Gradam Ceoil TG4 : Interview with Mick O' Brien on The Goodman Project

This year the TG4 Gradam Ceoil awards have introduced a new category into their annual award ceremony.  It celebrates the idea of collaboration in traditional music and the first recipients are a trio of musicians who’ve had the foresight to see new opportunity in some very old music. The musicians involved are Mick O’Brien – pipes, Emer Mayock – flute and Aoife Ní Bhriain – fiddle.  That music was contained within the Goodman manuscripts which had lain unpublished for 130 years. Their decision to release an album that showcased this marvellous collection of music resulted in one of the best recordings of 2013. It was simply called Tunes from the Goodman Manuscripts.  In truth they had been involved with these manuscripts for a number of years before the idea of recording an album arose.  They took significant pleasure from the process with the Gradam award being simply the icing on the cake.

“Canon James Goodman (1828-96) for those who don’t know, came from the parish of Ventry in the Corca Dhuibhne (Dingle) Peninsula.  He was a clergyman, a native Irish speaker, a flute player and uilleann piper. He also served as professor of Irish in Trinity College Dublin. From 1860-1866, he collected and compiled four music manuscripts which have been held since his death in the Library of Trinity. They contain well over 2000 melodies collected from pre famine times in Munster. The core element of the Goodman collection was edited by Dr. Hugh Shields and published by ITMA in 1998. The CD contains a small selection from Hugh Shields’ edition of the Goodman manuscripts”.

To uncover some of the background to this inspiring work we caught up with piper Mick O’ Brien.  He opened our discussion by expressing his pleasure at seeing it getting some recognition, especially for the work done by the ITMA, Peter Browne and others. “That would be an important part of it for me anyway” he says.  “It’s great for the work that many others did including Hugh Shields and Breandán Breathnach before him.  I grew up learning pipes in Na Píobairí Uilleann and encountered Breandán Breathnach, Pat Mitchell, Dan O’ Dowd and all those characters. I was only a nipper at the time and I didn’t realise it then but I actually heard Breandán on about the Goodman material.

Mick’s next encounter with the manuscripts came when Peter Browne invited him to play some of the music for a radio programme he was making.  “There was Emer, myself, Zoë Conway, Neil Martin on cello and Tommy Hayes on bodhrán” he says.  “Peter is a fantastic broadcaster.  He has a fantastic knowledge of the music, and whatever he does you know it’s going to be good, you know it’s going to be quality.  No matter if it’s on radio or television. He has a great sense of humour as well and I love his quirky take on things, the way he thinks about different aspects of life. Initially Peter had given us a few tunes and said have a look at these and see what you think.   So we learned them and they were included as part of that radio show.”



“Then I think it was 2009 and there was a concert scheduled for the Concert Hall on St. Patrick’s night.  Peter contacted us again and said he wanted to include some of the Goodman material.  Then we started getting interested again and put a few pieces together for this concert. Zoë Conway however couldn’t do it due to other engagements so we suggested Aoife who he was very familiar with as well.  From there we started working on the material to get a set together for the concert.  Aoife who is classically trained played various pieces for us.  So we kind of said, like that one, like that one, don’t like that. We basically started going through the material to get something different and to get a good selection of tunes for the concert.  In the end we had 40 minutes or more and we played the concert which we all really enjoyed”.

Mick had known Emer Mayock for a long time but hadn’t really sat down and worked with her on a specific project. They are of a like mind when it comes to music and they made a conscious decision to have a bit of fun on the project.  With the amount of material accumulating very quickly they realised that they had something special on their hands and the idea of an album started to surface.

“The music was interesting because of its historical value” Mick says.  “There was a lot of material that we hadn’t heard before and there was some that we had heard. So we got working on it with the assistance of Emer’s partner Dónal who is an engineer and lives in Ross, Co. Mayo, or “Ross Angeles” as we call it.  That was the fun part because Dónal’s a Dub and a bit of a character.  He’s also a great guitar and bouzouki player.  We had great crack along the way as we recorded it in their house in Mayo.  We went down one summer and spent a few weekends at it. The next summer we finished it off.”

By November it was complete and was presented at the William Kennedy Piping Festival in Armagh at the request of Brian Vallely.  Mick is very appreciative of the work that Brian and others involved with the festival have achieved over the last 20 years.  They give artists great freedom to present their music and the reception they got was great.  “It’s one thing having the Goodman book.  It’s an entirely different thing having an album of recordings from it.” Mick says.  “While lots of people had worked on the manuscripts over the years, no one had produced a full album from it and that made all the difference.”



We ask about their general approach to the music?  Is it all serious or are there some light-hearted moments.  “We would be very serious about anything we put out on CD” Mick says.  “However we take a lighter approach to the musicality of it.  There were a couple of tunes where we thought yes it sounds nice but maybe its needs something else.  There was one particular hornpipe where I thought that it didn’t sound like a hornpipe to me, so I said let’s try it as a strathspey or something and we thought yes that’s better, that’s the business.  There was also an old march that we thought sounded more like a polka you’d hear down in Kerry so we changed that over to a polka.  So that’s having a bit of fun with it.  It was written down over 150 years ago so you don’t know was it played as a polka or was it played as a march.  In a way we are putting our interpretation on it.  However a reel is a reel and a jig is a jig”.

The O’ Brien household is typical of many musical households across the country these days. “I would have been more of a traditionalist” Mick says.  “However the youth coming through today, if our household is anything to judge them by, are into all kinds of modern stuff.  When we are listening to traditional music we can be very critical.  That’s coming from the fathers influence I suppose. I just like music to be good.  It doesn’t have to be old, or old fashioned because I listen to all kinds of stuff these days.  I suppose I’m getting more in tune with the more modern aspects of the music. For example we are working on some newly composed material with Dave Flynn at the moment. I’m always open to give anything like that a try.  Even the arrival of all the Riverdance material some years ago really hasn’t affected Irish music as we know it.  When you go out to a session there is nobody sitting down playing a piece from Riverdance.  It’s a bit like in the 70’s and 80’s when we were learning the trade and one day you thought you were Paddy Keenan and the next day you thought you were Liam O’ Flynn. You’d play like the Bothy Band at 100mph one day and the next day you were playing like Planxty.  Like us back then, the younger ones today imitate what they see around them, but at the end of the day it always comes back to the roots.”

On the night Mick, Emer and Aoife will play a couple of sets and after that it looks like it’s going to be a late night.  “You start off thinking we’ll take it nice and handy but then you sit in a session and play a few tunes and you’re there till 3 or 4 in the morning. That always happens no matter what.”

Mick has worked with so many musicians over the years that we ask him how the industry has changed over his time playing.  “What I have seen over the last 10-15 years is that it has really become a lot more professional.  When you go on stage now you have a job to do.  Taking a few pints up on stage, that type of thing doesn’t work anymore.  People go up on stage and present their show, the music and themselves in a much more professional way.  People expect that now.  I see this more and more and that to me is a lot different to the 70’s and 80’s”.

“Young musicians today also have so much more at their disposal and they are much more musically educated. Like all our gang here, many have classical training, plus they have excellent teachers for every instrument all over the country.  That has made a huge difference to their skill level and their musicality.  They can do a lot more and they can experiment. Even after that they still come back and play the good stuff.  They can tear off into classical and other genres and then come back to their roots.”

“My father was always into the music and my wife and all her family were musicians so it was all around us. I know sport, hurling and football was part of our life as well but music was always there.  What I love about the music is the amount of fantastic characters that you meet no matter where you go. It’s enjoyable and fun and that’s what keeps you going.”


This year’s awards ceremony and Gradam Ceoil TG4 Concert will take place in the University 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. Sibéal Teo have produced the show and it will be recorded for broadcast by TG4 on Easter Sunday, April 20th at 9.30pm with Niamh Ni Bhaoill in the producer seat.  They promise a unique, star-studded line-up of musicians and award-presenters alike.  For more information visit


Tickets can now be purchased online 



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