Newspaper article

Paddy O'Brien Shares a Lyrical Life in 'The Road from Castlebarnagh'

Newspaper article

Paddy O'Brien Shares a Lyrical Life in 'The Road from Castlebarnagh'

Article excerpt

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. …

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