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Music from a Timeless Place: John and Paddy Killourhy by Eugene Lambe

On the southern slope of Doonagore mountain in the townland of Ballyfaudeen live the Killourhy brothers, John and Paddy. The townland is one of a mosaic of similar ones spreading across the mountain bog that abounds in this area. To the south lies Liscannor Bay and Lahinch and to the north the village of Doolin. In their cottage, the back of which faces the winds and fog that often roll in from the cliffs of Moher, they live in a manner that reflects another era. They were both born in that cottage as were their father and grandfather, and others of the Killourhy family over countless generations. Music and memories of bygone days come alive in front of the open hearth and spine chilling tales of “another world” are just part of the recounting. There is a timelessness about the place.

John is now [in 1993] seventy-seven years old and plays a wide variety of whistles. He prefers to play a wooden whistle and still laments the loss of his favourite – one of German manufacture he bought on Charing Cross Road for five old shillings many years ago. (Note: the money values quoted in this text refers to pre-decimal coinage. For example five shillings would equal the present value of 25p.) He loaned it to a friend who wanted to play at a house dance and it must have played very well, as the musician in question ended up lying in a nearby field with a young woman, after the ball was over, and in the ensuing scuffle the poor flageolet came off the worst! Paddy is seventy-five, a very fine fiddler, although his first instrument was the concert flute which he first started at the age of eight. He “first caught the fiddle at the age of twenty” and shortly afterwards fashioned a fiddle for himself out of whatever pieces of timber he could find locally. He paid 1/6d (one shilling and six pence) for a set of strings in Ennistymon and learned to play on the finished item. While away from home it seems the fiddle got broken in a bout of whitewashing but, undeterred, he quickly acquired another and has been gladdening the hearts of many with his music ever since. A third brother Thady, now sadly deceased, played the uilleann pipes.

Among the first tunes they remember were The Heather Breeze, Miss McLeod’s Reel and The Connaughtman’s Rambles. These would be played for the Caledonian set, in which reels were played for the first and third figure and jigs for the second and fourth. Their father, Pat, was a good dancer. He always claimed he couldn’t get the music ‘slow enough or solid enough’ to dance a proper set. It seems a far cry from attitudes today where musicians desperately try to keep pace with the dancers with the result that often the music sounds mutilated.

Neighbours, Travelling Musicians, Gramophones
One evening Paddy was walking up the road by Pádraigin O’Loughlin’s and he came upon a traveller’s camp. It happened to be that of Johnny Doran who was in the neighbourhood at the time and he and Paddy played all night long. It was a memorable occasion for Paddy and no doubt for Johnny too as from all accounts Paddy was quite a remarkable flute player. Among the tunes Paddy remembers from that night were Colonel Fraser, The Steampacket, Rakish Paddy, Garret Barry’s Jig, The Star of Munster and The Cuckoo Hornpipe. They both ran in to Johnny at a later stage when he was busking at a coursing meeting in Clahane near Liscannor and at a football match at Lahinch. Their reports of Johnny playing with his foot on his open pipe case tally with what we already know of Johnny’s methods. Paddy remembers seeing Jim McCormack from Kilfenora putting half a crown in the case that day. This was surely a measure of how much Johnny’s music was loved by the local players.

Nowdays a musician can sit in with players in any part of the country and expect to know a good proportion of the body of music. Much of this music (which had almost been lost) was collected and published by Capt. Francis O’Neill in Chicago at the beginning of this century to be relearned in Ireland at a later stage from these books. But neither John nor Paddy know of these publications. And if they did they would not know how to learn a tune from them. Their music is truly traditional, learned from friends and neighbours, traveling musicians, and the odd ‘new tune’ from the gramophone. House dances and tournaments were the venues for the music at the time and the Killourhys remember forty teams packed into their little cottage one night. John claims that the heat generated actually burst the mainspring in the clock!

Once the Ballinakill Céilí Band came to Kilfenora and stayed for two days. Two houses were occupied for the occasion. There was non-stop dancing and at one point Bridget McGrath, a noted concertina player, got up on the stage and joined the visiting players. The ‘stage’ usually consisted of a table or two pulled into a corner of the room and chairs were mounted on it.

They remember the ‘new tunes’ that would arrive – only one or two in a year – and the excitement these would generate among the local musicians. And they remember nights on cuaird or at a set dance in Greene’s house up the road, where they listened to recordings of the legendary Michael Coleman and 78’s of the Flanagan Brothers, Michael Grogan, the Moate Céilí Band or Colmcille’s Céilí Band until it was almost time to start the day’s work. In this way new tunes were memorized and worked out on the instruments in the days following.

In pockets like the Doolin area the old ways remained. For example, the last native speaker of Irish, Paddy Phádraig Mhiceál, only died last year and the tradition of storytelling and seanchas is as alive among some of the older people as it was when Séamus Delargy discovered Stiofán Ó h-Ealoire in 1930. Sadly, English is now the medium. People still go on cuaird or ragairne swapping stories and news, spending the night ‘tracing’, or recounting with glee the finest details of local history, and this is the way still in the Killourhy house.

A Local Music
When John and Paddy play as a duo they perform a set of tunes that is very much unaffected by outside influences. Their music was largely learned in the above atmosphere – on a cold winter’s night sitting in front of the open fire. A large part of their repertoire came from their second cousin, and next door neighbour, Martin Killourhy (died 1960). Martin was the first cousin they ever heard and one can imagine the effect his playing had on the impressionable young lads of eight years and ten respectively. His brother Paddy also played concertina but was better known for his singing. He was recorded by Séamus Ennis in O’Connor’s of Fisherstreet in the early forties and it was on this occasion that he gave the now well-known jig, Cathaoir an Phíobaire, to Séamus. Martin’s mother, Mary Rynne, from Clouna, outside Ennistymon, was also a concertina player. But their later musical influences are varied, coming from the rich store of musicians who lived locally in their younger days. They speak of many, but Bridget McGrath, the concertina player from Clogher near Kilfenora, who they claim was even better than the famous Mrs. Crotty of Kilrush, has a special place in their memories. Bridget’s brother John Joe Lynch played an English concertina and her niece was the late Kitty Linnane, a key figure in the famous Kilfenora Céilí Band.

Other concertina players they remember were Paddy Byrt, John Lysaght, James Murphy, Thomas Barry, Paddy O’Neill and Martin Hayes, all from the Ennistymon area. Packie Russell and Packie Flanagan lived nearby in Luogh and Aughty Linnane who also played whistle lived to the west, in Caherbarna, near Upper Ballycotton. The majority played on German concertinas but some also had the English type. Mary Ellen Curtin (nee Hayes) still plays on a German model. Surprisingly, with the exception of Martin Walsh and John O’Loughlin, who is still hale and hearty, fiddlers seemed to be scarce in the area.

Unlike modern times, a person’s choice in rural Ireland fifty years ago of what instrument they would play might depend more on what was available than on any personal preference. Maybe the reason concertinas were a popular instrument was that they were readily available and relatively cheap. Local shops such as May McCarthy’s or P.J. Kilmartin’s in Ennistymon stocked a wide range of instruments like melodeons, concertinas and whistles. John remembers a ‘whitish whistle with a slightly tapering body and a wooden mouthpiece’ being sold at 6d. (six old pence) and German concertinas for 5s/- (five shillings). Clarke’s whistles and a model called a ‘Tuska’ were also available. So, although money was scarce at the time, anybody with a passion for music would be able to aspire to the acquisition of a musical instrument. The music was around everywhere - the people just needed something to play it on.

In 1937 John and a friend, Jacko Russell, decided to try their fortune across the water. They chanced to meet the skipper of a coal boat that had just offloaded a cargo of coal at Liscannor and was taking 200 tons of Moher flags back, bound for Manchester. He was persuaded somehow to sign them on as crew and they set off. Off Dungarvan they encountered a severe storm and had to ride it out at anchor for twenty-four hours. John had a new suit on for the big journey but he got so seasick that he cared not whether he lived or died and ended up lying among the coal in the ship. They eventually berthed in Holyhead and it was surely two very sorry looking lads who set foot on the far side. They made their way to London where John worked for three years. Much later Paddy went to London in the company of his brother Thady but he didn’t like the look of it and returned after just one week.

House Dances and Changing Times
Up until the late fifties house dances were common and they were the main outlet for the performance of music. People traveled great distances on foot to these dances or soirees as they were then called. Paddy Mullins, long time flute player with the Kilfenora Céilí Band, once told me of walking from his home in Cahersherkin to the Killourhy house, a distance of approximately thirteen miles, after a hard day’s work. Music and dancing went on all night long and then it was back home again by foot at daybreak to face another day’s work. It was his greatest regret in life, he says, that he did not get a bicycle until he was sixty years old!

Paddy and John were regular musicians at these soirees and great interest was shown when dancers knew they would be playing, as their music was held in very high regard for dancing. And they not only played locally but made trips further a-field to places like the house of the late Joe Marty McMahon of Clohanmore outside Miltown Malbay.

House dances are now a thing of the past. Economic ‘progress’ meant that people could go out more and not have to make their own amusement. The ballad boom in the early sixties, the popularity of the fleadhanna and the ease of recording and exchange of music all resulted in changing the old ways. The musical repertoire has broadened enormously and in later years the media have decided that out native music deserves attention. Maybe this is not always a good thing as music and musicians who are a commercial success tend to be favoured. The music has graduated largely to the lounge bars where it has a lot of competition from people for whom it has little appeal. In these situations our musical heritage has often become just another spectator sport with the prize going to the one who commands most attention from a largely unappreciative audience.

But in the Killourhy kitchen such is not the case. Tunes are played as they would have been fifty or maybe a hundred years ago with the memories of the older departed players very much alive in the music. And as we sit in front of the open hearth where turf burns from the nearby bog, Pappy Looney’s Reel, Kitty Jones’s Reel and a host of others ring out and the night draws on.


A comprehensive recording of John and Paddy’s music was made on 23/01/1993 and has been lodged in the Traditional Music Archive, Dublin.

This article was first published in Dal gCais, vol. 11, 1993, pp 21-23. Clare County Library is grateful to Eugene Lambe for permission to reproduce this article.

See also:

How the house dances died out in Ireland by John Killourhy, a Youtube video.


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