Publican whose premises were a Mecca for musicians
SLIABH LUACHRA’s unique brand of traditional music was once succinctly described by Dan O’Connell of Knocknagree, who has died at the age of 87, as a state of mind.
Many a set dancer, bodhrán, fiddle and box player enjoyed that rare elixir on the floor of the pub he made famous in the village nestling in the northwest corner of Co Cork on the Kerry border.
For lovers of Irish music as far afield as Japan, O’Connell’s pub in Knocknagree was the place to be, a hub of storytelling, banter, singing, laughter and craic.
As sometimes happens when the land is poor – Sliabh Luachra literally means the mountain of the rushes – this tightly-knit community in the heart of Duhallow produced its own style of polka music, driven by the fast rhythms that are ideally suited for battering the floor.
Leading exponents of its distinctive style of playing include such names as Padraig O’Keeffe, Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford, Tom Billy, Thadelo Sullivan, Din Tarrant and Johnny O’Leary.
The story of Connell’s pub, as it became known locally, became synonymous with the revival of polka sets and the pulsating music that goes hand and glove with close dancing. It all began in 1957 when Dan, who had tried farming for a spell, purchased a small pub in Knocknagree (Cnoc na Graí, meaning the hill of the horse stud). By the mid-1960s the pub, by then extended, had become established as a centre of music and dancing.
The first set-dancing session took place on the premises on St Stephen’s Night in 1965. Providing the music for that unforgettable session were the superb box player Johnny O’Leary and Denis “The Weaver” Murphy, whose marvellous fiddle playing had a special sound all of its own. They had accepted an invitation from Dan to play at regular sessions.
From everyone’s perspective it was an inspired move. Brought up in the Sliabh Luachra tradition, the publican himself would enthusiastically lead the dancing, guiding many on the their first steps.
For the next 40 years it was to become a Mecca for musicians. With the likes of Johnny and Denis playing together there on Friday and Sunday nights, O’Connell’s became known for set dancing sessions. It became home for the Sliabh Luachra sound, drawing traditional musicians from every quarter.
In his youth, O’Connell was well known as an athlete and cyclist, winning Cork and Munster championships. A keen student of history, he was intrigued by the goings-on in the North and once cycled from Knocknagree to Derry to see the loyalists marching to fife and drum on the Twelfth. His curiosity satisfied, he cycled home.
Though he had put on some weight with the passing years, he maintained the fitness of a dancer and could match the best of them in a polka. A natural teacher, he encouraged people to take to the floor and will be warmly remembered by many a couple for teaching them their first dance steps. Singers were always made welcome, and anyone who could raise a song was sure of gaining the respect and silence that once characterised country pubs.
The story goes that when diehard dancers called for “one for the road’’ they meant a final swing around the floor, not a drop from the top shelf.
While many publicans are mainly interested in selling more drink, for Dan that elusive essence of music, dancing and the culture of Sliabh Luachra were much more important. He once said: “As I see it, the people, the music and the dancing are the culture, and all three are crucial.”
He had been in failing health for some time and the pub is no longer in business. In his time, it had become a focal point for the best of traditional music, a pub where memorable radio and television recordings were made and books and CDs were launched.
Marking his deep personal influence on the twin revival of Sliabh Luachra music and polka set dancing, he was presented in 2005 with the Friends of the Culture Tradition of Sliabh Luachra Award at the Patrick O’Keeffe Traditional Music Festival in Castleisland, Co Kerry. For a legendary dancer, publican, teacher and tireless promoter of all aspects of Sliabh Luachra culture, it was a well deserved tribute.
He is survived by his wife, Hannah Mai and children Mairéad, Lucy, Siobhán, Raymond, Aileen, Séamus and Noel.
Dan O’Connell: born July 19th, 1921; died May 24th, 2009