MÁIRTÍN O’CONNOR should be having a whale of a time. “I received a commission about two years ago to write a piece for whales and dolphins,” says the influential accordion player. “The European Cetacean Society had a conference in Galway.
We were asked to perform a 20-minute suite — it was the most amazing thing; a bunch of musicians on stage at 9.30 in the morning. I feel I should get into the studio and start working on that composition as a centre-piece for a CD.”
O’Connor is one of the outstanding accordionists of his generation and will this weekend be honoured with the TG4 Gradam Ceoil traditional music award at a ceremony in Cork. The Galway man has performed with Riverdance, Cara Dillon, and De Dannan, and with the cult folk band, Skylark. Though his style is proudly rooted in the West of Ireland, he does not like to be pigeonholed. He follows his muse. That is why he has enjoyed a varied career, encompassing a dizzying range of disciplines and influences.
“From an early age, I have had broad interests,” he says. “I started with purely traditional music, listening to the great accordion players. Then, I got interested in pipes and older recordings of melodeon, and so forth.
“At about 15, I had a summer job in a band, doing regular pop music. I was just jamming with them.”
He has toured widely and traversed genres. For all his achievements, O’Connor had not pursued a particular goal. He takes opportunities as they are presented, and does not worry about the bigger picture. It’s his way, even at moments of success, such as his stint with Riverdance.
“I’ve been very blessed,” he says. “Looking back, it seems almost miraculous that I raised a family, doing what I have been doing. It’s been a carrousel, in a sense.
“Something always came along. It’s like crossing a stream — another rock would always present itself. I’m hugely thankful.”
O’Connor, who is associated with the button accordion, started playing at age nine. He released his first album, The Connachtman’s Rambles, in 1979, on a label founded by trad impresario and friend, Donal Lunny. The record was a hit amongst the roots community and stayed in the British folk charts for months. Because he was a sought-after side-man, it would be 11 years before O’Connor’s second solo collection, Perpetual Motion, a record that showcased his fluidity as a player and mastery over the accordion.
Meanwhile, he is also gaining a reputation as one of Ireland’s foremost session musicians. He played on The Waterboys’ iconic Fisherman’s Blues album; has toured with Christy Moore and the aforementioned Lunny, and graced projects by such international figures as Mark Knopfler, Elvis Costello and Rod Stewart.
Hollywood inevitably came knocking, too, and O’Connor performed on the soundtrack to Some Mother’s Son (the score was by Bill Whelan of Riverdance) and on Trevor Nunn’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night). For a retiring type who does not think of himself as especially ambitious, he has achieved an awful lot.
He has enjoyed it all hugely and speaks especially highly of Riverdance. However, during his time with the traditional dance juggernaut, he was cognisant that he had a young family at home. Being away was too much of a strain.
“Riverdance was the closest I came to a steady job — apart from the early ’70s, when I worked in Digital Electronics,” he says. “It was a great time. However, the kids were small. I did about a year and a half. I was also with a group called Skylark. At one point, I did a stint with Riverdance, then, back to back, a tour with Skylark. I was away from home an appreciable length of time. With young kinds, you can’t buy back what you lose.
“I decided it was more important not to be away too much. Then other things came along.”
O’Connor is looking forward to coming to Cork for the Gradam Ceoil awards, believing this year’s line-up particularly strong. On Sunday at the city’s Opera House, the ceremony will honour musicians for outstanding achievements in traditional music.
On the night, O’Connor will perform with Cathal Hayden, Jim Higgins and Brendan O’Regan. Also on the bill are Donal Lunny, Ensemble Ériu, Liam O’Flynn and Paddy Glackin, while British actor Jeremy Irons, who is a West Cork resident, will present an award.
The event will, in addition, feature a traditional-music pub trail across the city and a photography exhibition, celebrating previous winners, at The Atrium gallery space at Cork City Hall until March 13. The ceremony is to be broadcast live on TG4 from 9.30pm. The main award goes to O’Connor, who is flattered, yet determined he will not let the acclaim go to his head.
“It will, hopefully, be a good night,” says O’Connor “There is great rapport between the artists on the bill. I’m not saying there wasn’t a great rapport any other year. However, this time, I’m particularly happy that Bobby Gardiner, the great accordion player, is getting recognition. I love his playing. That makes it a special night for me.
“Also, this year, the variety of acts being celebrated has been widened: you have [experimental outfit] Ensemble Ériu, for instance. So there are a lot of interesting aspects to the whole thing. It makes me very happy.”
- Máirtín O’Connor will be presented with the Gradam Ceoil award at Cork Opera House, on Sunday. The accompanying concert begins at 9.30pm and is broadcast live on TG4