Ciarán O’Reilly (1938–2020)

A celebration of the life of fiddle player Ciarán O'Reilly by his friend and fellow musician Mick O'Connor.


Ciarán O’Reilly (Ó Raghallaigh), who died on 22 April 2020 was a very talented fiddle player and an integral part of the traditional music scene particularly in Dublin for an extended period. I first encountered him in the Pipers’ Club in Thomas Street in the late 1950s. He was invariably in the company of his older brother Eoghan who also played the fiddle and was a major role model for Ciarán. They played superb fiddle duets together and were usually requested to perform at the Saturday night session. Eoghan and Ciarán and their sisters, Máire and Sheila, were regular supporters of the Pipers’ Club during this period.

Ciarán was born in New York in 1938 to Peter and Maura O’Reilly of Co. Cavan stock for generations. In 1947 when Ciarán was nine years old, the family returned to Ireland on board the SS America, landing in Cobh, Co. Cork. The family settled initially on a farm in the townland of Aghabog, near Newbliss, Co. Monaghan. Although their grandfather, Patrick O’Brien, was a fine fiddle player, their first introduction to live traditional music was through the playing of Eddie (Big Ned) Duffy, a local player described by Ciarán as “a gentle giant with a delicate and gifted touch on the fiddle.” The O’Reilly brothers were sent to Miss Donnelly, Edergole, Co. Monaghan, for tuition on the violin.

When the family moved to Dublin in the late 1950s the lessons continued in the Municipal School of Music, Chatham Row, for a few years. Ciarán also received lessons from Paddy Lynch (Associate Member London College of Music). This was counter-balanced by informal tuition from the legendary Frank O’Higgins. While their formal training proved invaluable, their love of traditional music eventually came to the fore. Visitors to the house included Seán Bracken and pianist Stella Seevers who also played with Eoghan in the Lough Gowna Céilí Band.

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Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, Dungarvan 1957 Standing, left to right: Bill Russell, Ciarán and Eoghan O’Reilly. Seated: Máire and Sheila O’Reilly. Photo courtesy of Frances Fleming.

Marino Christian Brothers School (CBS)

Ciarán attended Marino CBS and played in a school band consisting of John Sheahan, Leon and Liam Rowsome, Paddy Moloney and others. John Sheahan shared a desk with Ciarán in school and they remained close friends over the years.

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Scoil Mhuire, An Bhuíon Cheoil, Marino 1951. Back row, 2nd and 3rd from end: Ciarán O’Reilly and John Sheahan. Middle row, second from right of photo: Liam Rowsome. Front row from left: Paddy Moloney and Hugh Byrne on uilleann pipes. Others unidentified. Photo: © Mick O’Connor Collection

Work

Ciarán initially served his time as a piano tuner and maker with a German piano maker named Werner, who later moved to Shannon Industrial Estate. Ciarán was uniquely suited to this work with his fine sense of tuning. When the factory moved to Shannon, Ciarán started work in Unidare, Finglas, where he worked until his retirement. 

The Pipers’ Club

The O’Reilly brothers and their younger sisters, Máire and Sheila became increasingly involved in the traditional music scene in Dublin. Máire was a very good tin whistle player and was highly regarded as a musician, particularly as there were few young people playing traditional music, and even fewer girls. At weekends, we would often go as a group of teenagers hiking to the Dublin mountains and, on occasion, we would stay at An Óige hostels. Invariably, Máire would be persuaded to play a few tunes on the way home on the bus. Indeed, Máire was my inspiration for starting on the whistle but I couldn’t replicate her delicate touches and eventually gravitated to the flute. I should mention also that Sheila played the fiddle too and Ciarán’s younger brother, Peter, was a banjo player. 

The weekly céilithe organised by the Gaelic League in the Mansion House were another source of musical inspiration. They also served as a social occasion where Máire and Sheila danced to the music of their brothers Ciarán and Eoghan playing the fiddle with the Éamonn Ceannt and Lough Gowna Céilí Bands. 

I recall an amusing incident at the Pipers’ Club in the 1960s involving Ciarán and the author and playwright Ulick O’Connor. On one occasion after the Saturday session in the Pipers’ Club, as the crowd was spilling out from the front room into the hallway, I was standing with Ciarán waiting for the crowd to thin out before leaving. Ulick O’Connor passed by and turned back to me and enquired if I had seen Larry Dillon recently. Larry Dillon was a member of the Pipers’ Club and a great enthusiast of traditional music. I replied that I had not seen him recently. Ulick stated that he wanted to contact him urgently and proceeded towards the front door. Ciarán was listening to the conversation and after Ulick passed by mentioned that he was seeing Larry Dillon later in the week. I called after Ulick who at this stage was amongst a crowd near the door and said that Ciarán was due to meet Larry Dillon shortly. Ulick who was some distance from us said in a loud voice “Tell Larry I want to see him urgently.” Everyone present was privy to this conversation. Ciarán, who seldom watched television, timidly asked, “Who shall I say was asking for him?” Ulick at that time was one of the best-known personalities in the country mainly on account of his regular appearances on the Late Late Show. Everyone present bar Ciarán was aware of his fame, however Ulick to his credit, took this all in good grace, instantly recognising that Ciarán was a genuine sort and that there was no malice or putdown intended. 

Musicians Kathleen and John Nesbitt, who were resident in Dublin in the 1960s, remember Ciarán:

A beautiful fiddle player, we have been remembering being at the Fiddler of Dooney in the 1960s. We entered a quartet competition on impulse with Ciarán and Bridie Laverty, and won 2nd place, to Micheál Ó hEidhin’s quartet.  In 3rd place were Sean Ryan, Martin Fallon, Ellen Flanagan and John Brady. The adjudicator was Leo Rowsome. They were great days. 

Des Geraghty, an old friend of Ciarán’s for over 50 years recalls his friend:

Ciarán was truly one of nature’s gentlemen. From my first encounter with Ciarán and his close family in the Pipers Club in the very early sixties I found him to be a warm, sensitive, loyal and enduring friend.  He was steeped in the best of our tradition, supportive of others, patient in sharing his time and talents and the best of company. He had a rich inherited spirit of Gaelic Ireland, which he shared with generosity through his music but also through his warm personality and friendship. I have many, many, many fond memories of musical gatherings often involving such close friends as Ciarán and Eoghan, Maura, Mick O'Connor, Seán and James Keane, Barney McKenna, Michael Tubridy and Mick Hand and a great array of other musicians who frequented The Saturday Pipers’ Club or The Wednesday Church Street sessions. That also extended to our many expeditions to weird and wondrous places, through joyful or dangerous times, when pursuing our youthful ‘Fleadh Adventure’, all over Ireland. That extended from uncomfortable hay barns in Mayo to palatial houses of the gentry in County Wicklow. 
When I was inspired by the flute playing of John Egan to take up the concert flute, it was Ciarán who wrote out the notes of early tunes for me since recording equipment was not readily available. These included such jigs as the Battering Ram, The Munster Buttermilk and the Butchers March and my first serious reel, The Galway Rambler. That 'Galway Rambler' was later to begin a spiritual journey for me to the Gaeltacht of Conamara to find the great whistle player Festy Conlon, the influence of whose slow airs has remained with me ever since. I was delighted when Ciarán more recently made me a present of Cómhrá na dTonn, an album with so much of his spirit and love of the tradition in it. The beautiful music of Ciarán and Eoghan playing Planxty Davis, that ancient sound of the early sixteen hundreds is etched fondly on my heart and memory which will ensure for me that his 'Cómhrá agus Ceol' will not be forgotten. 

Parties

Parties at the O’Reilly household in Windsor Avenue, Fairview, were legendary with musicians of the calibre of Seán Maguire, Barney McKenna, and John Sheahan among others attending on various occasions. I was lucky to be invited to one such party in the company of Des Geraghty. John Keenan, the accordion player with the Kincora Céilí band was also there playing with Eoghan and Ciarán. I can still recall the homely atmosphere and friendliness of the occasion. Their father, Mr O’Reilly was a talented artist and a painting made by him of their home in Cavan was prominently displayed in the kitchen.

Competitions

Ciarán was quite successful in competition. He won the fiddle competition at the Fr. Mathew Feis in the late 1950s and later won the Oireachtas fiddle competition in 1965. With piper Mick Tuohy they won the Oireachtas duet competition in the early 1960s against the favourites, the older and more experienced Jim Seery and Pat Brophy. Ciarán later won a Trio competition with Mick Tuohy on pipes and Tom Murphy on flute at Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann, Thurles, in 1965. 

The Éamonn Ceannt Céilí Band

With the development of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in the 1950s, céilí bands became popular at fleadhanna and Gaelic League functions. Both Eoghan and Ciarán played with the Éamonn Ceannt Céilí Band. Eoghan later joined the Lough Gowna Céilí Band. These bands competed at the Oireachtas Céilí Band competitions in Dublin and frequently broadcast on Radio Éireann. I recently came across a typed programme from a Céilí House broadcast in 1965 which listed the selections of music for the Castle Céilí Band and Ciarán was the solo musician on the occasion. At that time, solo artists had to apply for an audition on Radio Éireann and not everyone was successful in getting a chance to broadcast.

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The Éamonn Ceannt Céilí Band, AOH Hall, Parnell Square, Dublin, late 1950s Standing, left to right: Fiddlers Ciarán O'Reilly and Paddy Lynch. Seated: Danny Merrigan (drums), Jim Dowling (pipes), Viola Preston (piano accordion), Florie Schooling (piano) and Vincent Broderick (piccolo). Photo: © Mick O’Connor Collection.

The Abbey Tavern

Ciarán O’Reilly played for many years in the Abbey Tavern, Howth, Co. Dublin. His musicianship, reliable and courteous manner made him one of the most popular musicians of the group. During the 1970s and ’80s, Ciarán played with the highly regarded piper, Tommy Reck in the Abbey Tavern. Ciarán held him in the highest regard as a lovely player and loyal friend. Their personalities were suited, and they played lovely gentle music together for a number of years.

The fiddle players who played in the Abbey over the years were of a very high standard musically as they were expected to accompany singers in a variety of keys. Of course, this was no problem for Ciarán, Seán Keane, Charlie Lennon, Paddy and Séamus Glackin, and Liam Rowsome. Other equally talented fiddle players who played there over the years included Micheál Mac Aogáin,[1] Antóin Mac Gabhann, Tommy Peoples, Eoghan O’Reilly, Tom O’Brien, Kathleen Nesbitt, Darach, Donal and Liam O’Connor.

His old school friend, Liam Rowsome, frequently played music with Ciarán in the Abbey Tavern. He was extremely gifted musically and like Ciarán, very self-effacing. I recall one night we requested Liam to play The Moving Cloud Reel (in the key of F) as he had a syncopated 4th part. Liam, immediately without a moment’s hesitation, retorted “What will we play with it?” Ciarán and Liam could play extremely intricate duets and I rejoiced in hearing them play some of Scott Skinner’s favourites.

[1] There were two fiddle players named Micheál Mac Aogáin who played at different times in the Abbey Tavern, one, a former Irish Army officer, is in the following photo. The other, originally from Ballinasloe, now lives in Malahide.


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The Abbey Tavern Singers and Musicians Back row, left to right: Pat O’Connell, Áine McCann and Seán Byrne. Front row: Tommy Reck, Micheál Mac Aogáin, Bill Power, Ciarán O’Reilly and P.J. Downes. Photo: © Mick O’Connor Collection

I recall one particular exceptional and exciting session of music when Charlie Lennon, who lived in Howth at the time, arrived unannounced with Frankie Gavin. I instinctively knew that this was too good an opportunity to waste, four top fiddle players together under one roof for a few short hours. There was a great sense of occasion and I could see that they were delighted to see each other and anxious to play music together. I approached James Scott-Lennon, the owner of the Abbey Tavern about staying back for a private session for our friends. James graciously provided us with a room and supplied numerous drinks to fuel the session. We had an amazing session of music with Charlie and Frankie along with Paddy Glackin, Ciarán, myself and John Fetherston who provided guitar accompaniment. The session which lasted until the early hours of the next morning ranged from fiddle standards to Scottish selections and a memorable rendition of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’ from Charlie. What I recall, even now, was Ciarán’s infectious laugh whenever Frankie or Paddy, who are also brilliant mimics, told a good yarn or imitated some musician’s accent or mannerisms.

Paddy Glackin recalls playing with Ciarán in the Abbey Tavern:

He was a thorough gentleman and was always willing to lend an ear to young lads like myself when we were starting out. I still remember as a young lad being enthralled by his playing with Liam Rowsome of the reel ‘Bunker Hill’ it was an inspirational moment for me and I played it at the Fleadh in Clones in 1968 in the under 14 competition. Of course, to play with him and Tommy Reck on so many occasions is a treasured memory. 
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The Abbey Tavern Singers and Musicians, 1990. Back row, left to right: Eddie McGinley, Micheál Ó Conaill, Ann Carroll and Michael Brooks. Front row: Mick O’Connor, Ciarán O’Reilly and Seán Donnellan. Photo: © Mick O’Connor Collection.

Ciarán played music at the Abbey Tavern for approximately 40 years and enjoyed the friendship of the many singers and musicians during this period. Many of the Abbey Tavern singers and musicians kept in touch over the years and whenever we would meet, usually around Christmas, the first person they looked for at the venue was Ciarán.

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The Abbey Tavern Singers and Musicians Reunion, Duke Pub, Dublin, 2003. Standing, back row, left to right: Seán Keane, Ciarán O’Reilly, Brian O’Rourke, Micheál Ó Conaill and James Scott-Lennon. Front row: Michael Brooks and Mary Sheehan. Photo: © Mick O’Connor Collection.

Seán McGuire (1927–2005)

Seán McGuire was a great friend of the O’Reilly brothers not least because of his brilliance and their common Cavan background. Seán played in the Abbey Tavern for a short while and maintained contact over the years. In 1988 just after Christmas day, I received a phone call from Seán McGuire looking to contact Ciarán O’Reilly. It occurred to me that Seán would like some company and I decided to organise a party for Seán to meet his musical friends. Everything came together, after numerous phone calls and with the generosity of the proprietor of the Abbey Tavern, James Scott-Lennon. It was a memorable occasion, starting off with some young musicians who were anxious to hear the legendary McGuire.

Among the musicians’ present were: Eoghan and Ciarán O’Reilly, Liam Rowsome, Mick Hand, Seán Potts, Seán Óg Potts, Tommy Reck, Charlie Lennon, Mick O’Connor and family. Breandán Ó Duill and Micheál Ó Conaill, who were previously members of the Gael Linn Cabaret, were also present.

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Party in the Abbey Tavern, Howth for Seán McGuire, December 1988. Left to right: Seán McGuire, Frances Fleming, Eoghan O’Reilly, John O’Brien with tape recorder. Note Tommy Reck standing at back of photo. Photo: © Mick O’Connor Collection
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Party for Seán McGuire at the Abbey Tavern, 1988. Eoghan and Ciarán O’Reilly (fiddles) with Donal O’Connor in background. Photo: © Mick O’Connor Collection.

On occasions when Seán McGuire played in Dublin, Ciarán always made a point of attending his performances. Seán played on several occasions in the Harcourt Hotel, Dublin, and invariably many of the Dublin fiddle players, including Charlie Lennon, John Sheahan and the Glackins, would attend to support him. 

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James Morrison Festival, Riverstown, Sligo, 2009. Left to right: Ciaran O'Reilly, Máire Garvey, Martin Enright and Dan Healy. Photo: © Mick O’Connor Collection.

Máire McDonnell Garvey (1938–2009) – Cómhrá na dTonn

Ciarán teamed up with two former members of the Éamonn Ceannt Céilí Band, Máire McDonnell Garvey and Dan Healy, to form a traditional group, Cómhrá na dTonn, and they recorded a CD of the same name in 2004. Máire McDonnell Garvey, historian, teacher, and veritable human dynamo, was the driving force of the group. She produced and authored several CDs and books on local history and music. Ciarán, in addition to playing the fiddle, also contributed in transcribing music and proofreading. Their group were very much in demand in north Connacht and made several trips to Mayo and Sligo to play at musical functions. The group were frequently augmented with members of Máire’s family for recording and performances. 

Easter Snow, air / Ciarán O'Reilly from: Whispering strains from the past / Cómhra na dTonn (Dan Healy, 2000)

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Ciarán O'Reilly and John Sheahan at the Harcourt Hotel for a performance by Seán McGuire’s Trio, June, 1999. Photo: © Mick O’Connor Collection.

Fiddle Nights

Ciarán’s love of fiddles and everything related to the instrument made him an ideal guest at Liam O’Connor’s fiddle nights. These nights were essentially gatherings of like-minded individuals who were required to give a short presentation on any aspect of fiddle playing, fiddle making or individual fiddle players. Ciarán had at one stage taken an interest in fiddle making and acquired a fiddle making kit. However, we never saw a finished instrument. On many an occasion I came across Ciarán relaxing with a pint and reading The Strad magazine.

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Liam O'Connor's Fiddle Party, 2013 Standing, back row, left to right: Youenn Bothorel, Ciarán O’Reilly, Seán Ó Broin, Seán Keegan, Ciarán Ó Maonaigh and Jessie Smith. Front row: Séamus Glackin and Liam O’Connor, 23 February 2013. Photo: © Mick O’Connor Collection.
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Visit to Charlie Lennon, Tigh Choilí, Galway, June 2014. Session in Tigh Choilí, Galway, with Charlie Lennon and friends Michael Brooks, Ciarán O'Reilly and Mick O'Connor who travelled from Dublin to visit Charlie. Photo: © Mick O’Connor Collection

Charlie Lennon recalls his friendship

My memories of Ciarán O’Reilly are many and all bring me joy. He was a very accomplished fiddler with a broad and interesting range.  His rendition of Blind Mary was one of my favourites and sometimes, when the mood was right, I would join him the second time round with a little bit of harmony. A gentle smile would creep over his face in recognition of my attempt to support him. I think he had a dream that when he retired he would become a luthier. I know he got suitable wood and tools to add to his home workshop and we discussed in some detail the link between arts and crafts and science and how it affects instrument making and he may have completed his first project.
We played together on many enjoyable occasions in the Abbey Tavern and we also met from time to time to have conversations on a range of subjects. He was very proud of our culture and heritage and so we would converse in Irish until the discussion went beyond our ability to express our deeper thoughts and opinions. I would then arise to replenish our glasses at which point he would put hand on my shoulder and declare “Is liomsa an glaodh.” One of Charlie’s compositions, titled ‘Master Séamus’ is frequently called ‘Ciarán O’Reilly’s’. According to Charlie, [2] this arose because Tommy Peoples heard Ciarán playing the tune and when Tommy recorded it he named it ‘Ciarán O’Reilly’s’
[2] Phone conversation with Charlie Lennon, 17 May 2020. ‘Master Séamus’ was published in Musical Memories, the first publication of compositions by Charlie Lennon, in 1993.
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A Gathering of Friends The Oak Room, the Mansion House, Dublin, 21 June 2018. Left to right: Mick O’Connor, Michael Tubridy, Ciarán O'Reilly, Antóin Mac Gabhainn, Seán Keane, John Dwyer and Liam O’Connor. Photo: © Mick O’Connor Collection.

Musical Trips

Ciarán travelled extensively on musical trips during his time in the Abbey Tavern: travelling to Sweden on two occasions (1973/4), as well as Paris (1979), Düsseldorf (1980), Fort Lauderdale (1981/4), Longchamp, Paris (1992), Lisbon (1995), and Amsterdam (2004). There are plenty of stories of Ciarán creating panic with security in airports when various items including pliers and screwdrivers in his pockets set off alarms. Along with fellow members of the Abbey Tavern Pat O’Connell and John Fetherston, Ciarán travelled to Florida for several years for the St Patrick’s Day festival as a guest of the Shamrock Society. In 1983 Séamus Glackin played with them. Ciarán returned to Florida on multiple occasions in the early 1990’s. They were very popular entertainers and they made many friends. One particular friendship made there was very important to Ciarán, it was there he met Rita Honan who became a very important part of his life for several years and they remained friends until his passing.

Trip to Cremona

It was Rita who accompanied Ciarán when they went to Cremona on what was possibly one of his most enjoyable holidays. They were there for the festival celebrating the renowned instrument maker Antonio Stradivari. They visited museums and saw violins made by other famous makers including Giuseppe Guarneri. For someone like Ciarán this was paradise.

Rita recalls Ciarán’s joy in visiting such a shrine to violin making:

Yes, we were there.  It was pretty terrific to see the museums and all the fiddle makers as well. Ciarán was in his glory!

I know Ciarán really enjoyed the trip to Cremona, as he talked about it a lot, so much so, I was thinking of organizing a trip with Charlie, Ciarán, Liam and the Glackins, Paddy and Séamus, but alas, it never happened. 

Local Sessions in Fairview

In the last few years, Ciarán occasionally attended John Kelly’s session in the Teachers’ Club, Parnell Square and the Cobblestone. He mainly played locally in Smith’s, Meagher’s and Gaffney’s Pubs in Fairview with Philip and Martha Peat, Colm Scully, Terry Crehan, Richard Burke, Mick Quinn and others. 

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Colm Scully and Ciarán O’Reilly, Dublin Docklands Festival, 9 December 2017. Photo: © Mick O’Connor Collection.

Irish Language and Religion

There were two aspects of Ciarán’s character that were deep-seated, one was his love of the Irish language, the other was his deep faith. Both of these he extoled in a quiet and private manner, but one knew that they were extremely important to him.

Ciarán's Funeral April 2020

Because of Covid restrictions limiting the number of people into the church, only the following musicians played at his funeral Mass: Colm Scully, Terry Crehan, Sadhbh Nic Philibín Ó Raghallaigh (grandniece) and Méabh Lawlee (niece). His nephew, Eoghainín, delivered a remarkably detailed and affectionate eulogy. How poignant that Ciarán, who played for countless funerals, could not be played for at his own by so many who would have liked to pay tribute. The family were blessed by those few who were able to contribute but we all know there were many at home who would have liked to have added their accompaniment to the music. Fortunately, many were able to view the ceremony online and this was a source of satisfaction and served as a farewell to one of nature’s gentlemen. 

We were very privileged to know and have Ciarán in our lives. He won’t be forgotten by his many friends and his gentle ways and mannerisms will always bring a smile to my face.
Mick O'Connor, 2020

Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam dílis. 

Mick O’Connor, June 2020 



Acknowledgements

Mick O'Connor would like to acknowledge the co-operation of Muintir Raghallaigh in compiling this tribute and in particular, to Eoghainín Ó Raghallaigh, who graciously proofread the article. Special thanks to the Irish Traditional Music Archive (ITMA) for allowing me to publish this article on their website and to Ita Keane who kindly sent me copies of her mother, Máire McDonnell Garvey’s CDs which feature Ciarán playing with the group Cómhrá na dTonn.