It is often painted as one of the universal symbols of Irish affability and need to congregate in a place where conversation, music, dance and spirits are all to be found in the one venue. No matter where you go around the world, it seems there is an Irish pub which attracts imbibers and pioneers (if the food and the craic are good enough).
While there are plenty of new places opening all the time -- some of them trying to look very old -- the fact is that many of the authentic country pubs in Ireland are dying out, and with them many of the old famous old publicans (owners) with them who rendered such a valuable service in keeping the culture alive on many levels.
This hit home to me when I heard of the passing of Dan Connell, the Knocknagree publican who passed away on Sunday at the age of 88.
It wasn’t just the allure of a pint or alcohol that attracted people to attend some country pubs like Connell’s place there in West Cork before it closed for good a few years ago when health and advancing age ended a glorious history there.
Not too long after he purchased the license for the pub near Mallow and in the heart of the Sliabh Luachra area, he decided he wanted it to be a house for traditional music and dance. So he hired Denis “The Weaver” Murphy and Johnny O’Leary to play music in the old house dance tradition back in 1964, some 20 years before the set dancing revival got fired up.
In fact, the existence of a rural pub specializing in the polka sets and the musicians who played for them was a critical component of the revivalists who reveled in their visits to the source at the well of the tradition.
It wasn’t long before the pub in Knocknagree became synonymous with the music and dance of Sliabh Luachra and the Mecca for those who enjoyed its lively spirited style that was in sharp contrast to the Clare sets that got more attention as the Willie Clancy Summer School stoked the revival in the 1980s.
In fact my first exposure to the polka sets and Dan Connell himself were at Willie Week in 1984 when Hennessey’s Pub on the Lahinch Road became an outreach clinic for the music and dance of Sliabh Luachra craic all week.
Watching Dan dance in an animated set with Timmy “The Brit” McCarthy, who learned his craft at the Knocknagree shrine to set dancing, and the stately Dan O’Keefe and other assorted partners in such a tidy space in the crowded pub was always a highlight of the week.
Connell may have carried a few more pounds than the aerobically dynamic McCarthy, but it didn’t seem to diminish his own leaping ability or timing as his own athletic past made him well able to keep up with the upstart Brit.
I yearned to make my own pilgrimage to polka central one year, but alas it was never to be, though the stories and legends abound throughout the set dancing world.
Thanks to Dan Connell (his name was usually shortened from O’Connell), the legacy of Sliabh Luachra music and, in particular, Johnny O’Leary was well documented by Terry Moylan and the Piper’s Club Brooks Academy dancers who like many other relished their time spent in Knocknagree.
Johnny Leary’s album "Johnny O’Leary of Sliabh Luachra: Dance Music from the Cork/Kerry Border" was recorded there in Knocknagree, with Dan’s son-in-law Tim Kiely accompanying him as he often did in the pub.
And perhaps in one of the finest compliments to be paid to the famous pub was when two of Clare’s most famous musicians, Noel Hill on concertina and Tony McMahon on accordion, traveled down to West Cork for a live recording in the authentic setting of “I gCnoc Na Grai -- In Knocknagree.”
It is considered a seminal recording featuring set dancing with live music, and even though it contained no polkas or slides it was a testament to a famed house for dance music where timing and footwork were appreciated along with the musicians.
Dancers in the know made their way there over the years, and it never became a tourist trap, remaining a place where the locals met the visitors encouraged by the publican Dan, who ran a business that was more of a cultural crossroads than just a place to wet your whistle.
O’Connell was laid to rest this week in his beloved Sliabh Luachra, but his impact will live for years to come because men like him had a spirit that couldn’t be contained in any one place.
Condolences to family including his widow Hannah Mai and children Mairead, Lucy, Siobhan, Raymond, Aileen, Seamus and Noel. (Aileen suffered this bereavement after losing her own husband Johnny Cronin last November, so say an extra prayer for her and her family).
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