Oliver O’Connell, Mickey Dunne, & John Coyne Bring Fresh Air from the Burren to Long Island City’s New York Irish Center

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by John Kearns
How it’s New York: The concert/presentation took place at the New York Irish Center in Long Island City, in Queens. 
How it’s Irish: It was an evening of traditional Irish music from Clare, which included short films about Traveller Musicians and the Michael Dunleavy Foundation to fight cancer. 

On Saturday, April 13, 2013, Oliver O’Connell, Mickey Dunne, and John Coyne brought stirring music from County Clare to Long Island City’s New York Irish Center.  However, the event had a few other purposes as well.

As part of their Living Legacy Tour of the U.S., the musicians worked to

  • raise awareness and funds for the Michael Dunleavy Foundation for cancer research,
  • highlight the role of Travellers in the preservation of traditional Irish music, and
  • spread the word about Ireland Reaching Out, an organization of volunteers in Ireland who contact members of the Irish diaspora to inform them about their emigrant ancestors.

Paul Finnegan Executive Director of the New York Irish Center began with a moment of silence for the recently deceased mother of Chris Deignan, the producer and promoter of most New York Irish Center  events.  Finnegan then introduced a representative from Ireland Reaching Out who explained how volunteers search through Irish parish records to find emigrants whose descendants they can trace and welcome in person when they come to visit Ireland.

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Paul Finnegan

Finnegan concluded with light-hearted animated film about the history of Irish immigration to the U.S. and the founding and mission of the New York Irish Center in Long Island City.

Paul Keating, traditional Irish music critic for the Irish Voice, told us about the book that Oliver O’Connell has co-authored with Tommy Fegan, entitled, Free Spirits: Irish Travellers and Irish Traditional Music.  Featuring interviews with primary sources, the book highlights the role of Travellers in keeping Ireland’s music alive in the face of horrendous odds.  Only 2000 copies had been printed and most of those had been sold.  There were probably not many left by the time the crowd left the New York Irish Center on Saturday night.

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Paul Keating

Next, Oliver O’Connell, Mickey Dunne, and John Coyne took the stage.  O’Connell echoed some of the sentiments of Finnegan and Keating, underscoring what a vital role the Travellers played in preserving Irish music.  He said when he was a boy there had been three signs of spring: 1) the birds building their nests, 2) the primroses in bloom, and 3) Johnny Doran’s caravan coming over the hill with his musical instruments.

“Our national heritage is not something we inherit from our ancestors,” O’Connell said.  “It is something we borrow from our children.”

O’Connell also told the story of Michael Dunleavy, an 8-year-old boy who started a lemonade stand to raise money to fight cancer.  After the extraordinary boy passed way, the charity named for him blossomed from the small earnings of his lemonade stand into a 2 million dollar foundation.

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Oliver O’Connell

Then, it was time for the music.  Playing a set of jigs, Dunne’s uillean pipes combined with O’Connell’s accordion to create a rousing, joyful sound, supported by the bassy underpinning of the Coyne’s bouzouki.

Dunne picked up his fiddle and played two hornpipes, “The Golden Eagle” and “The Plains of Boyle,” that he learned from his father.

“Truth be told,” Dunne stated, “I learned all my music from my father.”

O’Connell’s accordion and Coyne’s bouzouki joined in confidently and clearly, the musicians having the self-assurance to avoid speeding through the tunes to show off their chops, which they clearly have.

O’Connell recited a poem about the little but mighty musical village of Doolin in County Clare.  With sweet, minimal support of the fiddle and bouzouki, he spoke of the Atlantic spray’s going up over the Cliffs of Mother and wetting the hills of Donegal.   And, the group plunged right into a couple of tunes called, “The Green Mountain,” “The Blacksmith,” and “The Wisconsin March.”

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Mickey Dunne on Pipes, Oliver O’Connell on Accordion, and John Coyne on Bizouki

Mickey Dunne declared that he was born in a caravan as a Traveller and that he is proud of it.  His father made a living through busking at horse races, fairs, or wherever there was a gathering of people.  He always succeeded in feeding his large family — Dunne is one of 16 children — and was the most generous man he had ever known.

Why did his parents have so many children?  Dunne attributes this to his mother’s hearing difficulties.  Every night his father would climb into bed and ask, “Shall we go to sleep or what?”

And his mother would always reply, “What?”

The band followed this story with a set of reels, after which O’Connell said that the uillean pipes are reputed to be the instrument whose sounds are most like the human voice.  And Mickey Dunne made them sing.

He played a slow air called “The Roisin Dubh,” and everything in the packed New York Irish Center stopped.

Earlier in the evening, O’Connell related that Cromwell would execute pipers because he believed the sound of the pipes had the power to make people rise up, and the sound of this slow air did seem to rouse the spirits of the audience.  It was as if something truly ancient had come into the room.

Even the musicians felt it.  After the piece ended, O’Connell said  “That was the voice of our ancestors, from 5 or 6 hundred years ago.”

O’Connell then sang a love song with light backing from the bouzouki and fiddle and with Dunne’s creating rough, effective harmonies.

O’Connell played his own composition on accordion — another  slow air — that transformed into a set of jigs which got the whole house clapping and stomping.  Concluding the first half of the evening, the music was refreshing and pure as a breeze from the West Coast of Clare wafting into Queens.

During the break, people in attendance were able to enjoy the bar and lounge downstairs, where there are plenty of books, a few computer terminals, and signs on the walls to help you practice your Irish.

At the start of the second half, O’Connell recognized some special guests in the audience, including Irish Consul General Noel Kilkenny and his wife, Honora, attending not in their official capacity but as spectators, and fiddler, Matt Mancuso.  He then stated that, “Irish music today is at its zenith.  It has never has been as strong as it is today” as he introduced a short film about Traveller musicians,

The film, without narration, displayed photos of famous Traveller musicians who helped keep traditional music alive throughout Ireland.  Although somewhat disjointed, the film seemed to intend to link the musicians’ efforts with the international success of Riverdance, with Ireland’s becoming a major tourist destination, and with preserving the oldest culture in Western Europe.

Backed with Dunne’s uillean pipes, O’Connell recited a poem about dead piper at the Milltown Malbay Fair, the like of which we’ll see no more. As he finished the band leapt into a set of energetic jigs.

After the jigs came a set of reels on the pipes and a spoken word poem backed with a tin whistle about Doolin in the 70s.

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Matt Mancuso Was Coaxed onto the Stage for a few Reels

During the next set of reels, O’Connell, a cancer survivor who had been very ill a year and a half ago, got up and step-danced on the stage.  This was an incredible feat, considering O’Connell’s story.

O’Connell had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, which was removed successfully.  Later he had another growth in his bowel that his doctor told him might be cancerous.  Lying in his hospital bed, O’Connell wrote a letter to God thanking him for all of the good things in his life and asking for three things: that he be able to complete a 10K walk for charity, take part in the pilgrimage at Lough Derg, and participate in this American tour.  The next morning, his doctor told him that that growth was not cancer.  O’Connell credits his cure and his complete return to health to the music and the power of positive thinking.

This tale led into the film about Michael Dunleavy and the Foundation that began with the 8-year-old boy’s lemonade stand.  The film contained footage of Michael’s selling lemonade, his piloting a boat around a lake, his beloved village of Doolin, and his “Mam’s Dublin.”  In the background, Dunne played live on his uillean pipes a haunting tune he composed in honor of Michael Dunleavy.

You can make contributions to the Michael Dunleavy Foundation here: http://www.michaeldunleavy.com/.

O’Connell, who lives in the Burren, sang a song about an abandoned village near his home, speaking of how when he visits there he can hear the laughter of the children who lived there and the sounds of the men and women at work.

To close the show, fiddler Matt Mancuso was coaxed onto the stage for a set of reels.  The bouzouki, accordion, and two fiddles exulted within the exposed brick walls of the New York Irish Center.  It was like sighting a rainbow in the sky above the Burren in County Clare.

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Copyright 2013 New York Irish Arts