Paddy O’Brien is a world-renowned accordionist and traditional Irish music expert, but last month he received what may be the most rewarding reviews of his life – from “the neighbors,” as he calls them, when the St. Paul-based Irish music icon’s memoir “The Road from Castlebarnagh: Growing Up in Irish Music” was published in Ireland at the end of last year.
“I heard from this guy, right here,” says O’Brien, 67, pointing to a grainy photo on the cover of the book, of him and his old friend Johnny Rourke, snapped by the latter’s mother on a June night in 1957 after the boys had finished sowing potatoes on the rural Ireland farmland where they grew up. Stacks of the books fill the living room of the Highland Park home that O’Brien shares with his wife, the novelist, critic, teacher, singer and Irish music culture vulture Erin Hart.
“Johnny Rourke has read it three times, and he’s over the moon. Every word of it, he says, is the truth,” says O’Brien, the words tumbling out of his mouth like a melody. “I got a call from a guy who owns a pub in Tullamore, in County Offaly in the midlands where all this happened, and he’d read it and he was over the moon as well. I had my first pint of Guinness at his pub. He’s a musician as well, but he didn’t know I [was a writer]. He said, ‘You’re better than W.B. Yeats, you are.’ “
O’Brien’s graceful, lyrical prose flows with a spring-fed stream’s purity, and his natural gift as a storyteller lilts along with the cadence, mystery and depth of one of his jigs or reels. The story titles themselves could be tunes (“The Visitor,” “The Banshee,” “A Ghostly Confrontation,” “The First Pint,” “The First Ceili”) while the memories – of living in a thatched-roof farmhouse without water or electricity and the simultaneous boyhood discoveries of the radio and playing, listening to, and learning music, and many more – are rendered with both detail-rich narratives that put the reader in 1950s rural Ireland, and wise latter day observations such as:
“When I look back on it all I am struck by the humble imaginations and innocent attitudes of country people like my parents. Their lives were embodied by everyday values of give and take, the sharing of hardships, and by their children. Children of the neighbouring areas brought people together, confirmed friendships, and kept alive a spirit of goodwill among friends and neighbors. This was how it was.”
O’Brien has been at this business of transcribing heart and soul for a while now. A master of the two-row button accordion, he has a repertoire of over 3,000 pieces, 500 of which were committed to tape for “The Paddy O’Brien Tune Collection: A personal treasury of Irish jigs and reels,” a 12-cassette set that was part of a 1994 American National Endowment For The Arts project.
Nowadays most of his time is spent playing at one bar, library, coffee shop, school, or another, but one night a couple years ago he “had nothing to do,” so he sat down to write. Two hours later, he had 30 pages of stories and memories. It felt good, so he kept going.
“Sure,” laughs Hart, who has four mystery novels under her belt. “There I am, struggling upstairs with the plot of my latest novel, and Paddy’s down here, writing everything out longhand every night, dedicating a few hours every night. In six months he had 500 pages of material. So I’m going, ‘Curse you, you fast writer.’ And he said, ‘Erin, it’s different for me because I already know what happens.’ ”
O’Brien and Hart (who unplug their lives Sunday nights to watch “Downton Abbey”) have teamed up on several projects, and the couple will host a duel launch party for “The Road From Castlebarnagh” and Hart’s “The Book Of Killowen” March 5 at the James J. Hill Library in St. Paul.
“Erin has been a very good influence on me. I would never dismiss that; it has to rub off, you know?” says O’Brien. “She talks about books, and it’s part of the dialogue here at the house. She’s involved in lots of [literary] things, and I pick up on that. I had questions about just simple things, and general presentation, and the art of writing. I came to the conclusion that to keep it rolling for the audience, keep the story going, was very important.”
“The Road from Castlebarnagh” rolls along over the course of the first 22 years of O’Brien’s life. The stories continue to pour forth, and a second memoir is in the works, chronicling O’Brien’s time in Dublin and the folk revival of the ‘60s and ‘70s. His accounts are invaluable and historic, for he comes from a sacred and sequestered tradition of Irish music, which dictates the music stand on its own, with no introduction from the singers or players.
“I was 33 when I first came over to this country, and you couldn’t get me to speak on stage because I was so intimidated and shy,” says O’Brien. “And eventually I started talking to people on the microphone and introducing the tunes. After several years of this, then I started telling stories. When I started telling bits of stories when I was playing, people I’d play with would say, ‘Paddy you’ve got to write a book.’
“It’s good that I am, because the funny thing is, I can’t remember things that happened to me last week, but I can remember something I did in 1954.”