The oral tradition that transmits Ireland’s deep cultural heritage and history is a multifaceted channel that has awakened the spirits of the Irish people for centuries, in good times and in bad.
In addition to a rich musical canon of songs, the literary and spoken arts such as poetry, prose and theater have long captivated and informed us about the past, while also providing us with a sense of place and awareness of how it influences who we are as part of the Irish country at home and abroad.
Shanachies or storytellers in particular have a way of reaching the hearts and souls of their audiences and touching emotions that define the character of the Irish. Some do it through comedy like Eamonn Kelly, Hal Roach, or Brendan Grace, and others through more thoughtful recitations or social commentary.
In the latter case comes a new publication called I Remember it All which is virtually available online by a very talented and very aware man named Oliver O’Connell from Burren, the land of North Clare.
O’Connell hails from Fernhill, Lisdoonvarna, the legendary spa town known by many for its matchmaking festival usually held in September which has its own colorful legacy.
O’Connell, 73, is one of the most staunch Banner County advocates you could come across who has poured a lifetime of storytelling and social commentary into the new unique and impactful autobiography.
It depicts a life of triumph and heartache that paints a picture of the Ireland that has made him who he is and will be of great importance to those who share his sensitivities and experiences in one way or another. The collection of 18 chapters portraying his life “as a journey and not as a destination”, based on memories carefully and sensitively stored along the road that shaped him as he weaves his way along many of the same paths of the rural Ireland to England and America as it did many others over the years.
I first met O’Connell and his late wife Maureen when they were part of a large tour group accompanying their young children, who happened to be students of Maureen Glynn Cronin Connolly in Ennis, Co. Clare, who had succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 1998. long after he married Martin Connolly and moved to Ireland.
Oliver and Maureen were a charming, well-matched couple and beautiful set dancers, as was often apparent on that 1999 tour. Their young son Michael O’Connell was a drummer in Glynn’s ceili band that we would later come to know as Blackie, a van Ireland’s fiery uilleann pipers have been heavily influenced by the traveler tradition, which also became one of Oliver’s areas of expertise.
Tragically, Maureen O’Connell fell ill later that year and made cancer a victim well before her time, deeply impacting her grieving husband from the day she died.
Over the years we have kept in touch, and as my own parents were from North Clare and Burren Country and my own forays into that part of Ireland, Oliver’s conversations and observations always brought back memories of the hard life around an area that , although it was of course beautiful a hard environment to live on. Poverty and circumstances were a third world until the 1970s, but music, song and dance kept a spirit and culture alive to compensate for the bleak conditions of everyday life.
O’Connell’s work is a fascinating personal reflection of his upbringing in North Clare, told in a gripping narrative style with colorful references to people, places and events in a historical context that has shaped Ireland over the past six decades. The journey involved many successful business ventures that also ended badly due to unfortunate partnership choices or worse economic disaster such as the banking crisis that sank the Celtic Tiger. The loss of his wife and his own battle with cancer could have easily defeated him altogether.
His own involvement in the traditional music scene around Lisdoonvarna, Doolin and later in Shannon kept hopes alive for him and increasingly for his talented son Blackie, whom he raised on the same musical path.
O’Connell has become both an extraordinary link to an easily forgotten or overlooked Ireland as one of its greatest champions, and a keen observer of what it has become in the present day for better or for worse.
I Remember it All is worth tracking down as an online publication only through Custys Music Shop in Ennis (www.custys.com) for the wonderful way O’Connell takes us on his eventful journey to a place of calm acceptance of all that life has thrown its way.
There are some nice musical touches from his old comrade Mickey Dunne from Limerick. He’s launching it this weekend with Dunne and some of Clare’s other musical friends at his home in Tubber overlooking the Burren, site of a number of summer pre-pandemic sessions, and it will be available on his Facebook page on November 27.
The collection of true stories makes for a wonderful seasonal gift (no worries about supply chain issues here) for €25 for the digital copy, especially for Clare folks and all Irish immigrants who appreciate informed nostalgia with a keen focus on making life a journey and not just any destination.