How It’s New York: Dan Neely runs the Irish music session at Lillie’s on Saturday, and is the leader of the Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra.
How It’s Irish: Irish and Irish Amreican music at the Milwaukee Irish Fest Session!

Originally published in Irish Echo, October 24, 2012

Last weekend I was out in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to attend “The Session,” a biennial conference held by the Ward Irish Music Archives focusing on Irish and Irish American music and entertainment.

The Ward Irish Music Archives was established in 1992 and is part of Milwaukee Irish Fest.  It is home to the largest public collection of Irish music in America.  In addition to tens of thousands of pieces of sheet music, sound records, songbooks, photographs and memorabilia, it is also the home to the Dunn Family Collection which among other things includes the 32 cylinder Francis O’Neill made.  For anyone interested in Irish music and its history, their holdings are breathtaking and a must-see.

The conference itself was a fantastic event.  My role was to give the inaugural Chuck Ward Memorial Lecture (I spoke about the “paid pub session” in America) and to give short presentation on the Tin Pan Alley output of composer and bandleader Dan J. Sullivan.  For those who might care: I’m very, very interested in Sullivan – a pianist, composer and leader of the Dan Sullivan Shamrock Band – who was born in Boston in 1875 and died there in 1948; I’m hoping like a crazed fool that someday a trunk of Sullivan-related manuscript material will surface in an attic somewhere in New England and somehow find its way to my doorstep.

Other presenters included archive director Barry Stapleton, its archivist Jeff Ksiazek, Keith Reins, Lachlan Whalan, Patrick Cannady, Paul Keating, Adam Whiteman and John Gleeson.  Each presentation was outstanding, but I was particularly struck by Whalan’s paper on songs composed in the H Blocks of Long Kesh and Ksiazek’s presentation on the members of Paddy Killoran’s orchestra – both gave fresh historical insight on topics I’m interested in and provided great food for thought.

Some of the conference’s other highlights included a viewing of clips from a rarely seen early 1970s broadcast of Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy performing with Jerry Holland on New Hampshire public television (the original shows are housed at WIMA), a presentation about Fred Kelly (Gene’s brother) by members of his family, and finally, a truly superb concert by Kevin Burke and Dáithí Sproule very much in memory of Mícheál Ó Domhnaill, one of Burke’s greatest collaborators.  The excellent weekend was capped by a nice session with some of the local sessioneers over at the County Clare pub.

All in all, the conference provided the kind of intellectual stimulation and camaraderie that makes one excited to explore this music and its history more fully.  To learn about the Ward Irish Music Archives and its activities, visit

 In other news, I recently received Eileen O’Brien’s new solo fiddle CD, Aon le hAon, and is it ever a stunner.  O’Brien is the daughter of the great Tipperary button accordionist and composer Paddy O’Brien.  Comprised entirely of her father’s tunes, “Aon le hAon” is fabulous album and definitely worth having.

In her liner notes, O’Brien explains that “[she] decided to record this solo fiddle album to further the promotion of my father’s music and bring his wonderful gift for composition to a wider audience”;

In this sense, this album might be seen as an extension of the book of her father’s compositions she edited in 1992 called The Compositions of Paddy O’Brien. However, it also “serve[s] as an archival record of [her] style of fiddle playing,” which is important because her playing not only reflects her father’s influence, but also that of her grandfather, the great fiddler Dinny O’Brien.
There are many reasons to love this album, but one simple one O’Brien’s approach to phrasing and ornamentation – it’s just lovely, and that of a player with an unusual rootedness in the music.  With this in mind, I find lovely depth on tracks like “Dinny O’Brien’s,” “Out in the Cold / …” and “Swan on the Lake / …,” but it’s the album’s airs (including “De Bharr na gCnoc,” “Bruach na Carraige Bána” and “Easter Snow”) that stand out in particular.  They’re just a delight to listen to.

In addition to being an album of just great playing, Aon le hAon is also an important resource for those who want to become better acquainted with Paddy O’Brien’s compositions – if you love trad music (and better yet, if you play it), do yourself a favor and check it out.  Visit for information on how to purchase.

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