I’M TELLING you that Connell is good, he’ll be heard of yet,” declared the late fiddle player Denis Murphy, one of the finest exponents of Sliabh Luachra music.
According to Murphy’s long-time musical consort, accordion player Johnny O’Leary, both men recognised a rare talent when Connie O’Connell first landed at Murphy’s house in Lisheen, Gneeveguilla in Co Kerry in 1967.
“I said to myself, there’s another Denis [Murphy] up’, when I heard Connie Connell playing,” O’Leary recalled when interviewed for an MA thesis on O’Connell’s music by Sheila Randles.
Almost half a century has elapsed since their first musical encounter and both Murphy and O’Leary have since passed away but the Sliabh Luachra legacy flourishes, and Connie O’Connell has indeed been ‘heard of’.
Bóithrín na Smaointe, an online collection of 69 of his traditional tune compositions, will be officially launched tomorrow, for the first time putting a large body of his work in the public domain.
While the collection has been published as a hardback book containing the tunes on two CDs, it is via the internet that it will reach its widest audience, because despite being advised that he would be “shooting himself in the foot, commercially”, O’Connell opted to release his work free online.
The result is that the tunes, both as staff notation and recordings with O’Connell and his daughter Áine on fiddles and piano accompaniment by John Blake, can be downloaded for free, with a plug-in allowing those learning the tunes to control their playback speed.
The collection is an initiative of UCC’s Department of Music, whose senior lecturer Mel Mercier describes O’Connell as “one of the great masters of Irish traditional music”.
O’Connell, who himself has taught at the university for almost 40 years, is master on a national and international level of a style local to the mountainous hinterland of the Cork-Kerry-Limerick borders.
His own home village of Cill na Martra, Co Cork, is geographically barely on its fringes, but O’Connell, self-taught on the fiddle, made it his business to seek out the masters of Sliabh Luachra, a style characterised by the dancing rhythms of its slides and polkas.
“I went in that direction, to Kerry, to get my music — to Killarney and thereabouts — and even to this present day there’s no place else for me to go except Sliabh Luachra in some form or another,” says O’Connell, who is strident in his views on musical dialect.
“It all depends on a matter of taste and where you’re from. I think Donegal music, for example, is great; really beautiful music, but it drives me crazy to have someone from Cork or Kerry go into a competition to try to play that music in a Donegal style. It’s like something alien to me. Let the Donegal people play it that way. Anyone from down here can never achieve that, and vice-versa. To my mind, it can’t be done.”
Though it was attending his first Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in 1967 that ignited his passion for music and led him to Denis Murphy’s door, O’Connell’s first influences were in his own home. His mother played melodeon and after his aunt bought him his first fiddle, it wasn’t long before he was picking up tunes by ear.
“I’d hear a tune on the radio and maybe end up with four bars of the first part and then you had to wait again to see would one of the presenters play the same tune, and then you might get the second four bars and you might wait for another month to get the second part or you might never get it. It meant that when you did get a full tune it was one of the greatest achievements.”
An achievement indeed. But perhaps one matched by O’Connell’s harnessing of the internet to ensure access to the Sliabh Luachra tradition is now but a mouse-click away.
Bóithrín na Smaointe is launched at a public event at the Music Department of UCC on March 26, 6pm.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved