Bryan O’Leary – The Pride of Sliabh Luachra

Gradam Ceoil Young Musician 2014 winner, Bryan O'Leary (centre) pictured with Colm Guilfoyle (left) and Paudie O'Connor at a recording of a programme in the Geantraí series at Browne's Bar on March 10-2011. ©Photograph: John Reidy
Gradam Ceoil Young Musician 2014 winner, Bryan O’Leary (centre) pictured with Colm Guilfoyle (left) and Paudie O’Connor at a recording of a programme in the Geantraí series at Browne’s Bar on March 10-2011. ©Photograph: John Reidy

Gradam Ceoil: rewarding Irish music’s wonderful anarchy !

Isn’t that a headline to sum up what our truly amazing music and culture is all about. That it survives and thrives in ever increasing pockets of the country is a testament to the insightfulness of the headline writer. It’s from yesterday’s Irish Times. If you didn’t see the by-line you’d know there’s too much local knowledge in there for it not to have been the work of Castleisland woman, Siobhán Long:

The infinite ways in which the music is woven, nurtured, challenged and enjoyed are highlighted by the recipients of this year’s TG4 awards

Anyone tempted to think that the traditional music firmament is a finite space populated by known quantities will have their preconceptions shattered by this year’s TG4 Gradam Ceoil award winners. Banjos, boxes, flutes, pipes and fiddles may still be central to the mix, but it is the infinite ways the music is woven, nurtured, challenged and enjoyed that characterise this year’s recipients.
This year’s young traditional musician of the year is Bryan O’Leary, a young accordion player from Sliabh Luachra. Disentangling the impact of nature and nurture would be impossible in his case: he is a grandson of the late Sliabh Luachra master of the accordion Johnny O’Leary, of whose voluminous repertoire it was remarked that the only way to stop him from playing tunes previously unheard would have been to shoot him.
Johnny O’Leary’s inventive playing style has left a deep impression on his grandson. “With a lot of accordion players, you can listen to them and copy what they do, note for note, but when Johnny was playing he did something different every time,” says Bryan. I don’t think there’s anyone who can really sound bang on like him. I know that I can’t anyway.”
A musician can hardly emerge from Sliabh Luachra without having a taste for dance music, and O’Leary admits to a primal attraction to the polkas and slides of his home place. From childhood, he was a regular visitor at the famed Dan Connell’s pub in Knocknagree, Co Cork, a mecca for generations of dancers. He is wary of the demands dancers make on musicians these days, however. There’s a constant pull and push between those on the dance floor and the musicians who bring those polkas and slides to life.
“If you’re playing at the pace that dancers want today, the whole rhythm goes,” says O’Leary. “You can’t get in all of the notes. After all, as my grandfather used to say, you have only four fingers. I don’t enjoy playing that fast, because it becomes only notes really. And these days, at the pace they’re dancing, some dancers could just as easily be dancing to a CD. It’s more of a workout for them really. In Dan Connell’s, the dancers used to dance to the music, whereas now, you play for the dancers.”
Siobhán Long – The Irish Times Thursday 6-2-2014.

A profile (below) of Bryan O’Leary also appeared in The Journal of Music:
Bryan O’Leary is twenty years of age and comes from the townland of Tureencahill half way between Ballydesmond and Gneeveguilla, in the heart of Sliabh Luachra.
He started playing the accordion at the age of 10, shortly after his grandfather, the great accordionist Johnny O’Leary, passed away. He began his music career learning at his local National school under the guidance of Henry Cronin. He continued learning by attending classes with the respected teacher and multi-instrumentalist Nicky McAuliffe from Castleisland. He received tuition from Nicky all through his teenage years.
As Bryan progressed on the accordion, he began learning his grandfather’s music by ear and researching Johnny’s music and old recordings. This greatly improved his repertoire and knowledge of Sliabh Luachra music. In fact it should come as no surprise that he has a keen interest in the local Sliabh Luachra style of playing. In addition to the music of his late Grandfather, other Sliabh Luachra stalwarts such as Denis Murphy, Julia Clifford, Padraig O’Keeffe and Paddy Cronin were also highly influential to this young and talented musician. Paddy Cronin himself was the recipient of a Gradam Saoil award in 2007 and Bryan has appreciated playing with him on a few occasions.
In the past few years, he has also enjoyed sharing and playing music with Billy Clifford who has been another great influence on his music, which keeps the link between the O’Leary and Murphy/Clifford tradition alive.
He was also influenced hugely by the legendary accordion player Jimmy Doyle from Maulykaevane, Gneeveguilla along with his two musical partners Joe O’Sullivan (flute) and Paudie Gleeson (fiddle). Other influences of note include Kerry accordion players such as Paudie O’Connor, Brenden Begley, John Brosnan, Danny O’Mahony, and the late Stephen Carroll.
He has played at various festivals including Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy, Scoil Cheoil an Earraigh, The Patrick O’Keeffe festival, The Gathering Festival and The Con Curtin Music Festival.
He has performed on many TV and radio programmes in the last few years such as Geántraí, Oireachtas na hEireann, The Rolling Wave, Ceili House, Radio Na Gaeltachta and many other programmes on TG4, Clare FM and Radio Kerry.
Throughout the past decade he has been encouraged and supported by his parents Maureen and Bertie, his brother Barry and sister Ailish, along with his aunt Ellen. They have been a great source of music to him and continue to provide a link with Johnny O’Leary’s vast repertoire and music.
Bryan is currently a student at the University of Limerick where he is studying Irish Music and Dance. Johnny O’Leary was honoured with the TG4 Gradam Saoil Award in November 2003 at the University of Limerick shortly before he passed away and as the young musician 2014 Bryan continues to honour his legacy and keeps the family tradition alive.

The full list of TG4 Gradam Ceoil 2014 recipients is:
– Gradam Ceoil TG4 – Harry Bradley
– Ceoltóir Óg  TG4  (Young Musician) – Bryan O’Leary
– Gradam Saoil TG4  (Hall of Fame) –  Chris Droney
– Gradam Comharcheoil TG4  (Musical Collaboration) –  The Goodman Project
– Amhránaí TG4  (Singer) – Nan Tom Taimín de Búrca
– Gradam Comaoine  TG4 (Special Contribution) – Mick Moloney.