The oral tradition transmitting Ireland’s deep cultural heritage and history is a multi-faceted conduit that has long lifted the spirits of the Irish people over centuries through good times and bad.
Along with a rich musical canon of songs, the literary and spoken arts like poetry and prose and theater have long captivated and informed us of the past while also providing a sense of place and awareness of how it influences who we are as part of the Irish nation at home and abroad.
Shanachies or storytellers, in particular, have a way of reaching the hearts and souls of their audience, touching off emotions that define the very 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 vein comes a new publication called I Remember it All available virtually online by a very talented and intensively aware man named Oliver O’Connell from Burren country of North Clare.
O’Connell comes from Fernhill, Lisdoonvarna, the legendary Spa town known to many for the matchmaking festival usually held in September which has its own colorful legacy.
The 73-year-old O’Connell is one of the staunchest advocates for the Banner County one could come across who has packed a lifetime of stories and social commentary into the new unique and impressive autobiography.
It depicts a life of triumphs and heartache that paints a picture of the Ireland that made him who he is that will be of great interest to those who share his sensibilities and experiences in one way or another. The collection of 18 chapters depicting his life “as a journey and not a destination” based on memories stored carefully and sensitively along the way that shaped him as he made his way along many of the same paths from 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 touring 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 not too long after marrying Martin Connolly and moving to Ireland.
Oliver and Maureen were a charming, well-matched couple and lovely set dancers as evidenced often on that tour in 1999. Their young son Michael O’Connell was a drummer in Glynn’s ceili band whom we would later come to know as Blackie, one of Ireland’s fiery uilleann pipers much influenced by the travelers’ tradition which also became one of Oliver’s areas of expertise.
Tragically, Maureen O’Connell became ill later that year and cancer claimed another victim well before her time, impacting her grieving husband in a profound way from the day she died.
We kept in touch over the years, and because my own parents came from North Clare and Burren Country and my own forays to that part of Ireland, conversations and observations from Oliver always brought memories of the hardscrabble existence around an area that though it was naturally beautiful was a harsh environment to eke out a living. Poverty and conditions were third-world right into the 1970s, yet music, song, and dance kept a spirit and culture alive to offset bleak conditions of everyday life.
O’Connell’s opus is a fascinating personal reflection of his North Clare upbringing told in a gripping narrative style flush with colorful references to people, places, and events in a historical context that shaped Ireland over the past six decades or so. The journey involved many successful business ventures that also ended badly due to unfortunate choices in partnerships or worse the economic calamity like the banking crisis that sunk the Celtic Tiger. The loss of his wife and his own battle with cancer could easily have done him in altogether.
His own involvement in the traditional music scene around Lisdoonvarna, Doolin, and later down in Shannon kept hope alive for him and increasingly for his talented son Blackie whom he fostered along the same musical pathway.
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 for better or worse in contemporary times.
I Remember it All is well worth tracking down as an online publication only via Custys Music Shop in Ennis (www.custys.com) for the marvelous way O’Connell brings us along his eventful journey to a place of calm acceptance of all that life has thrown his way.
There are some nice musical touches from his long-time comrade Mickey Dunne from Limerick. He will be launching it this weekend with Dunne and a number of other musical friends from Clare at his home in Tubber overlooking the Burren, the site of a number of summer sessions before the pandemic and it will be available on November 27 on his Facebook page.
The collection of true stories makes for a wonderful seasonal gift (no worries about supply-chain issues here) at €25 for the digital copy especially for Clare folks and all Irish immigrants who appreciate informed nostalgia with a sharp focus on making life a journey and not just a destination.