Celebrating the Music of Brian O’Kane
It was like being back in Peadar McArdle’s or the Conradh all over again. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine Rory Kennedy sitting beside me. Rory’s old friend Brian O’Kane beside him, former pupils scattered around the circle that seemed to get closer as it got larger. Instead it was his son Éamonn on the fiddle. Even though I hadn’t played them in years, I seemed to instinctively remember the tunes; when somebody started ‘Roly Poly’, we knew ‘The Hunter’s House’ would come next. When we played Rory’s jig, the hairs stood on the back of my head. When he died, I missed him in my further musical development but as we played his notes, he lived on in the session - Adèle
I generally feel as if I am well settled in Louth now but there are reminders of how recent I have come here. I am a blow-in, in typical Irish style. The after show session brought me into a Dundalk musical space out of time to which I was a stranger. I recognised and played along with many of the tunes but some were new. Adèle would mouth across that one was composed by Rory, another by Éamonn. As if in a time warp, people who had not played together in years turned back time. Not needing to speak as sets of tunes flowed, led principally by Éamonn, Brian and Adèle. They remembered their friends and heroes who were not here. I have different heroes from another place. Pat and Seán Ahern, Nicky and Anne McAulliffe, Patricia Hanafin and Mike O’Shea are inspirations to me in Kerry. Seánie Mahony and Martin Whelan are no longer with us but are remembered in stories . Now, in Louth, I am encountering new heroes in local musical narratives. It is not the first time the musical worlds of Kerry and Louth have overlapped. In a serendipitous twist, my heroes met the heroes of Louth over forty years ago through Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and Siamsóirí na Ríochta. I am, once again, following in their footsteps - Daithí
Originally from Monaghan with Newry connections, Brian O’Kane is a noted composer of marches and hornpipes for céilí bands. He is married to Pat Gardiner, a fiddle player from Dundalk. She is the daughter of the legendary John Joe Gardiner (1892–1979) from Co. Sligo who influenced the music of the town during his time here. As well as playing with the famous Siamsa Céilí Band who won the ‘three-in-a-row’ All-Ireland titles (1967–1969), Brian and Pat also founded the Fódhla Céilí Band in 1974. Darragh was the second accordion player and he joined when he was eighteen years old. Niamh, his sister also sometimes played tin whistle or piano. His son Don also joined the band in 2001 and is currently Chair of the John Joe Gardiner branch of CCÉ in Dundalk where his children Sarah and Rory are now learning. Brian and Pat were also part of the Siamsa Céilí Band that was victorious in 1990 and second in 1991, narrowly missing out on another three-in-a-row. Brian’s tunes remain popular amongst céilí bands to the present and were performed by All-Ireland finalists the Templemichael Céilí Band in Sligo in 2015. Two of Brian’s Marches, ‘Brian O’Kane’s March’ were recorded by The Glinside and The Glincastle Céilí Band in America as part of the Martin Mulvihill School recording Irish Music: The Living Tradition (1977) and his hornpipe was recorded by The Garryowen Céilí Band on from The Shores of America (1976).
Last Autumn, we met with Brian O’Kane about the potential to have a concert of his music at Dundalk Institute of Technology. Adèle had played some of his marches in various céilí bands as a child; one was a particular favourite of her father. Daithí met Brian much more recently, introduced at a Leinster Fleadh by their mutual friend Nicky McAulliffe. In more recent times we have played a little with Brian’s son Don, who first proposed the idea for a concert at Dundalk Institute of Technology. Brian gave us a number of tapes, photographs, LPs and transcriptions of his tunes – a remarkable archive that he hoped could help us. It was the beginnings of an exciting new research project that is constantly growing and, on Wednesday night, bore its first fruit.
Since Christmas, the music students at Dundalk Institute of Technology had been learning tunes composed by Brian O’Kane. Daithí began scanning the images and compiling a narrative, as well as writing arrangements of some of the tunes for performance by the Ceol Oirghialla Ensemble. There were some undergraduate theses and old Treoir articles that could be referenced. Mary Gaughran, Olive Murphy and Siobhán Kennedy also provided us with information and artefacts. These became a powerpoint presentation, material for the concert programme and a book of tunes with notes on Brian’s life, the Siamsa Céilí Band and the Fódhla Céilí Band. While this first concert in a series focused on Brian O’Kane, it opened up to include memories of John Joe Gardiner, Rory Kennedy, Kevin O’Callaghan and others who have passed on but also deserve to be remembered. So too, it reminded us of great musicians who are still with who deserve to be celebrated while they are here.
The concert opened with the ensemble performing two of Brian’s marches named after his homplace in Ballybay – ‘The Ford of the Birch Trees’ and ‘The Shores of Lough Gowna’. This narrative was continued through his tunes like ‘The Bluebell Hill’ before Brian came to the stage to chat about his life and music. Our chat was interspersed with more music as we reflected on his time with the Siamsa Céilí Band, fifty years from when they won the first of their three-in-a-row All-Ireland Senior titles. Messages came through from former members Brendan Gaughran and Matt Molloy who were unable to be present on the night. Those who were there reacted fondly to the stories and more of his tunes like ‘Patsy G’s Favourite’, a hornpipe written for his wife Pat Gardiner who could not be with us on the night but who could enjoy a recording of the concert at a later date.
As the second half developed, students told a little of the story of the Siamsa and Fódhla Céilí Bands, again interspersed with tunes including ‘The Siamsa March’ and ‘The Fódhla Brigade’. Special guests came to the stage and the concert witnessed the debut of Brian’s granddaughter Sarah on fiddle alongside her teacher Noreen McManus. Her dad, Don, chairman of Craobh JJ Gardiner CCÉ accompanied flute player Dr Donal Fitzpatrick on piano, having earlier accompanied Dr Adèle Commins, a former All-Ireland winning piano accordion student of Rory Kennedy’s and now Head of Department of Creative Arts, Media and Music at DkIT. Don’s brother Darragh, nephew Matthew and niece Tara then joined Brian for a few sets along with long-time drummer with the Fódhla, Donal Fitzpatrick Snr. Mick Foster, Moyra Fraser and Noel Battle also made their way to Dundalk to pay tribute to and perform with Brian on the night.
The night did not finish with the concert as many of the crowd made their way to the Crowne Plaza Hotel beside the campus for a rousing session. Filling one end of the bar, the mixture of DkIT students, lecturers, Dundalk locals, friends of Brian and guests from further afield, played tunes that inspired memories of great times and people in Louth musical circles. They recounted Fleadhanna the length and breadth of the country – particularly apt coming only nights after the location for the 2018 Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann was announced as Drogheda. There is a great musical story to be told in the Wee County and plenty of people to tell it.
At DkIT we are acutely aware of the strong cultural heritage in our region. We are cognisant of the important contribution made by a number of musicians to the cultivation of a strong tradition of Irish music in Dundalk over the years, and here at DkIT we recognise our role in preserving, nurturing and most importantly continuing these traditions in our programmes. Central to the performance of traditional music at DkIT is the Ceol Oirghialla Traditional Ensemble who enrich the cultural life of the community and the North-East. This ensemble is woven into the identity of the Department in promoting and preserving the rich cultural heritage of the Oriel region. We are very proud of their commitment and enthusiasm in conserving the rich treasures of our region. Having travelled widely in recent times to perform in Scotland, Norway, America and Brazil, our musicians are always delighted to celebrate and present their local musical heritage, including the music of Brian O’Kane.