Patrick O’Keeffe

Patrick O’Keeffe – The Last of The Great Fiddle Masters

Castleisland Kerry Irish Traditional Trad Music festival October

Sliabh 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.

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.

Patrick the 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 But Not Always the Most Dedicated Educator

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.

Regular Session in Tom McCarthy’s

For a time he had a regular session in Tom McCarthy’s pub in Castleisland and he used to refer to himself as ‘Tom McCarthy’s Orchestra.’ It is fitting that sessions still take place in O’Keeffe’s honour in the pub every October bank holiday weekend when the Patrick O’Keeffe Traditional Music Festival is held. At another point he had a regular booking in Laka Hall near Ballydesmond with Julia Clifford and Denis Murphy. However it was the money hed made from teaching that was his most regular source of income. After some years his daily routine became firmly established. He would set off walking in the morning across the countryside, visiting students to earn some money to pay for the evenings entertainment and relaxation in the village pubs. His pupils were found in Scartaglin, Castleisland, Brosna, Knocknagree, Cordal, Ballydesmond, Rathmore and Currow. It was not unusual for Patrick to walk 20 miles a day.

Unique Teaching Style

On a sheet of paper he ruled out five lines. The spaces between the lines represented the four strings of the fiddle. Number 1 meant to apply the first finger, 2 meant apply second finger and so on. A tick above a note represented an up bow, no tick stood for a down bow. A curved line over several notes indicated that they were all bowed in the same direction. An ‘R’ stood for repeat. Seamus Ennis described the system as ‘highly ingenious’. His pupils regarded it as a very effective and simple system of instruction, or ‘fool-proof; as Paddy Jones once described it. O’Keeffe particularly liked to instruct his pupils on bowing. Jerry Collins former pupils of O’Keeffe says that he always recommended finishing dance tunes on an up bow. Another feature of his playing that he passed onto his students was the use of the bow at full length, and the tendency to play more notes per bow stroke than other contemporary traditional musicians. It was not uncommon for O’Keeffe to meet a student of fellow musician in a public house, and for him to be asked to write out a particular tune. Any scrap of paper would do, and it was often the inside of a cigarette box.

The Bank of Turf

There is a story told of O’Keeffe meeting Denis Murphy who was out cutting turf at the time. Murphy began to ask him about about a particular tune, and Patrick drew lines on the turf and marked out the notes of the tune on the sod. Denis retitled this piece of music ‘The Bank of Turf.’ O’Keeffe would take in all the pupils of one district in one visit, and would occasionally stay over night in the area. Pupils remained with O’Keeffe for many years, Mikey Duggan for example became a student of Patrick at 14 and remained a pupil for 12 years after. Jerry McCarthy was with him from 1939-1945. Both these men would become hugely respected players, and the length of time they spent under his tutelage was really a tribute to the number of tunes he had rather than a reflection on the abilities of his pupils.

Bohemian Lifestyle

O’Keeffe was hugely respected for his music, but that is not to say that everyone approved of his lifestyle. Many locals considered it foolish and irresponsible to have thrown away his permanent and pensionable post as a school master for the much less secure life of an itinerant fiddle teacher. What today would be described as a ‘bohemian’ lifestyle, the uplands of Sliabh Luachra would have considered deeply unwise and even reckless.

Home in Glountane

Even though O’Keeffe was a constant traveller on the roads of Sliabh Luachra, he was never without a home. As the eldest son he inherited the family home at Glountane and he lived with his mother until she passed away in 1938. His sister, a teacher in Glountane National School lived near by and used to bake bread and other such homely products for Patrick.

Brought the Music into Modern Times

The music of Corny Drew of Drumultan, Fitzgerald of Lacka, the Callaghans of Doon and Tom Billy Murphy of Glencollins all came together in the oustanding fiddle playing of Patrick O’Keeffe. O’Keeffe was also the principal carrier of the local tradition. He perfected and polished the Sliabh Luachra style and O’Keeffe’s repertoire was wider and more comprehensive than that of any of his fellow musicians. It is reckoned that he had up on four hundred tunes on which he could draw, the majority of these being dance tunes learned and played for the polka sets. These included polkas, jigs, slides, hornpipes and reels. O’Keeffe in particular was very concerned with the content and presentation of his music and spent more time than most playing just for people to listen. He often abandoned the strict dance rhythms in the hornpipes to facilitate his own arrangements and to allow for the runs of extra notes he inserted. O’Keeffe is credited with popularising reels in the area and he certainly had more of these than any other Sliabh Luachra musician in the region.  

O’Keeffe’s Music

His reels were melodically strong and well-ornamented and sometimes had a sad quality, traces of a lament. He also had a lot of old jigs and a very impressive selection of slow airs. The following were amongst the slow airs he played most often; O’Donnell’s Lament, O’Rahilly’s Grave, Kingwilliamstown, An Raibh tu ag an gCarraig? (Were you at Carrick), O’Neill’s Lament, The Blackbird, Taimse im chodhladh (I’m asleep), The Redhaired Boy, The Wounded Hussar and The Old Man Rocking the Cradle.  The first three of these are local to the area and the last one was Padraig’s party piece. He used to play it with the big iron key of the pub door in his teeth as a variable mute against the bridge of the fiddle and was able to make the fiddle say ‘mamma, mamma’ at the end of each melody line. He was widely regarded as a great air player and the sweetness and beauty of his slow airs are still remembered.

Musical Heritage

O’Keeffe’s pupils and many local musicians who followed after have acknowledged their debt to O’Keeffe. Johnny O’Leary is quoted as saying that many of his tunes went directly back to the old fiddle master. Denis and Julia got most of their local tunes from him, as did most of his other pupils. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that his music makes up a huge bank of the tunes played by today’s musicians of the area.

Never Owned a Good Fiddle

O’Keeffe’s playing was remarkably careful, precise and well pitched and he suceeded in achieving a surprising consistency of tone and pitch in his own performance, considering the poor quality and condition of the fiddles he played. Throughout his life he never seems to have had a good fiddle. One of his pupils described the fiddles he used to play as ‘nothing better than boards’ and sometimes they were held together with bits of string.  He was known to make a temporary fiddle string with cotton thread and to repair his bow with a bottle cork. He often referred to the fiddle as ‘his misses.’He once had a good fiddle and this is how he described what happened to it: “The first wife, one night at a spree, after I played for a while, I was out at the gable end with some lads and I was handed a jug of porter. I left her down to rest against the wall and forgot her, there in the rain. She never did a day’s good after that but fell asunder from the rheumatics on me”.  Towards the end of his life he had no fiddle at all, but the owners of some of his favourite pubs kept one for him to play when he visited them.

Ennis on O’Keeffe

Seamus Ennis, an expert on Patrick and his music, has left us this description of his style: ‘a light, agile flowing style with a wonderful pulsating vigour in the dance rhythms, with a tendency to gay, wild abandon in the slides and polkas. He had two distinct reel tempos, a liltng virtuoso and a galloping dance. He bowed a lot or slurred a lot as taste dictated; his taste was impeccable and his touch clean’.  

O’Keeffe and Ennis

Patrick O’Keeffe was recognised among his own people as an oustanding fiddle player. However it was not until O’Keeffe was into his winter years that he began to gain recognition from further afield. This all changed in 1946, when Seamus Ennis the great piper and collector of traditional came to visit O’Keeffe and record his music. Lyons of Scartaglen was the chosen venue. A great night was had by all and it was the beginning of a long and lasting friendship between Padraig and Seamus Ennis. They had, in fact, a good deal in common. They were both top notch musicians and enjoyed good music, good drink, good company and good conversation. They were alike, too, in temperament and outlook. Both were easy-going, taking each day as it came with little thought for the future and they were no great respecters of rank or establishments.

National Fame

The meeting with Ennis was also the beginning of national fame for Patrick. In 1949, Ennis recorded him for Radio Eireann. Some time afterwards he was recorded by, the B.B.C. and many times for Radio Eireann in the years that followed. With the broadcasting of his music, his name became known amongst followers of Irish music throughout the country. Representatives of recording companies came inviting him to make records.The attention he was getting and the fame he had gained were sources of puzzlement and wonder to some of his neighbours who had long regarded him as a ne’er-do-well and a blot on the teaching profession.

Pitfalls of Fame 

O’Keeffe’s new-found fame may have served to escalate his drinking habits. Certainly recording sessions and music sessions were traditionally accompanied and followed by a lot of drinking, and when he became famous, people, ‘tourists’ Patrick used to call them, would come to Scartaglin to meet him and listen to him playing. Their usual way of showing their appreciation was to buy him drink and in his later years he often spent a day on the bar stool in Lyons’s with an eye on the door for the ‘tourists’.O’Keeffe’s Last Years Late one night in February 1963 O’Keeffe returned home, having spent the night drinking in Lyons’s bar in Scartaglin. It would seem that he was trying to open the gate leading to the house and fell over the dry stone wall onto the ground inside. It was a particularly cold night and he spent the night thrown on the ground. The following morning he was found by one of the neighbours, who called the doctor. He died some time afterwards on February 22nd 1963. His passing was mourned by friends and neighbours, fellow musicians and followers of Irish music and his funeral to Kilmurry cemetery was one of the biggest ever seen in that part of the country. 

Fiddlers Green

He had, in his own words, gone to ‘Fiddlers Green, four or five miles below hell, where you’d want to be a fiddler before they’d let you in and where they have steel strings on the fiddle because the temperature is frightful entirely’. Today he continues to be remembered not only as one of the greatest of the Sliabh Luachra musicians, but also a great character, wit and story teller. Indeed in the intervening years, his name has acquired a legendary status that owes much to his musical accomplishment, but also something to his philosophy and way of life. Padraig O’Keeffe is seen as one other in a line of poets, artists and musicians who spurned conventional wisdom for a rakish, independent unapologetic life.
** Thanks to Pat Feeley, John Reidy and Matt Cranitch who all contributed information through various academic texts and news clippings.***