Posts Tagged With: Danu

A Tour through Sliabh Luachra. Russian Collusion?

Anton Zille is from Moscow. He plays the fiddle, is a regular visitor to Ireland and is totally obsessed with Irish music. Not just Irish music but music from Sliabh Luachra. He runs Sliabh Luachra sessions and dances in Moscow and is a fund of knowledge on the genre.

Sliabh Luachra  is an ill defined area in the heart of Munster, straddling the Cork-Kerry border. Here a unique musical and dance tradition evolved, perhaps, due to its isolation. Perhaps also because of this isolation it remains preserved to this day. Numerous dance sets survive with local variations and with local tunes for accompaniment.


Catherine Mosksovskova and Anton Zille outside Padraig O’Keeffe’s house, Glentaune.


Oh yes, Anton.  I had spent the week with him and another visitor from Moscow, harp player Catherine Moskovskova,  at the Scoil Cheoil an Earraigh in Ballyferriter, near Dingle.  This was back in February 2016. When I mentioned to Anton that I knew nothing of Sliabh Luachra, he seized the opportunity. “Oh there’s a session in Newmarket you might like on Monday. Why dont you give me and my friend Catherine, a lift there?” “And I will show you Sliabh Luachra”.

It did cross my mind that there was something ironic about being shown the hidden secrets of an area, that most Irish know nothing about, and having the culture explained to me by a fiddling Muscovite.  Naturally I agreed.

Mea culpa time. I have already admitted I knew nothing about Sliabh Luachra.  Its music, its geography, the culture. Of course I had heard of Padraig O’Keeffe and Johnny O’Leary and Jackie Daly and Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford (I even own a copy of Star Above the Garter on vinyl). But growing up in the Australian trad music scene, such as it was, no one played polkas except beginners and if they did play them they didn’t know how to play them properly. This was reinforced when I moved to Ennis, where it is rare to hear a polka or slide in a session.  When you do, often as not, someone would raise their fingers forming a cross as if to ward off vampires.

But Sliabh Luachra is not just polkas and slides. Reels, hornpipes and jigs get a good look in. There is a wonderful book on Johnny O’Leary’s music by Terry Moylan. His repertoire showed a surprisingly even distribution of polkas, slides, jigs, reels and hornpipes, though slides and polkas together made up nearly 50%.   This pie chart shows this.

2017-05-30 (2)

Tune types in Johnny O’Leary’s repertoire.  Data from Johnny O’Leary of Sliabh Luachra by Terry Moylan.


In fact the arrival of polkas and slides was probably in the late 19th Century.  Prior to this manuscripts from Sliabh Luachra are devoid of these tunes and dominated by reels, jigs, airs and programme music.

The name Sliabh Luachra. One translation is ‘mountain of rushes’ which would be fairly apt as it is covered by bog and beds of rushes.  Another says the name comes from Ciarraí Luchre,  a pre-celtic god who also gave Kerry its name.   In any case the area was largely uninhabited until the 16th Century and then stayed a remote outpost away from the gaze of the authorities.  It wasn’t until the 19th Century that roads were built and the area became noted for butter production.

Culturally the area has a unique heritage. Famed for it’s literature and poetry as well as its music.

So Monday night in Newmarket found us in Scully’s pub.



Scully’s Bar Newmarket.


Behind the simple unpretentious façade is the perfect session pub. The music is in the back room as it has been for over forty years. Large enough to accommodate twenty musicians comfortably. This night there were a dozen.

The pub has been in the Scully family for over nearly 100 years. Sessions started at the behest of Jackie Daly, who lived five minutes away in Kanturk, in the early 70s and have been held every Monday since.

It became THE gathering place with Jackie Daly joined by Johnny Leary, Julia Clifford, Jimmy Crowley and many others. With many of the attendees being taught by Padraig O’Keeffe there was a direct link to the master. It is kept alive today by stalwarts like Timmy O’Connor, who unfortunately wasn’t there this time, and Ray O’Sullivan and John Walsh, who led the session this time.

This was a gathering of musicians who wanted to play together for the sheer fun of it. So of course it was a bit up and down. There were some beginners and they were given quite a bit of scope to start tunes. There was Marie Forrest on the piano; she’s been coming for 36 years. This added a strong rhythmic element and you could just imagine the floor filled with dancers.

Of course there were polkas and slides but there was a good mix of all the old standards. Many of the polkas I didn’t recognise, but many I did.  It certainly helped that I play regularly with Jackie Daly, who now lives in Miltown Malbay in County Clare and plays in Friels Pub every week. What I really loved was the sharing culture of this session. If people didn’t know the tune then it was played again, slower, for people to pick it up. Perhaps this was a hangover from the days when people such as Jackie and Johnny O’Leary were the custodians of the tunes and passed them to the next generation.

The pace was gentler than I expected. Sweeter. Not at all like the West Kerry version with its preponderance of accordions and driving rhythm (Cooney/Begley influence?) .

This seems to be the only regular session in the Sliabh Luachra region which was surprising for an area with such a rich tradition.  A bit like East Clare I suppose where it is hard to find a session outside of Feakle.

Next day Anton, as promised, was my guide on a tour of the area. There were so many familiar town names. Ballydesmond, Scartaglen, Newmarket. All with polkas and slides named after them. Apparently the local set dances had no names and the early collectors identified them by the locality. The tunes attached to these sets were then somewhat arbitrarily named also. Many tune names became attached to towns only as a matter of convenience so not too much can be read into the name.

We had to visit the holy shrine. The birthplace of Padraig O’Keefe. The house where he was born in 1887 is at Glountane Cross. It is still there. Just. He lived there until he died in 1963.



Padraig O’Keeffe’s house.  Another view.


Commemorative plaque at Padraig O’Keeffe’s house


Padraig O’Keeffe’s house.  Beyond repair?


His father was the headmaster of the nearby national school and Padraig became a teacher there in 1915.  We visited the school which is also a crumbling ruin.


National School at Glountane. 


Interior of National School, Glountane


Anton Zille at National School Glountane


He was not happy in the job and left about 1920 to become and itinerant fiddle teacher.  For the next 40 years he walked up and down the hills of Kerry/Cork sometimes as much as 30 miles a day.


General view Sliabh Luachra



Padraig O’Keeffe walked these roads for forty years


By all accounts he was a good teacher and developed his own style of notation.  A system of 4 spaces between 5 lines to show the strings and the numbers 0 1 2 3 4  to show the fingers.  A number of his manuscripts survive and are housed in the Irish Music Traditional Archive.  These images come from their online copies.


From a manuscript showing Padraig O’Keeffe’s unique notation.  Courtesy ITMA. 


Another page from the same manuscript.  Courtesy ITMA


He frequently played in Jack Lyon’s Pub in Scartaglen which is still there.


Lyon’s Bar Scartaglen.


Among his pupils were Denis Murphy, Murphy’s sister Julia Clifford and Johnny O’Leary.

Sliabh Luachra is not just Padraig O’Keeffe and the music.  There are a lot of interesting things to see.  It gets quite hilly to the south with the Paps of Anu dominating the landscape to the south.  The name originates from the similarity of the two mountains to the shape of the breasts of the legendary pre-Christian goddess Anu (Danu).  THis is the same Danu that gave her name to the Well known traditional band, the River Danube and Denmark!  You can drive through these mountains though the roads get a bit rough.  We visited Shrona Lake.  Ruggedly spectacular.


The Cork and Kerry Mountains


The Paps of Anu


Walking in the Paps


Lake Shrona


Then there is An Cathair Cubh Dearg.  Also known as The City, this site with the Paps as a backdrop is said to be the first place populated in Ireland and the  oldest centre of continuous worship in the world!  Tuatha De Danann (descendants of Danu) settled here 10,000 years ago.  The ring fort wall dates from this time.  It was later used as a place of Christian worship.


Ring fort wall at The City.  Paps of Anu in the background.


An Cathair Cubh Dearg, showing ancient wall and Christian elements. 


So that’s it.  Sliabh Luachra.  Great music, heritage, landscape.  And thanks to Russian ‘collusion’ I now understand it better!

Categories: My Journey, Sessions, Stories, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Dungarvan Trad Fest 2016

Hard to believe really that it was a year ago that I was at Dungarvan, in Co Waterford, last. This time the weather was super kind. Blue cloudless skies meant shorts and thongs all weekend. But really little else had changed. No gig rig this year as they had pulled up the streets to repave, but the same Busking Competition, same super sessions, concert by Danu and the Bucket Singing.

 I urge you to check out my blog from last year,  because I think I covered it all there. The main attraction as always was the sessions. There is no shortage of quality musicians here with some wonderful combinations. A treat was Bobby Gardiner, Matt Cranitch, Jackie Daly, Andrew MacNamara and Gerry Harrington. An amazing and unique assortment.  And Charlie Piggott with Gerry Harrington and too many others to mention. This Festival is a Hidden Secret. Not on the International circuit, like Willie Week, Feakle or Ennis TradFest,  which have their bands of loyal followers,  and that’s good in some ways, but really such depth of musicianship deserves to be seen by many more.

Only downside (?) this time was that all the pubs were mental on Saturday night due to the result of some hurling game or other  (can’t actually remember the result). Put this on the calendar though and try and get there for next year.

Here are a few shots from sessions, street buskers, singers and the Sunday concert featuring Danu.

I will put some video up in due course so keep an eye out on my YouTube channel.  In fact follow it and you’ll be notified.



Categories: Concerts, Festivals, Sessions, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dungarvan TradFest and Danú

How many Festivals have you gone to recently with a line-up of musicians such as this? Connie O’Connell, Gerry Harrington, Andrew MacNamara, Eileen O’Brien, Charlie Piggott, Matt Cranitch, John Carty, Jackie Daly, Donal McCague, Sean Ryan, …… oh and Danú and heaps more. This was Dungarvan TradFest 2015 held in the Waterford town over the June Bank Holiday weekend. It’s a pity more musicians don’t make the trip to take part, because it was well worth it.

There were only a few formal functions with a free choral concert on the opening night a concert with John and Maggie Carty and the highlight, Danu’s 20th anniversary concert. In between was a gig rig with appearances from well-known groups along with local bands and wall to wall sessions. The festival coincided with the County Fleadh so it was possible to attend these competitions also. And there were events that I hadn’t seen elsewhere including a Busking Competition (for which yours truly was dragooned into being a judge!) and a Bucket Singing Competition.

It started on the Thursday with the Official Opening by the worldwide head of Comhaltas, Vince Jordan, some tunes from local young musicians and then a concert by the Cor Fear na nDeise,  a local male choir and 120 children from local schools. Aside from the spectacular achievement of coordinating this throng, the music was delightful. All in Irish and all sung with gusto. The choir led by Darren O Droma really pulled it off and to see the unbridled enthusiasm of the children performing to a packed auditorium of largely proud parents was wonderful to see.


IMG_3231 IMG_3346 IMG_3519 IMG_3506

There was no formal session that night but I was told of a session afterwards at Lismore, an half an hour away. It was held in the appropriately named Classroom Bar and led by young musicians including All –Ireland champions, Sarah and Seamus O’Gorman. Great tunes. Fast and energetic. The session was hijacked though by locals and it became a good old Irish ‘sing song’ with one song starting almost before the other had finished. We had a plethora of old favourites and some rousing and not-so-rousing renditions. In fact we had songs sung in keys not yet invented. Nevertheless it was all sung with passion and it was great craic. It was amusing to watch the frustrated musicians waiting patiently for the tiniest gap to jump in with a tune.

IMG_3546 IMG_3611 IMG_3615

I had got a tip there may be music out at Ring. Ring (An Rinn) is only fifteen minutes from Dungarvan and on the way to to Helvic Head (I really must learn that tune). It is a small Gaeltacht area and fiercely proud of it. So I headed out there next day. After a long chat with fisherman Jack at the harbour at Helvic and a few deep breaths to recharge the batteries I headed to Mooney’s Pub where sure enough some of the best local music talent was gathered to help celebrate the end of the school term. I recognised musicians from the concert the night before including the leader Darren.. What a pleasant way to spend a sunny afternoon.

IMG_3839 IMG_3853 IMG_3873 IMG_3884


That night there was a concert by John Carty and his daughter Maggie at The Local, so I got there early to take up a seat in the front row. I have always admired his playing since I met him in Perth back in a previous century. How deliciously sweet it is, with effortless bowing and a beautiful flowing rhythm, Maggie’s talented banjo playing provided a terrific counterpoint. It was gorgeous music enhanced occasionally by guest spots from Donnchadh Gough from Danu on the bodhran, who just happens to own the pub. And then the icing on the cake, they stayed around for a session with some of the young local musicians and a few others dropped in such as Andrew MacNamara. I was privileged to be part of this . Perhaps the less said about the dancing though the better.

IMG_4215 IMG_4045 IMG_4272 IMG_4363 IMG_4328 IMG_4386 IMG_4420

The weather was not kind the next day with squally rain and occasional hail though there were sunny breaks. I had just ordered my hamburger at the The Local when an harassed organiser came in. “We have a problem, can you help”? Turns out that a judge for the busking competition had pulled out and they needed an urgent replacement. Like right then! The busking was underway and there was about half an hour to go. Never one to refuse a challenge I agreed and after scoffing my burger I was discussing strategy with the Chairman of Comhaltas, who was the other judge. There were no guidelines;  how on earth do you judge a busking competition? So we went our separate ways and arrived at three “winners”. Turns out however that this was just Day One and there were another 15 contestants next day AND Vince was leaving that night so I would have to judge the remainder and and pick the winners out of both days. As it turned out the winners were obvious and I was able to remain in town unscathed without being hacked to pieces by irate parents.

IMG_4440 IMG_5244 IMG_5267

Of course my raison d’etre for being at festivals is to session and each day from 4 pm I followed the Session Trail until the small hours. In fact most nights I went to bed as the sun rose. There were many highlights. For example a truly tasty session in a quiet pub with Gerry Harrington, Charlie Piggins and James Duggan being one. Another was to be joined on a couple of occasions by living legend and genius John Dwyer (brother of Michael, Finbar and Ritchie), a delightful man and a wonderful musician. Here is a selection of photos. You’ll get the picture.

IMG_4532 IMG_4554 IMG_4611 IMG_4669 IMG_4729 IMG_4768 IMG_4870 IMG_5084 IMG_5487 IMG_5757 IMG_5927 IMG_5930 IMG_5937

IMG_4812 IMG_4989

The headline concert on Sunday night was at a function room at the Park Hotel and 600 plus people crammed into a space that they really shouldn’t have. It was bursting at the seams and there was a mad rush to get more seats to accommodate some of those standing. The warm up act was a group of young local musicians featuring Claire and Niamh Fennell, Clara Mannion & Sarah O’Gorman and really they did a fantastic job.

Danú are local heroes and one of Ireland’s most durable traditional bands. Most of their current line up was there and a few guests including previous singer Ciarán Ó Gealbháin joining Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and Donal Lunny, producer of two of their albums. . This was a high energy concert and there was a buzz in the hall as they were celebrating their twentieth year together. They were clearly happy to be there and from the opening chord to the electric dancing and the rousing climax kicked off with a bodhran solo from Donnchadh Gough there was never a dull moment. The loyal and loving home crowd was screaming for more.

IMG_6069 IMG_6108 IMG_6148 IMG_6217 IMG_6300 IMG_6354 IMG_6387 IMG_6407 IMG_6409 IMG_6414 IMG_6430 IMG_6468 IMG_6485 IMG_6529 IMG_6552 IMG_6670 IMG_6675 IMG_6698 IMG_6743 IMG_6747 IMG_6779 IMG_6792

There were a few intrepid survivors on the Monday and they gathered at Downey’s Pub for the Bucket Singing Competition. This long standing Waterford tradition (well it is at least two years old) involves singing with a bucket over your head and then being savagely demolished by an entirely unsympathetic adjucator. Quality had nothing to do with the final result with rules being invented and broken as the competition went on. The majority of competitors suffered the Downey’s Drop announced solemnly after the adjudicator donned a black handkerchief.  It was great craic and at the risk of my never being allowed to compete again the organisers would have great difficulty defending the accusation that the winner was a not home town decision! I have contacted my lawyers! Congratulations to the organisers and in particular to the MC (Sean) and Judge (Dick) who kept it all together with a marvellous commentary. Bucket Singing may have a controversial history with some saying it goes back hundreds of years but the winner on the night was that other Irish tradition of slagging.

IMG_6862 IMG_7197 IMG_7364 IMG_7392

There were more sessions on the Monday but the enthusiasm was waning and by midnight everyone and believe it or not, yours truly, had had enough.

A memorable weekend and seamlessly organised by the ever present Michael Marrinan and an amazing committee. Well done all.

Categories: Concerts, Festivals, Sessions, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Blog at