The Enduring Legacy: Fifty Years After His Death: Pádraig O'Keeffe's Impact is Still Profound
The Irish musician with the greatest footprint in the southwest of Ireland is, without question, the fiddler Pádraig O’Keeffe. An itinerant musician – that’s the simplest way to introduce him – O’Keeffe influenced a generation of traditional musicians, and tunes that are ascribed to him are still being played today.
O’Keeffe died in 1963, at the age of seventy-six, so the number of folks who knew him in the remote hills of east County Kerry and west County Cork is fewer each year. And the number of his students who are still alive has dwindled to less than five.
On February 22, 2013, two of O’Keeffe’s former students, Paddy Cronin and Paddy Jones, led a small crowd of traditional music lovers to the grave of the master fiddler. At Kilmurry Cemetery, near the village of Glountane, where O’Keeffe lived all of his life, they gathered for the 50th anniversary of his death, to play tunes, share stories, swap rumors, and have a nip of whiskey in the great fiddler’s honor.
Pádraig O’Keeffe is credited with both defining and honoring the distinct “Sliabh Luachra” (Rushy Mountain) style of western Ireland. The Sliabh Luachra (say Sleeve LUKE-rah) area is set on the border of Counties Kerry and Cork, but even folks who live there and play the native music will tell you that it’s more a state of mind than a place you can find on the map. Still, most people agree that the area includes towns like Castleisland, Ballydesmond, Scartaglen, Rathmore, Knocknagree, Brosna, and extends west all the way to touristy Killarney.
The playing style of the region is peculiar even to Irish music, and for many years was less respected than, say, the Clare or Sligo style of fiddling made famous by the early recordings of Michael Coleman and James Morrison. Rather than relying heavily on 4/4 reels, the Sliabh Luachra fiddler features plenty of 2/4 polkas and slides, which careen wildly downhill at a 12/8 tempo.
To this day, most Irish sessions – be they in Dublin, Belfast, or Chicago – rely almost exclusively on jigs and reels. Not so in County Kerry or west Cork. In Sliabh Luachra, one of the most rural parts of Ireland, you’ll hear a hefty helping of those polkas and slides. But also marches, waltzes, and hornpipes.
For many years, the Sliabh Luachra style was looked down on, the Irish equivalent of American hillbilly music. It was considered too earthy, less refined, crude, even simplistic. But that has changed over the last few decades as younger musicians – first, like the accordion player Jackie Daly, and most recently, fiddler Caomhin O’Raghallagh – have continued to mine this long-neglected and soulful vein of Irish music. And people are now digging out the few recordings of Pádraig O’Keeffe, and his fiddling protégés, Denis Murphy and Julia (née Murphy) Clifford.
Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford recorded The Star Above the Garter in 1969, and today that twin fiddles album is still regarded as a sort of bible of Sliabh Luachra music. But by the time O’Keeffe recorded, he was well past his prime.
Paddy Cronin, now in his eighties, and Paddy Jones, in his mid-sixties, were accompanied at Pádraig O’Keeffe’s grave by nearly thirty others. Guitar wizard Paul DeGrae, box player Jackie Daly, photographer John Reidy, and Cormac Mahoney (who directs “Pádraig O’Keeffe Week” each October in Castleisland) were among the crowd. The youngest musicians of the group were Con Moynahan and Denis O’Connor, a fiddle/banjo duo who have stayed true to the area’s oldest traditions.
At the grave, the gatherers recalled for each other the rough path that the great fiddler had chosen. The son of a schoolteacher – at that time a job of great prestige throughout Ireland – Pádraig was ticketed to follow in his father’s footsteps. And for a short time he did.
But two things pulled him away from a career as a schoolteacher. First, of course, he was already a fine fiddler, even as a young man. The second great force in Pádraig O’Keeffe’s life was, unfortunately, alcohol. Soon, the school in Glountane had an unusual problem: it was the teacher, not the students, who had truancy trouble. O’Keeffe was fired at a young age, and he never again held down a regular job.
Instead, he would wander from pub to pub – O’Keeffe was an energetic walker and never owned an automobile, something which probably contributed to his long life despite being such a drinker. Often he’d appear in the market town of Castleisland, three or four miles from his village of Glountane, and by far the biggest population center in the area with a couple thousand residents. O’Keeffe would play for tips or – more likely, as he got older – drinks.
Ireland in the 1950s was very much still a third world country, and no films of O’Keeffe (with actual sound) even exist. To compound the problem, O’Keeffe, who was born in 1887, was already well into his sixties and past his prime by the time he was recorded. Perhaps that’s why he retains legendary status in the minds of even the musicians who are proponents of his style: “His best playing may well be lost to time, so there will always be a sense of mystery about the man,” guitarist Paul DeGrae says.
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[Rus Bradburd is the author of “Paddy on the Hardwood,” a memoir about his struggles to learn the Irish fiddle while coaching basketball in County Kerry, Ireland.]
Photo by Dennis Daily: Rus Bradburd and Paddy Jones on fiddle.