Traditional Irish Music
Talking to Bryan O’ Leary is a refreshing experience and his respect for both his music and his community is evident from the outset. In 10 years or so he has gone from novice to seasoned musician with alarming pace. This is all the more impressive when you realise that as a youngster his inclination was for the football field rather than the music room. Weekend trips to Milltown and other such gatherings of musicians seemed unlikely to change that. Fate and circumstance however had other plans for Bryan and a talent that no doubt remains dormant in many of our youth was awoken.
Sadly, it took a major event to awaken the musician within him and in exchange a giant of traditional music had to pass on. The death of his Grandfather, the legendary Sliabh Luachra accordion player Johnny O’ Leary was the major turning point. In a way you will not find a clearer example of the tradition being passed from one generation to the next. Within a month of Johnny’s passing Bryan had taken up the accordion.
“I remember telling my mother at Johnny’s funeral that I was going to take up the accordion and after that I started pretty much straight away” he says when we spoke to him as part of this interview. “Nearly a week or two after he died I started going down to my national school where a teacher by the name of Henry Cronin taught music. He started me on the basics and from there I went to Nicky McAuliffe, the great musician from Castleisland.”
Bryan was 10 at the time and within weeks of starting he describes it as “a flick of a switch” moment. New doors of both social and musical expression were opened to him. A path from that National School to the Concert Hall of The University of Limerick opened up before him with a Gradam Ceoil TG4 award being his own pot of gold.
“It was a huge change for me because up until the day my Grandfather died I had little interest in the music. Within weeks of starting he states he developed “a fierce interest”. Along with his music classes and lessons with Nickey McAuliffe he went to a regular Sunday session where Jimmy Doyle played. He was another great Sliabh Luachra player and he would have learned a lot from Johnny O’ Leary and in turn passed that on to a young Bryan. “He was very encouraging to me” Bryan says. “Joe O’ Sullivan on flute and Paudie Gleeson on fiddle were also very encouraging and I was picking up a world of music from them by ear. I think that was probably the big thing. I was able to pick up tunes by ear very quickly, even though I was only after starting. Then I’d be sitting at home for hours listening to every CD I could get my hands on and I’d be playing along with it and learning. Before I knew it I had a good old repertoire built up. After that it’s all about perfecting the tunes. I really just sat down and worked at it and between Johnny O’ Leary’s music and the like of Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford I had plenty to be getting on with.”
For Bryan the playing of the music is everything and the middle years of competing in the Fleadh Ceoil for example never appealed to him. “I was never heavy into competitions to be honest. I much preferred going into a music session and playing with a group rather than competing against each other. I don’t think music was made for competition. It was made for enjoyment. I just never liked the whole concept of sitting down and being judged. Obviously the Fleadh Ceoil’s are brilliant and there’s great crack at them but I prefer the session part of it”.
"The music is very much alive and is extremely enjoyable. I love going round to festivals and meeting people from up and down the country who have different music to share. This is what makes it real."
Fast forward to New Year’s Day 2014 when Bryan was sitting at home nursing a bad head from the previous night’s festivities. He took an unexpected call from a TG4 executive. His initial though was that it related to some TV programme or other to do with the music of Sliabh Luachra, “When they said it was for Gradam Ceoil I couldn’t get over it” he says. “I got an awful shock. My parents were thrilled. It was tough keeping it under wraps for a month I can tell you. I wasn’t expecting it at all. With the standard of young musicians around it never crossed my mind. I used to always watch the Gradam programme but never thought that I’d be receiving an award myself.”
The popularity and respect that the Gradam Ceoil TG4 awards enjoy touches on every generation. Bryan however had first-hand knowledge of them as the same grandfather that had so inspired him to take up the accordion, had already received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003.
“In 2003 Johnny received his award shortly before he passed away”, he says. “That was a night that really stands out in my mind. I can remember it very well because he was so sick and it was such a big thing for him. He got a standing ovation on the night and ever since I have followed it with a keen interest. I think it’s a great tribute to Irish musicians. I know it was a brilliant tribute for Johnny. It was great to see him getting an award, especially when he was on his last legs”.
For an elder statesman like Johnny it’s hard to grasp the impact of what that award meant. Its impact on Johnny and the community he represented was no doubt one of the most outstanding nights in his long life. This is where the true heart of the Gradam Ceoil TG4 awards comes into its own. As a musician he lived a life of music that was so integral to the community within which he lived and was rightly recognised and rewarded for his contribution. While he never sought nor was in truth comfortable with it, he must have sat in his local snug thereafter and felt a deep sense of satisfaction. Bryan’s reflection of the night is clear. “Sure he was delighted” he says. “I remember well his nervousness in the hotel beforehand. Even though he wasn’t in his full health, he knew what a big thing it was. But when he went out on stage the music was flowing out of him.”
“He was very modest about it” Bryan says. “I don’t think he felt he deserved anything. I’d say in truth he was delighted but he may have kept it to himself. Underneath it all of course he was very honoured to be receiving it. He felt he was representing more than just himself. He was keeping alive the music that he inherited from those that went before him. It was as much for Denis Murphy, Julia Clifford, the O’ Keeffe’s and all the other great musicians”.
Johnny’s modesty is also evident in Bryan. He also genuinely feels the award is for others and that on the night he is simply accepting it on their behalf. “It’s really the same thing for me” he says. “I don’t see it as an award for me. I see it as more of an award for the entire Sliabh Luachra community. It is recognition for a much wider base of musicians and people and I’m just happy to be the one receiving the award on their behalf.”
Bryan feels very much a part of this community and in spite of an Internet full of traditional music it is still the music of Sliabh Luachra that inspires him. This again is one of the most interesting aspects of our discussion. As a nation we live in an age where we have a global music industry at our fingertips via our smart phones. While debates continue regarding respect for the past or innovation, none of it really matters. In Bryan’s world he simply goes out and plays music with friends and mentors. To him the Internet could very well not exist. He is simply playing a very old music in a very modern age. He is equally inspired by many of today’s players and is not stuck in some time warp. “Even though I have lots of the old stuff on my iPod I still hugely admire many of today’s players. I love Danny O’ Mahony’s music, and the likes of Colm Gannon and Derek Hickey. I love their styles and they would be away from the Sliabh Luachra style. Growing up Jimmy Doyle was also inspiring as was the great Paudie O’ Connor and Brendan Begley. They were a direct link to Johnny O’ Leary as well. They’d be telling stories about various things that happened down the years and that is always interesting.”
“In a way you have two sides to the music” he says. “You have the old style tradition and you have the modern stuff creeping in. For me I was always into the old traditional stuff. Every single person will have their own way of playing and it’s hard to critise anyone’s interpretation.”
“The music is very much alive and is extremely enjoyable. I love going round to festivals and meeting people from up and down the country who have different music to share. This is what makes it real”.
And so we wrap up our discussion with talk of the award night on 12th April. So what’s in store for us on the night? Bryan confirms that he will do a set with Gearóid Ó Duinnín who will provide guitar accompaniment. He will also perform a second set with Gearóid and flute player Colm Guilfoyle. Choosing who to play with was a very tough decision. “To be very honest I have played with a lot of people over the years and I could have had any of them up there with me. When asked by TG4, I was in a major dilemma because I couldn’t decide between them. In an ideal world I’d have them all up on stage with me. In the end I gave TG4 a long list of people and let them decide which would work best on the night, and they decided on Gearóid and Colm."
“There’s no practise done as yet. It could just be done on the night” he jokes. “We could turn to each other on the night and ask, what will we play? I’ll be thinking about the tune types but it’s very hard to pick out the exact ones just yet. I often fancy certain tunes at one point and then go off them for a bit. It all depends come April which tunes appeal the most. I’ll sit down the week before with Colm and Gearóid and work it out”.
We close our chat out with a reflection on what might have been. “I often think had I not gone down the music road what would I be doing now” he says. “I’d be a lot worse off anyway I think. I often think that had Johnny O’ Leary not died when he did I probably would never have started playing. It wasn’t till he died that I realised the impact that he had on so many musicians and people”.
“For now I do the best I can. I never tried to go out and copy his music because he was so distinct. I just want to keep his music and legacy alive for as long as I can”.
This year’s awards ceremony and Gradam Ceoil TG4 Concert will take place in the UL Concert Hall, Limerick on Saturday, 12th April. The concert, hosted by Páidí Ó Lionáird and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, will see the 2014 Gradam recipients joined on stage by their special musical guests. It will be recorded for broadcast on TG4 on Easter Sunday, April 20th at 9.30pm and promises a unique, star-studded line-up of musicians and award-presenters alike. For more information visit www.gradam.ie
Gradam Ceoil is now available to view worldwide on the TG4 Player. Follow This Link
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