Irish music is a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation, shared amongst friends and strangers alike, their love of the music uniting them in one singular purpose to preserve this rich musical heritage. Musical families however were once the primary source of musical transmission, passing on the music through unbroken traditions of music making.
It’s long been a common misconception that to be an exceptional traditional Irish musician you must come from one of these influential musical families. While this is certainly no longer the case today, there’s no denying the benefits of being immersed in a musical tradition from birth, nor indeed the number of iconic musicians who have emerged from these great musical lineages.
When one family produces a number of highly celebrated musicians however, then you do begin to wonder if maybe it might just be in their blood. The O’Brien family from North Dublin is one such family.
One of the most iconic musical families in the world of Irish music today, not one, but three of the O’Briens have toured with Riverdance. Between them they’ve won more awards than I can count and, in addition to being some of the biggest names in Irish music, they’ve also performed with some of the most legendary Irish musicians.
So if you want to learn more about this exciting family’s musical legacy, then let’s get started…
A real character and a true gent, Dinny (Denis) O’Brien was the beloved head of the O’Brien household, sharing his grá for the music with his children.
Born in 1935, Dinny was the eldest of nine children. He grew up in rural North County Dublin where he learned music informally by ear, from a young age. He started out playing the comb, which was quite common at the time. It was played by placing a piece of paper in behind the teeth of the comb and humming the tune, which made a sound not too dissimilar to the kazoo. By the age of nine, Dinny was playing the harmonica for the local girls as they practised their Irish dancing.
Gradually Dinny moved on to the fiddle and tin whistle, progressing to the melodeon before finally settling on the button accordion. His own uncles were melodeon players so it made sense that he would eventually gravitate to this instrument.
Much of Dinny’s early music came from Paddy Markey – a fiddle player from Killeek in North County Dublin. Another great source of tunes for the young Dinny was traveling musician Jim Donovan. A true wandering minstrel, Jim would call to the house to fix pots and pans and might occasionally join the family for some dinner or receive a few pence from Dinny’s grandmother.
Jim’s visits were always welcome as he would bring tunes from his travels which he played on the melodeon or his Clarke whistle. Of course the music was all passed on by ear, so Dinny might learn the full tune if he was lucky enough. Other times Dinny might only catch the first part of a tune during Jim’s visit, then have to wait with bated breath for Jim’s return to learn the rest.
Dinny originally played the C#/D button accordion in the press and draw style. Years later however, while living in Russell Street in Dublin city, he made the acquaintance of the great Sonny Brogan and transitioned to the B/C playing style.
Dinny’s Musical Journey
Dinny’s family moved to Cabra, closer to Dublin city, where, from the age of fifteen, he attended Irish music sessions in Church Street on a Wednesday night. The Church Street session was frequented by some of the best musicians of the time including Sonny Brogan and Bill Harte, who greatly influenced Dinny’s playing.
Other regulars included John Egan and Willie Davis from Sligo (on flute and fiddle respectively); Tom Mulligan – a mighty fiddle player from Leitrim; Joe Ryan and John Kelly (fiddle players from Clare); and Eugene Mc Glynn (another fiddle player from Sligo/Galway). The Church Street session allowed Dinny the opportunity to listen to and play music with high calibre musicians, surrounded by the best of the best.
Dinny also frequented another regular Irish music session in Barry’s Hotel. It was here that he met his future wife, Margaret. The pair married in 1959 and moved to Belvedere Place where the music and craic were never wanting. There were sessions and singing get togethers most nights of the week.
Their family began to grow in 1960 with the birth of their first son, Donncha (Denis). Eventually the O’Briens moved to Artane in north Dublin where they would raise their five children: Denis, Michael, Thomas, Andrew and John. Little did they know the musical legacy they were to create.
The Session House
The O’Brien children grew up immersed in traditional Irish music from day one. While it was Dinny who shared and taught the music, it was Margaret’s hospitality that helped to create an environment in which both the music and their children thrived.
Theirs was an ‘open house’ with musicians and other characters frequently coming and going. Irish music sessions were a regular occurrence and the house was filled with tunes, songs and stories. Margaret ensured there was always food on table, no matter what hour of the day it was. The craic and hospitality were unrivalled.
Some of the regular characters included Séamus Cussen, an accordion player from Templeglantine in Limerick and Mick Byrne, a larger than life character living in Clontarf in Dublin at the time.
Séamus had a wealth of knowledge and tunes from his locality, just north of the Kerry border, and transcribed many of the tunes on to manuscript. He spent many an evening in the kitchen in Artane playing tunes. Mick was known for weaving tall tales. The company one and all would listen eagerly to his stories as he was a master storyteller. Of course, there were some liberties taken with the truth – it could occasionally be found intertwined – but this made Mick’s stories all the more enthralling.
While some might not think of Dublin as an area with a rich Irish music heritage, the wealth of quality musicians in the area while the O’Brien family were growing up was astounding. As you can imagine, mighty sessions frequently took place in the O’Brien household.
The family also frequented sessions in the North Star Hotel where they were joined by a wealth of musicians including Mark Kelly (of Altan), The Corbetts, Séamus Meehan, Finbarr Dwyer, Vincy Crehan (brother of the great fiddle player Junior Crehan), Dan O’Dowd, Charlie Lennon, Paddy Hill (uncle of renowned concertina player Noel Hill), Mícheál Mac Aogáin and Antóin Mac Gabhann, to name but a few.
It’s hardly surprising then, that from this thriving Irish music scene, the O’Briens emerged as trailblazers who would go on to become some of the greatest traditional Irish musicians in the world.
Regular readers of the McNeela Music Blog, or those subscribed to my newsletter will already be familiar with the great John O’Brien. Uilleann piper, whistle player and tin whistle maker extraordinaire.
John began playing the tin whistle at an early age and went on to study classical piano at the Dublin College of Music. At age thirteen however, he decided to follow in his older brother Mick’s footsteps and began to learn to play the uilleann pipes, taught by Mick himself.
Like his siblings, John has picked up his fair share of All-Ireland titles along the way – a rite of passage it seems for an O’Brien. Today, he is a renowned uilleann piper and is recognised as one of the greatest modern tin whistle players of our time, and rightly so:
John has toured extensively since his teens and performed in venues from Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall in New York to The Apollo Theatre in London. He has also performed for many years with Riverdance, joining The Lagan Company in late 1997 before becoming the uilleann piper on Broadway in 2001. His touring highlights also include many years with Celtic Woman, with whom he was a featured performer on numerous DVDs.
John also has a number of recordings under his belt, including a collaboration with the iconic box player Paudie O’ Connor. Their critically acclaimed album, Wind and Reeds was an innovative take on music from the Sliabh Luachra region, featuring the rather unusual combination of uilleann pipes and button accordion.
With years of experience playing alongside his own father Dinny on the box, it’s no surprise that John succeeded in making this duet blend seamlessly. It’s the Irish music album you never knew you needed to own:
An Expert Craftsman
In addition to his numerous musical accolades, many of you will recognise John as the skilled whistle maker behind Setanta Whistles.
John designs these beautiful premium whistles right from the McNeela workshop and I’m thrilled to share my workspace with a living legend of Irish music. It’s a miracle we get any work done at all to be honest. An impromptu session or two has been known to break out from time to time. Sometimes we’re even lucky enough to catch them on camera.
Here we are enjoying a few tunes together with his brother Mick on flute, John on guitar and the brilliant Mícheál Ó Raghallaigh on concertina:
Setanta Whistles are truly special, a labour of love designed to cater to the needs of professional musicians. Immensely playable, with a beautifully warm clear tone in all octaves, excellent responsiveness and exceptionally accurate tuning, these whistles are designed not only to reflect your ability as a player but to enhance your playing too.
It’s evident that John has created an instrument that will help you reach the same musical heights that he has. I can’t recommend them enough. You can browse the full range of Setanta Soprano Whistles and Setanta Low Whistles in my online whistle store.
Born in 1960, Donncha, or Denis as he was more commonly known, was the eldest of the O’Brien children. Donncha suffered from muscular dystrophy and sadly passed away in 1990 at just thirty years of age. His life was not defined by his illness however and in his short time he made a lasting impact on the world of traditional Irish music.
A skilled tin whistle player, Donncha released his debut album Ceol ar an bhFeadóg Stáin in 1979 – the same year as Mary Bergin‘s Feadóga Stáin. While both players have different whistle playing styles, it is clear from these recordings that each was a master of their craft in their own right.
Donncha’s album was met with critical acclaim on its release and is still just as highly regarded today. His subtle playing style and masterful use of ornamentation combine to make his album a masterclass in Irish tin whistle playing:
With a bright, crisp tone Donncha’s flowing yet highly rhythmic playing brings an exceptional energy to the tunes. His musicality is evident in each track, with his airs taking on a soft, subtle sweetness:
Naturally, when one is a member of a musically gifted family such as the O’Briens, it makes sense to invite your siblings to feature on your album recording. Ceol ar an bhFeadóg Stáin also features his brother Mick on uilleann pipes, with Tom and Andrew on the fiddle. The talented crew were accompanied on guitar by the brilliant Mark Kelly of Altan fame.
In more recent years, the album has been re-released in CD format with the addition of three bonus tracks – recordings taken from the archives of RTÉ’s Raidió na Gaeltachta.
‘This recording represents the music of a young man with a spirit and a love of life. Every tune is played with conviction and sincerity – traits that can only be brought out by a musician who appreciates and understands the beauty and cruelty of life.’ – Paddy Glackin
The Golden Eagle
As well as being a highly skilled performer, Donncha was also an active member of Clontarf CCÉ (his local Irish music club) and a highly regarded teacher. In addition to his critically acclaimed album, he released a collection of tunes entitled The Golden Eagle. This comprehensive collection of tunes is the perfect companion for anyone learning traditional Irish music. If you manage to get your hands on a copy, hold on tight. Copies are limited and in high demand.
Donncha was a real character, like his father, and had a true lust for life. When not playing music he could frequently be found engaged in roguish shenanigans such as jetting off in a friend’s airplane. He and the lads from the Department of Labour where he worked would all chip in a few pounds from their wages in exchange for being whisked away for a spin in the plane. They flew into Monte Carlo and Cheltenham, to name but a few of their adventurous destinations. He had a zest for life that you could hear reflected in his music.
Fondly remembered not only by his family, but by all who knew him, Donncha left a lasting legacy on the world of traditional Irish music. He is still recognised today as one of the most influential Irish tin whistle players of his time and his playing continues to inspire generations of whistle players. His memory lives on through his music.
Next up we have one of the best recognised names in traditional Irish music today, Mick O’Brien.
A renowned uilleann piper, Mick first began his musical education on the uilleann pipes in the Thomas Street Pipers Club in Dublin city. He later went on to join Na Píobairí Uilleann (The Society of Irish Pipers) an organisation founded to promote the uilleann pipes and its music.
Throughout his time with these clubs, Mick absorbed hundreds of tunes and refined his technique, emerging as one of the most prominent uilleann pipers in Irish music.
In 1996 he released his highly acclaimed debut solo album, May Morning Dew. Unsurprisingly, the album is a delightful display of Mick’s masterful ability as a piper:
‘Concert and flat pipes, whistles and flutes not only demonstrate Mick O’Brien’s great instrumental versatility, but also make a fine job of the challenge of presenting yet another fine piping album… Award this piper his pedestal.’
– Fintan Vallely, Irish Music Magazine
Today, Mick is in huge demand as a performer and has become a household name.
Amongst a list of accomplishments too long to name Mick has collaborated with some of the biggest names in Irish music including The Dubliners, Frankie Gavin and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. He has also worked with several prominent Irish composers including Dave Flynn, who composed the first ever set of études for uilleann pipes, Five Études for Uilleann Pipes, specially for Mick. You might also recognise him from his time with a little show called Riverdance.
In 2003, Mick teamed up with renowned fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh to release Kitty Lie Over. The album was named Traditional Album of the Year by The Irish Echo and met with such acclaim that, in 2011, they released a highly anticipated follow up, Deadly Buzz.
The title, for those not in the know, is a reflection of the pair’s Dublin roots and upbringing. ‘Deadly buzz’ is Dublin slang for a good time or feeling good.
An example of traditional Irish music at its best, this talented fiddle and uilleann pipes duo succeeds in lifting your heart and raising your spirits, and does in fact leave you feeling a deadly buzz:
The Goodman Manuscripts
One of Mick’s most successful collaborations in recent years is one he shares with one of his own daughters, Aoife Ní Bhriain.
Tunes from the Goodman Manuscripts is the debut album from the virtuoso trio of Mick O’Brien, Aoife Ní Bhriain and Emer Mayock. As its name implies, the album is an exploration of tunes from the 19th Century collection of James Goodman, a collection which played a hugely important role in preserving traditional Irish music from pre-famine Ireland.
Mayo piper and flute player Emer Mayock blends seamlessly with the dynamic father-daughter duo, as their music flows effortlessly from track to track.
Together the trio succeeds in bringing to life the largest recorded selection (to date) from the Goodman manuscripts, through thoughtful interpretation and tasteful arrangements. No less than would be expected from these master musicians!
In 2014, the acclaimed trio were honoured with a highly coveted TG4 Gradam Ceoil Award celebrating their musical collaboration:
Aoife Ní Bhrian
Growing up as he did, immersed in music, it’s not surprising that Mick and his wife, fellow musician Fidelma O’Brien, created a similar environment for their own children.
Their eldest daughter, Aoife Ní Bhriain, began playing the fiddle from an early age, and also studied classical violin with teacher, Maria Kelemen. (For any non-Irish speakers amongst us, Ní Bhriain is simply the Irish form of the O’Brien family name.)
A gifted fiddle and concertina player (and somewhat of a musical prodigy) Aoife has gone on to win a number of prestigious competitions for both classical and traditional Irish music including seven All-Ireland titles at the Fleadh Cheoil; Fiddler of Dooney; and Bonn Óir Sheáin Uí Riada.
Add to that list the TG4 Gradam Ceoil award she shares with her father and you’ll find that Aoife is one of the most decorated young musicians out there.
Like her father (and one of her uncles!) Aoife has also trod the boards with Riverdance, making her debut as fiddle player in 2009. She currently studies music performance in the Hochschule fur Musik und Theater, Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig where she hones her craft as a classical violinist.
Her passion for Irish music is evident however and she continues to share in this musical tradition both with her family and as a virtuoso solo performer:
Ciara Ní Bhriain
As though one talented daughter wasn’t enough, Mick’s second daughter Ciara is also a dab hand at the fiddle (amongst other instruments).
Like her sister, Ciara began learning the fiddle at the age of three and the harp at the age of seven. She went on to study violin, viola and harp in the Royal Irish Academy of Music.
A founding member of the Irish Memory Orchestra (aged just fifteen!), Ciara is yet another member of the O’Brien family who is highly in demand as a performer. She has toured widely and most recently she recorded with Grammy award-winning producer Judith Sherman for composer Dave Flynn’s work, Stories from the Old World.
With a number of All-Ireland titles under her belt, along with other prestigious titles, Ciara is recognised today as one of the bright young stars of traditional Irish music:
Tom & Andrew O’Brien
Brothers Tom and Andrew, though somewhat less well known than their siblings, nonetheless followed in their father Dinny’s footsteps, absorbing music from the moment they were born.
Both are fiddle players (though in true O’Brien fashion they dabble in a number of other instruments including the bodhrán) who hold a number of All-Ireland Fleadh Cheoil titles between them.
Today Andrew O’Brien is based in St. Louis in the US, where he continues the O’Brien family legacy with his own musical family.
Despite their shared musical upbringing, Andrew’s fiddle playing style differs from his brother’s and is more heavily influenced by the music of Martin Hayes – a mellow, lyrical playing style:
By contrast, Tom’s fiddle playing style follows more closely in the footsteps of the great Tommy Peoples – a feistier style of music, influenced by the Donegal fiddle tradition.
Tom O’Brien is best known perhaps as the owner of the iconic Ferryman Pub in Dublin city centre. In the ’90s, The Ferryman was one of the few pubs in Dublin city offering quality trad music and developed a reputation for its top quality sessions, frequented by some of Dublin’s finest musicians. You could often find Tom pulling pints behind the bar or pulling up a stool to play a few tunes on the fiddle.
Both Andrew and Tom feature on their brother Donncha’s solo album, as well as being celebrated as part of the O’Brien family band, Ár Leithéidí.
Ár Leithéidí – The O’Brien Family Band
I know what you’re thinking: if I had this many talented musicians in one family, I’d start some sort of family band. Well, that’s exactly what the O’Briens did.
In 1974, under the name Ár Leithéidí (Irish for ‘the likes of us’) the O’Brien family recorded their first and only family album, The Ulster Outcry.
With Dinny on button accordion, Donncha on whistle (age 13), Mick on uilleann pipes (age 12), Thomas on fiddle (age 10), and Andrew on the bodhrán (age 7) the album was recorded live in Mark McLaughlin’s bar in Dundalk, Co. Louth. (Poor John was too young yet to join in the fun.)
Considering the children’s ages at the time of recording, The Ulster Outcry has stood the test of time surprisingly well. An enviable feat indeed as I’m sure at the age of seven I was still struggling to tie my shoelaces, never mind recording tunes. Featuring guest musicians Dan Healy on flute with Maire Gairbhí and Fergie Mac Amhlaoibh on fiddle, the album consisted mostly of familiar session tunes with the O’Brien’s own unique stamp:
The group’s name was inspired by a quote from a piece of classic Irish literature, An t-Oiléanach by Tomás Ó Criomhtháin, who wrote about life on the Blasket Islands at the turn of the 18th century.
Ó Criomhtháin lived his entire life (1856-1937) on the Great Blasket Island off the coast of County Kerry. His memoir shares the story of the unique island community, largely ignored by the outside world, their lifestyle little changed over the centuries. He recognised however that the community would not last, and laments this realisation with the iconic line, ‘Ní bheidh ár leithéidí arís ann.’ There will never be the likes of us again.
It’s a fitting quote for one of Irish music’s most iconic families. Though, I hope, not an accurate one. Long may the O’Brien family’s musical legacy continue.