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JOHNNY O'LEARY "Johnny O'Leary of Sliabh Luachra" Craft Records CRCD01

Johnny O'Leary is one of the great characters of the Sliabh Luachra tradition, and the source of many fine tunes: some he composed himself, and others which would have been forgotten without him. If you believe some of the stories, then Johnny also kept the Cork and Kerry set dancing tradition alive for many years virtually single-handed. (Well, double handed: Johnny is a button accordeon player!)

Countless albums of Irish music have featured tunes and sets attributed to Johnny, usually entitled "Johnny O'Leary's Polkas" or some such. There have been many previous recordings of Johnny's own playing, notably one by Gael-Linn recently re-released on CD. This most recent recording was made in 1995, when Johnny was 71 years of age, in one of his many local pubs. The standard of playing and recording is quite good, there's an unobtrusive guitar accompaniment on most of the 28 tracks (75 minutes), and many tracks feature set dancing in the background which I think adds atmosphere and life but which other reviewers have found distracting.

The most interesting feature of this CD is that it is intended to complement the excellent book of the same title published by Dublin's Lilliput Press in 1994. The book contains 348 tunes, of which the CD covers forty or fifty - enough to give a fair idea of the style and range of the Sliabh Luachra tradition. The tunes in the book are transcribed from recordings between 1970 and 1993, and lean towards the Sliabh Luachra polkas and slides rather than the more usual reels and jigs. There are photos and anecdotes galore, together with as much indexing and background information as you could wish, but the bulk of the 230 pages is filled with beautiful clear typeset transcriptions of Johnny O'Leary's prodigious repertoire.

Sliabh Luachra musicians were in the habit of borrowing tunes from other traditions and idioms long before the words "eclectic" and "fusion" were applied to traditional music. Both the book and the CD contain many tunes which are recognisable borrowings: some obviously so like "Turkey in the Straw" or "Campdown Races", and others renamed such as the Scottish tunes "100 Pipers" (renamed as "The Hair Fell Off my Coconut"!) and "Dan O'Leary's Polka" which was originally called "The Barren Rocks of Aden".

In native and non-native tunes alike, Johnny O'Leary's playing brings out the spirit of Sliabh Luachra. Both book and CD are a valuable record of the music of a man whose playing can still be heard (on recent TnaG broadcasts, for instance) but who will not be with us for ever.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 20 of The Living Tradition magazine.