, as for the majority of Irish traditional musicians. He still speaks about session rules as a good training saying, “lots of bartender girls turned hard of hearing in my lifetime.” Young Paddy O’Brien got much good advice, important records, etc. Living in Dublin, like the majority of the musicians, above sessions, in order to develop his sense of rhythm and to feel dancers on stage, he began playing in ceili-bands at large Irish dancing parties. It was the time when Paddy finally managed to settle down on Dublin music scene. For several years he played with two bands at the same time—the famous Castle Céilí Band since 1969 and Ceoltoiri Laighean (or ‘Leinster Musicians’) since 1971. Each of the bands made records, which were a success with the critics. Both groups were active on TV, radio, gave numerous concerts in Ireland and abroad.
Then O’Brien’s recognizable style of accordion playing was already coming forward. “The way I’m playing is not very delicate,” he says. Many would agree that Paddy O’Brien’s music is remarkable due to its simplicity, clarity and confidence in every phrase. There is time for every note in every ornament under moderate tempo even in the fastest dances, which however doesn’t make them less danceable and slow, but even clearer, stable and especially rural. And that also gives a feeling of the continuity of the dance. In that skill of “hustling unhurriedly” without any bustle and unnecessary notes, as Paddy puts it, is hidden the connection with the old masters’ art, with the very thing they left us with the dance tunes.
It is probably not a fortuity that considering such an attitude in combination with perfect knowledge of the origins of the Irish tunes, the music performed by him was added to the book «Dance Melodies of Ireland» (Ceol Rince na hÉireann) by Breandán Breathnach – the foremost scholarly work on the Irish music. Tearing up with the famous scientist and collector brought Paddy lots of new records.
In the early 1970s Paddy worked his way up to professional Irish musician from amateur—by way of regional contests and festivals. His skill of playing two-row accordion or as they call it in Ireland, “button box”, was rewarded: he won many contests—for example, the Oireachtas—four times. The main goal for every Irish musician or dancer is always a victory in the open championship of Ireland (All-Ireland), in fact the most difficult, and not proclaimed all over the world championship, which gathers together the best artists once a year. It opens the way to new prestigious contracts and gives a professional status. Also a victory in All Ireland or Fleádh Cheoil championship in Ireland stays with the musician forever, like the Olympic champion title. The All-Ireland of his own Paddy O’Brien of Offaly won in 1975, in Buncrana.
His further career, as well as many other famous Irish musicians, who hadn’t found any funds for traditional music projects at home, no support and understanding from cultural officials, is connected with America. The interest towards Irish music was growing constantly in the USA. But its standard still stayed rather low. Paddy never pinned any hopes upon America: “Yes. They want to play Irish music but the question is the way they are doing it.” Living in two houses, being rather poor, Irish musicians were to put Irish music and its idea to new high standards in the USA. And they partly succeeded.
In 1978 Paddy returned to the USA to make an album «Is It Yourself?» for Shanachie with fiddler James Kelly, John Kelly’s son, and guitarist Dáithí Sproule. The trio became known as «Bowhand». They gave plenty concerts, played at different festivals in Washington, Saint Louis, Saint Paul, San Fransisco, Boston, New York and others—all over the United States. «Bowhand» recorded the second record «Spring in the Air» in 1980 and several times appeared at National Public Radio in Saint Paul. The project lived about 5 years, was recognized among Irish music lovers all over the world and is surely worth another article.
In 1983 Paddy O’Brien settled in Minnesota. He began touring the USA with Cork banjo player Seán O’Driscoll and Saint Paul singer and guitarist Tom Dahill. That group, known as «Hill 16», released an album of the same name in 1984.
From the middle of 1980s Paddy toured with different musicians. In 1988 he made his first solo album “Stranger at the Gate” on the Green Linnet label along with Dáithí Sproule. Various dances were included in the album: not only jigs and reels but also marches and “highlands” (an Irish version of Scottish dance ‘strathspey’). Many dances that Paddy has written perfectly match the traditional tunes of the musicians of the past.
In June 1992 Paddy O’Brien was invited to appear on a traditional music showcase «The Pure Drop» on Irish national TV. Along with other musicians, like Clare fiddler Martin Hayes and Dublin piper Pat Broaders, Paddy O’Brien in between times became one of the anchor musicians for “John D. McGurk’s” pub in Saint Louis, the only pub in the USA that could boast Irish traditional music seven nights a week. Since the very day not a single large Irish arrangement in Saint Louis could do without them. But having linked himself with the USA, he hadn’t become an American at all and continued to carry out many interesting projects—not only in the States but also in Ireland.
In 1993, Paddy published two poems dedicated to the legendary pipers, Seamus Ennis and Willy Clancy, in Dal gCais magazine in Co. Clare (associated with the Willie Clancy Summer School).
In 1994, Paddy succeeded as a teacher. He conducted a weeklong workshop at the prestigious Willie Clancy Summer School in Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare. He also made an education program for the school. There he also gave concerts. That year he organized a concert tour all over Ireland, which was a great success.
Among musicians and Irish traditional music collectors Paddy O’Brien was and still is one of the most important keepers of the tradition. During his almost 40-year career he collected more than 3,000 different jigs, reels, hornpipes, marches and slow airs, among which there are lots of rare and unusual ones, and many famous ones exist in different versions. Not so long ago his collection hasn’t been recorded at all—with a perfect memory, Paddy simply remembered every one by heart! In autumn 1994, Paddy got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to record and annotate more than 500 jigs and reels from his wide repertoire in a compilation called “The Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection” (unfortunately not in Ireland, but in the USA).
Afterwards he spent the rest of the fall and the most part of the winter to record 500 selected tunes to be added to “The Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection.” It was released in July 1995 and at once has been hailed as a precious and indispensable resource by Irish musicians on both sides of the Atlantic. In late 1995, along with the famous fiddler Martin Hayes and Aidan Brennan Paddy gave a tour and a series of master-classes in Alaska.
Soon afterwards Paddy made a band known as Chulrua (as the legend goes, that was the name for one of Finn MacCumhaill’s dogs from the Irish myths). He plays with them to this day. The project is Irish-American again. It includes guitarist and singer from Tipperary Pat Egan, and American uilleann piper Tim Britton.
Paddy O’Brien is untiring. That man was destined to be the embodiment of the living Irish tradition. He had enough attention, perfect ear and memory, and supple fingers as well to collect and adopt the legacy of the musicians and collectors of the past times. He had skillful mind, kindness and sensitiveness to give all that to young generations in different countries in the modern language and to let them know that every traditional music is not a set of inert standards and techniques, but a whole world, alive and following its own rules. And here it seems quite natural that there is a place for an author to appear, not to keep within the strict borders, to bring something bright and individual, and at the same time not to destroy the law with excess experiments, to value that inner integrity that keeps Irish music alive for so many generations. Each and every generation of Irish musicians has its way. But in fact it is the one and only road. One for all. Critics and listeners often quote Paddy O’Brien. And we will follow the tradition choosing the most popular and clear one as our epigraph.
[i] That is why Paddy O’Brien is known with the additional name from his native Co. Offaly or «Paddy O’Brien Jr.». All that – in order to distinguish him and legendary accordionist Paddy O’Brien from Co. Tipperary («Paddy Senior»), long passed away. But, as it goes for the elder and younger, two Paddies’ ages vary a lot, and they are not relatives but only namesakes. It is interesting that Paddy O’Brien Jr. of Offaly is more or less known here—both solo and in compilations of “Celtic music,” and also for his Bowhand albums, his name is almost common and means “Irish accordionist,” while the senior one is not known at all, despite the fact that he was the man to develop and improve manner of playing Irish two-row accordion and became epochal figure in Ireland.