Patrick O’Keeffe
The Last of The
Great Fiddle Masters

liabh Luachra, long acknowledged as more a state of mind than a geographical entity in north Kerry, has spawned more than its share of remarkable musicians: Jackie Daly, Johnny O’Leary, Denis Murphy, Julia Clifford, Paddy Cronin and the great blind fiddler, Tom Billy Murphy, to name but a few. But there can no disputing that Patrick O’Keeffe sits in centre stage in that gathering. O’Keeffe’s reportoire has seeped into the collective subconsious of traditional musicians, thanks to the Seamus Ennis recordings of 1948/49 and later Ciarán Mac Mathúna.
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Eldest of 8 Children

Patrick was born in was born in Glountane, an area outside Castleisland, to Margeret O’Callaghan, and John, a schoolmaster at Glountane National School. The O’Callaghan’s were a well known family of musicians. Patrick’s mother Margaret was a fine concertina player and also a compotent fiddle player. Margarets brother Cal O’Callaghan was a highly regarded local fiddle player and was often called to play for house dances in the area.

The O’Callaghan’s of Doon

It is believed that O’Keeffe received formal tuition on the violin in his youth. It is not known for certain whether he did receive formal tuition but according to Seamus Ennis he knew music theory, understood harmony, counterpoint and modal progressions as well as Ennis himself did. O’Keeffe was the eldest of 8 children. When he came to schooling age, O’Keeffe was sent to his relations the O’Callaghans of Doon in Kiskaem. All accounts suggest that this was a very happy time for Patrick.

Schoolmaster

The Callaghans were small farmers but had a huge interest and talent for music and dancing. House dances were held regularly in the Callaghan household, and this was a contrast to the stern O’Keeffe household in Glountane. Patrick’s interest and love of Irish music can be traced to these formative years spent in Doon.

O’Keeffe acknowledged his debt to the people and the place by naming a number of tunes after them- Callaghan’s reel, The Doon reel, Callaghan’s hornipe and so on.

O’Keeffe returned to Glountane on the completion of his primary education in 1901. We do not know what form O’Keeffe’s secondary education took, but it is likely that he received private tuition from his father. Patrick received a third level degree from a teaching college in Dublin. He succeeded his father as schoolmaster at Glountane National School.

Patrick’s father John was a notoriously strict headmaster (even inciting a boycott at one point), but Patrick did not carry on this legacy. In fact historians who interviewed former pupils of O’Keeffe documented his kindness and gentleness towards the children.

Progressive

However, it must also be noted that O’Keeffe was not always a dedicated educator. Whilst it is said that he was progressive in his methods- pupils spoke of lessons given outside where the children studied nature, he was at times very flaky. Preparation of schemes of work, the routine of the classroom, the correcting of copies etc, held little interest for Patrick. He enjoyed the fresh air, open road, the talk and company of men in pubs, playing and drinking until late into the night.

Inspectors Reports

He was in the role of headmaster less than a year when he began to catch the attention of the inspector. One such inspectors report in October 1919 spoke of O’Keeffe ‘wanting in energy’ and ‘ not being systematic in his preparations.’

A follow up visit in December of that year noted the ‘unsatisfactory condition of the school.’ At this point the writing was on the wall for O’Keeffe, and he decided to preempt his own dismissal. Seamus Ennis takes up the story here:”There was one night Padraig was at a gathering and it was a summer night and a lovely sunny morning. About half past six or seven in the morning Padraig landed home and he didn’t have to go to school until half nine. So he walked into Castleisland and went into a public house and called for a pint of stout.

The local hackneyman, the local taxi, he came in and he says: ‘Padraig, I’ve a man down there trying to hire my car to go out and inspect your school – a school inspector’ and Padraig said to him: ‘Is he a tall thin fellow or is he a small red-haired fellow?’ ‘Oh a small red-haired fellow’. Then Padraig says: ‘you take him out to my school and ask him to inspect it, and tell him you saw me and that I said I hope he finds the school up to specification and everything in order there, because he won’t find me there any more”.

The Travelling Fiddle Master

And that was how he resigned from the post, and began his life as a traveling fiddle master. Patrick walked the roads of North Cork and East Kerry playing and teaching his music. O’Keeffe dabbled in cattle dealing, but this was another fruitless endevaour. His money, little that he had, came from two sources- fee paying engagements in dance halls and pubs and also from teaching the fiddle to pupils.