Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Kerry O'Sullivan, Liam O'Flynn and Ken Dodd

A school friend from the Christian Brothers secondary school in St. John’s Lane passed away recently. Kerry O’Sullivan was a quiet but very likeable fellow, whose father Mossie O’Sullivan was the town engineer for Athy Urban District Council. Kerry was fortunate enough to go straight from secondary school to university where he qualified as a dentist. A few of his school pals eventually made the journey through university, some availing of night classes to do so. Kerry, who married Kirstin Preisler formerly of Hillview House on the Kilkenny Road, had a dentistry practice in England from which he retired some years ago. I last met Kerry in June of last year on the occasion of a school pals get together for Seamus Ryan on a visit from his home in Australia. Even within the Leaving Certificate class of 1960 (the 11 pupils represented the largest ever Leaving Certificate class in the school up to that time) it’s surprising how many emigrated. Kerry to England, Mike Robinson and Seamus Ryan to Australia, with just four of the class of eleven still in Athy, the rest scattered throughout the 26 counties. With Kerry O’Sullivan’s passing the Leaving Certificate class of 1960 has lost another link with its youthful past. We had previously lost Gerry Byrne, a native of Ballyadams, who died a relatively young man not long after his ordination to the priesthood and Anthony Pender, formerly of St. Patrick’s Avenue. Two recent deaths which took place while I was out of Athy on holidays saw the loss of two talented men whom I greatly admired. One was the king of uilleann piping in Ireland, Liam O’Flynn, who came to reside in the south Kildare area some years ago. I was privileged to have known Liam O’Flynn and indeed met his father many years ago when I was living in Naas. In 2001 following a concert in the Dominican Church featuring Liam and the Pipers Call band as part of that year’s Shacketon Autumn School Liam was commissioned to compose music on the theme of Ernest Shackleton’s polar exploration. He launched the piece called ‘Endurance’ at the concert held in the Dominican Church during the following year’s Shackleton Autumn School. Liam O’Flynn was a wonderful musical ambassador for our country and it is sad to think that another great Irishman, the poet laureate Seamus Heaney who collaborated with Liam on the hugely successful ‘The Poet and the Piper’, has also passed away. Strange to relate that four days before Liam O’Flynn’s passing one of the co-founders of Claddagh Records, Garech Browne, also died. Liam O’Flynn as a young fellow had been a pupil of Leo Rowsome, as was Garech Browne and it was Browne who with his namesake Ivor Browne founded Claddagh Records. That company’s first record captured the uilleann piping of Leo Rowsome and went some way to help revive the ancient music of the complex elbow blowing instrument. The connection between Leo Rowsome, Liam O’Flynn and Garech Browne was uilleann piping. The first, a player, maker and teacher of the uilleann pipes, the second Ireland’s greatest uilleann piper and the third, a one time pupil of Leo Rowsome whose record company, Claddagh Records, widened the audience for Irish traditional music. It was the involvement of all three with the Irish traditional music scene which saw its re-emergence as an important part of Ireland’s cultural renaissance. No doubt eyebrows will be raised when I mention the other man I admired who died recently. He was none other than Ken Dodd, the greatest stand-up comedian of his generation. As someone with an abiding interest in social history I have always looked upon the history of the Music Hall as an important part of working class history both here in Ireland and in England. Music Hall developed to meet the entertainment needs of the working class and became the popular theatre form of the 19th century. Music Hall was effectively dead by the time Ken Dodd made his first appearance on stage. However, Ken Dodd’s material offered an insight into the working class social attitudes and he was for me a superb exponent of the comedic talent which marked the heydays of the English Music Hall. Despite the demise of the Music Hall its legacy lived on in the work of Ken Dodd, a master vaudevillian, whose performance in ‘An Appearance with Ken Dodd’ was captured on film and can still be viewed on the internet. With the passing of Kerry O’Sullivan a friendship first formed in school days many years ago is relegated to fond memories, as indeed is the enjoyment felt and experienced on hearing the magisterial uilleann piping of Liam O’Flynn and the quite different, yet equally enjoyable talent of England’s finest comic talent, Ken Dodd.

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