Roll up your Sliabh and blaze a trail

The Sliabh Luachra Music Trail is a promising initiative to preserve and promote this rich local style

Matt Cranitch: ‘In this trend towards globalisation of cultures, we need to look inwards as well, and look to the primary sources in terms of both the Sliabh Luachra repertoire and the style of playing’

Matt Cranitch: ‘In this trend towards globalisation of cultures, we need to look inwards as well, and look to the primary sources in terms of both the Sliabh Luachra repertoire and the style of playing’


It’s not so much a geographical location as a state of mind. That’s how writer Con Houlihan described Sliabh Luachra, a maelstrom of traditional music that lies on the border of Cork and Kerry, with Ballydesmond, Gneeveguilla and Scartaglen at its beating heart.

Its polkas and slides have propelled this music well past the county boundaries, with its finest exponents including the late Patrick O’Keeffe, Johnny O’Leary, Julia Clifford and Denis Murphy. These days, Sliabh Luachra music thrives under the talents of fiddler Matt Cranitch, accordion master Jackie Daly (who rechristened it “Sliabh Lucrative” music) and this year’s TG4 Young Traditional Musician Of The Year, box player Bryan O’Leary, a grandson of Johnny O’Leary.

Despite a rich tapestry of tunes, some traditional music players sense a certain second-class citizenship when it comes to the profile of the Sliabh Luachra style. Our music has flourished precisely because of its local accents: Donegal’s fiddle style and Sligo’s flute styles have been pivotal in retaining the music’s richness of colour, and Sliabh Luachra’s music has thrived on its intimate relationship with dancers, and the eternal glint in its eye.

But if the musicians and arts administrators acquainted with Sliabh Luachra these days have anything to do with it, this regional style will benefit from a concerted effort to promote and protect it from the threat of homogenisation.

Recently, the Sliabh Luachra Music Trail was launched in Ballydesmond, by Cork and Kerry arts officers Ian McDonagh and Kate Kennelly. With an initial focus on supporting the various local music festivals across the region, its plan includes nurturing the local style through masterclasses and workshops, with an accompanying website.

Cranitch, whose PhD focused on the intimate music of Patrick O’Keeffe (whose fiddle, it has been suggested, was his missus), is optimistic that this Sliabh Luachra Music Trail will yield rich pickings. “At a time of mass communication, where everybody hears every kind of music, in the end, no one knows nothing about anything really,” says Cranitch.

“It’s a form of information overload in many respects, so it’s great to have a local focus. People are looking towards and valuing what we have ourselves. In this trend towards globalisation of cultures, we need to look inwards as well, and look to the primary sources in terms of both the Sliabh Luachra repertoire and the style of playing.”

John Reidy, one of the founders of Castleisland’s Patrick O’Keeffe festival, says the benefit for the music of Sliabh Luachra will be “enormous, with an emphasis on its preservation and promotion as a music, rather than as a tourist attraction. At the first Patrick O’Keeffe festival, in 1993, Ciarán MacMathúna appealed to us to mind the music of Sliabh Luachra. ‘What ye have here is a gem,’ he said. And sure, how do you get words like that out of your head from a man of his stature?”

What someone like Patrick O’Keeffe might make of the Sliabh Luachra Music Trail is anyone’s guess. Cranitch has studied the man’s music and life.

“He was a man to eschew officialdom,” he says, with a gift for understatement. “I’m not sure what he’d make of it. He was driven by his muse and he would want to play the music in some place or other. But really, it’s hard to say. He lived in a different era.”

Ger Curtin, nephew of the late fiddler Con Curtin, of Brosna, thinks Sliabh Luachra can only flourish in the face of this initiative. “It’s wonderful that it’s happening. The music of Sliabh Luachra was part of Con’s gene pool. I remember how Patrick O’Keeffe was snow-bound up at Con’s house for a few weeks in the 1960s and if that wasn’t a blessing in disguise, I don’t know what is.”

The Catskills Irish Arts Week, in New York, will this year host a Sliabh Luachra fiddle class and a repertoire class. And 2014 will also mark significant anniversaries of the passing of Johnny O’Leary, Denis Murphy and Seamus Creagh. There is much to celebrate and much to remember as the music trail begins its journey, says John Reidy.

“The flight path of musicians has always been unpredictable, and we never know when or where they’re going to come from, but we’re always amazed when they arrive here. They’re like migratory birds. We should probably tag them and see if they come back again next year. We’re always surprised when people arrive from Japan, or the outer reaches of Canada or Bermuda. But that’s been a constant all the same.”

Sliabh Luachra’s musical accent will survive and thrive, Reidy says, not least because conditions these days are vastly different to those which the flag bearers of the tradition endured in their lifetimes.

“Young people today are playing better music than their grandfathers ever did,” Reidy says, “because their instruments are kept in better condition – they’re not kept in damp houses, or carried up on the bars of bicycles, getting wet on the way to a session, or kept on a counter of a damp pub. They have more access to teachers and they have the influence of television, be it good or bad.”;;

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