Jimmy Doyle imithe uainn: a musical giant from Gneeveguilla has died

May he RIP

This week came the very sad news out of Gneeveguilla in Kerry that the renowned accordion player Jimmy Doyle, famed as much for his endless fun as his masterful musicianship, had died. Ar dheis lámh De go raibh a anam ceolmhar.

Jimmy Doyle played Sliabh Luachra music, gorgeous slides and polkas but also much more, completely at ease with that strong rhythmic pulse and lively, spirited, jubilant drive that is the hallmark of the style.

He was born in the townland of Gib, near Killarney, as was the great fiddle player, Dan O’Leary, who once described Jimmy’s family as “the most musical family I know around this side of the country”.

Jimmy said himself that his parents – his mother played the fiddle and sang, his father played both fiddle and accordion – would have disowned him if he had hadn’t at least tried to play.

He described their home as a “rambling house”, where people were welcome to come and join in the tunes and the songs around the fire, and where youngsters like Jimmy learned by ear from family and from their peers who included their neighbour, famed accordion player, Johnny O’Leary.

We owe a huge debt to such families who kept the beautiful music of this special place alive by dint of their talent and vision and wisdom and their hospitality. Imagine what would otherwise have been lost.

It gave Jimmy Doyle great joy that he had also passed onto his children and grandchildren the music of his people. Their last session in the house on Christmas Eve will stay in their hearts forever.

My father, Séamus, loved Sliabh Luachra and its wonderful people: musicians who were steeped in music, who wore their tremendous talent and erudition lightly, who shared their glorious tunes as easy as their irrepressible laughter.

These tunes from the album ‘Ceol go Maidin’ with Jimmy and their great friend Connie O’Connell capture some of the character of the many sessions they enjoyed together, tunes rolling one into the other, lost in the exuberance of the music and the fun until, as was once observed, they were partying until the cows came home and then partying with the cows.


Jimmy was playing with a local céilí band, the Desmond, at the age of twelve, off on his bike to the halls with his accordion tied on with a piece of hay twine. He saved up enough by staying up those late nights to buy a new Paolo Soprano in Caball’s in Tralee at a cost of £14.

His life was filled with music, even his short stint in London was busy with sessions with musicians over from Ireland to the building sites, but the call of home brought him back before long, to his place and his people, and his long and happy marriage to Joan.

This week, as we heard of his passing, my sister reminded me of when she first met Jimmy as a teenager. On the way down to a local fleadh with Dad, he seemed particularly excited that a certain box player was to meet them for tunes, but she didn’t take much notice of that.

“We were at the place by the afternoon, and there was a sense of rising excitement. Then the door of the pub opened and in came Jimmy Doyle, already playing the box and dancing away,” she said. “It was like a whirlwind of the best possible craic. They danced around the bar for hours, playing and singing and laughing and telling stories and generally having the time of their lives – and then Jimmy danced back out the door still playing.”

“It was brilliant, mesmerising,” she said. “He was the very personification of fun.”

He was also, of course, a highly regarded and superb musician. Watch this performance from 1987 – forget the quality of the video, listen to the tight notes and beautiful ornamentation of the flying fingers on these jigs. His stepping feet are the only accompaniment needed.

The Pádraig O’Keefe Festival said this week that his contribution to the music of Sliabh Luachra had been enormous, noting that “his 1977 album with Dan Leary ‘Traditional Music From The Kingdom Of Kerry’ is considered a classic in the tradition.”

You can still find the album if you hunt around: look at the stylish cover, only matched by the class music from two Sliabh Luachra legends.

The festival honoured him him with the ‘Dedication to the Music of Sliabh Luachra Award’ in 2009.

That award was presented to him by the the talented Bryan O’Leary, a former pupil of Jimmy’s, who was in turn a pupil of Bryan’s grandad Johnny O’Leary. Thus are the deep roots and inimitable sounds of our beautiful music handed down.

As Jimmy wrote himself: much of the enjoyment in playing music is helping others and exchanging tunes.

“His Sunday afternoon sessions in The Arbutus Killarney were the stuff of legend,” the Festival noted. “They were always swamped with youngsters, eager to learn from Jimmy and spend some time in his warm company.”

That was his magic, perhaps, the quality that made him not just an extraordinary musician but a man who brought so many to love music. He wrote that he had never seen anyone play music with a sad face, and that was certainly true of anyone in the company of Jimmy Doyle.

Comhbhrón lena chlann: deepest sympathies to his wife Joan and children Pádraig, Eoin, Seán, Julia Mary, and Marguerite and all his family and friends.

At his funeral, the overflowing church heard that he was always a great family man and a man whose faith endured, remembering all those in need of prayer before sleep each night. That strength in faith and family, we were told, sustained them through the tragic loss of James, their son, who was sadly killed in a road accident.

His farewell was full of music, as befitting a giant of the tradition who made the world a better, happier place.

Solas na bhFlaitheas air, agus i gcomhluadar na nAingeal ag damhsa go mbeidh sé.

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