First Published November 2021
I can still remember the very first time I actually saw LIAM O’ CONNOR perform ‘live.’ It’s going back a few years now, but truth be told, it might as well be just yesterday in so many ways. If I take a deep breath and close my eyes, I can still picture the scene and remember the feeling. The venue was the wonderful Tuar Ard theatre in Moate, and Liam was a guest artist on a show being run by a good friend of mine, the very talented singer/songwriter Stephen Rosney, also of the Back Axles fame.
“Wait until you see Liam play”, Stephen assured me with all the confidence of a man who knew exactly what was to come, “the audience are gonna go madfor him! They always do.” I knew Liam by reputation, of course, and I’d probably seen him on television a few times as well. But look, when it comes to an artist of his ability, then you’ve never truly seen them play until you’ve actually SEEN them play, right in front of your own eyes. Backstage, when we met before the show began, Liam could have been anyone. And what I mean by that is you’d scarcely have known he was even there, that’s how quiet he was. No airs, no graces, no anything except a little polite and softly-spoken chat with everyone.
But then…BUT THEN…when it was his turn to take to the stage, everything changed, in an instant. Stephen was right, the audience went mad for Liam as he channelled a musical energy that seemed to be a lifeforce all of its own. Trying to find one word to describe it is a tough task simply because there’s no-one who can do what Liam does, in the way he does it. But there was definitely a touch of Elvis about it all, that’s for sure. I remember catching Stephen’s eye side-stage, and the look on his face was saying, “See, didn’t I tell ya!” And he did, he sure did!
So when the chance came along for me to have a catch-up with Liam last weekend, I didn’t need to be asked twice.
There’s a thousand things you could talk about with someone who has done as much in his career as Liam has. But, the Corkman whose home has been Killarney for many years now, has a very special event coming up next month, so that’s where we started. On December 8th, Liam will be joined by Moya Brennan, the Saint Brendan’s College Music Group and Soloists, and guest-speaker Joe Canning for what will be a night to remember at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Killarney…
“Yeah, well this is my ninth year in Saint Brigid’s College where I do these concerts. I go and teach the kids for so many weeks, and then we do a college concert together and we bring a special guest, both a singer and a speaker. Our last speaker was Joe Schmidt, we’ve had the President of UCC Michael Murphy, we had Mick Galway, we had Kieran Donaghy, Tony Buckley the Munster man. We’ve had Christy Dignam, Brain Kennedy, Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh, so the names are good, you know. There’ll be some students there, of course, but this event is open to the public to come along as well, that’s why we sell-out every year. We had Danny O’ Reilly as well one year. I’m a part of Music Generation as well, but I started this, I suppose, nine years ago in Saint Brendan’s College because I had two sons going there myself. Saint Brendan’s College in Killarney is also known as ‘the Sem.’ It was a seminary before, you see. It’s a famous college, a lot of famous footballers went there, but I got the music going there as well. There’s some great music teachers there now. Mish O’ Donoghue is a music teacher, and Niamh O’ Connell is also a top of the range music teacher. So I brought in this idea of bringing in professionals [musicians] and getting the students on stage, and helping to give the students confidence for being on stage.”
Moya Brennan will join Liam on the 8th of next month. How far back do the pair go?
“We go back a good bit. Our first connection was through Maureen O’ Hara, actually. I used to do a good bit with Maureen O’ Hara. Moya was to perform in a concert for Maureen and I was doing it as well. But Moya couldn’t do it on that particular occasion but I did. But anyhow, we connected, and I just followed it up then.”
I definitely wasn’t expecting to hear Maureen O’ Hara’s name pop up in our conversation, so just to be sure, I had to confirm with Liam that he was, in fact, talking about THE Maureen O’ Hara???
“Yes. Yes, yes. I did a lot of work with Maureen. You’ll see some of that footage that I have in my show when you get a chance to come and see it sometime. Her last recording was actually with my daughter, Saoirse. She was the last person to record Maureen’s full interview about her life before she left Ireland and died. We have some brilliant photos on that as well. Saoirse now is twenty-one, she was only eleven that time. There’s a good story there as well.”
There certainly is! And it’s one we’ll be returning to in 2022.
On December 20th, Liam was due to bring his ‘Liam O’ Connor Show’ to Liskennett in Limerick for a night in support of the Liskennett Equine Therapy Centre, an occasion on which he was going to be joined by Brian Kennedy. That show, however, for reasons so obvious we don’t even need to mention them, has now been postponed until February 20th of next year…
“Yeah, that’ll be at 3pm on a Sunday now. We have a great connection with the Equine Therapy Centre. This will be our second year doing that concert. David Doyle is the man that drives all that, and he’s a fantastic man, we’re very good friends with David. We came up with a concept that we should do something to lift the spirits and that’s where the idea of the concert there came from a few years ago. It’s for both the parents and the kids to enjoy. But with the situation we’re all in at the moment, we just moved it to February. We’ll have Brian with us then, of course, and we go way back with Brian. He’s been in ‘the Sem’ as well. I recorded a song with Brian last year, around Christmas, ‘I Wish I Had Someone To Love Me’, it was recorded once by the Dubliners too. I’ve recorded a couple of songs with Brian. I recorded ‘Message In A Box’, and ‘You Raise Me Up.'”
Before Liam’s December 8th concert and his return to the Equine Therapy Centre in Liskennett in February, he was due to have another big night out close to the end of this month. Now, you may have picked up on the use of the words “he was due to” in that last sentence. And the reason – naturally – is that this event is another to have fallen to the times we’re in. However, when you’re a Cork man receiving a Pride Of Cork Award, having to wait a little while longer for it to happen only keeps the smile on your face a little bit longer too…
“Yeah, that’s gone now as well, to the 11th of March. Do you see the way things are moving? It’s a nice honour to get any award, but this is a Pride Of Cork Award so it’s lovely for me. I’m from Newmarket in Cork, living in Killarney now. It’s nice to be acknowledged and it’s always nice to get any award. They just emailed me [to let me know], and asked would I accept it, and of course I said I would. It’s a nice honour, it was a surprise. Any award is a surprise!”
June of this year marked twenty-five years since Lord Of The Dance first lit up the venue that used to be known and loved as The Point. In a post on his personal Facebook page to mark the occasion, Michael Flately named and thanked some of the people who were pivotal to the show’s outstanding success. One of them was Liam. I asked Liam for his memories of that time, and of course, of Michael himself…
“Brilliant. All brilliant. Michael is a master. Was AND IS a master. It was a great honour to work for him. And it was a great honour to be on the original team. I recorded all the ‘Lord Of The Dance’ accordion pieces on the original album. That’s something that I’ll always be very proud to have been involved with. And a big thank-you to Michael Flately for that. He really is the master of performance. That first night in the Point, it was the Point Depot at the time, that really stands out for me because my dad was there. He’s not around anymore now. My mom died when I was quite young, so my dad was there on that night. That’s why that one, the first night, stands out so much.”
Even though Liam himself is also – as he described Michael – “a master of performance”, I wondered if, on nights like that, he ever gets nervous before a show?
“You’ll always have a few nerves. That’s part of it being one of the biggest shows in the world. You’re working with some of the best in the world there. When you’re playing your own shows, and doing your own stuff, or doing anything with anybody, there’s always a few nerves. If there isn’t, there’s something wrong! That’s what makes it [performing] that bit of a thrill.”
Liam, it’s more than fair to say, doesn’t just play the accordion. He has developed a style of performance that makes it simply impossible for people to take their eyes off him. In fact, he’s often been referred to as the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion, and no wonder! But how did this on-stage flair develop over the years?
“I suppose it was a feeling inside. But getting on stage with Michael Flatley, all of those things are building confidence. You can’t be afraid. Do it the way you want to do it, that’s it. But I didn’t set out to do that. It’s a feeling. I created my own show then because you should try to be what you want to be. Don’t ever be afraid. I’ve done ‘The Late Late Show’ now with all three presenters; Gay Byrne, Pat Kenny, and Ryan Tubridy. I also did ‘This Is Your Life’ for Eddie Jordan, with Michael Aspell. That’s some stuff that people mightn’t know. But all those things are stepping stones along the way for buildingyour confidence. But really, it’s just a feeling. Some people like it. Some people love it. Some people hate it! But that’s fine, you know.”
A lot of performers talk about how they’re almost a different person when they walk on-stage. Liam always comes across as a very quiet, shy, almost reserved person off-stage, in complete contrast to the man he becomes on-stage. Does he feel like he has a different persona for when he performs?
“Off-stage, I’m just me. And on-stage as well. But when I’m on-stage, I’m passionate. You have to use the stage when you’re up there. I’m a performer at the end of the day. I’m up there on-stage playing music. It’s all about the music, yes, but it’s also about the performance. You’re entertaining people as well. You have to give everything up there.”
After American actor, singer/songwriter, and comedian Charles Esten (most consecutive weeks to release an original digital single by a music act, with his Every Single Friday campaign beginning on July 15th 2016, and ending on July 21st 2017), I think Liam is only the second person I’ve ever interviewed who has been in the Guinness Book of Records. Back in 2008, Liam was – and remains, actually – the fastest fingers in the world on the accordion. I asked him to tell me about that experience and process…
“I was playing over in Scotland and the Guinness Book of Records people were there so they asked me. There were five adjudicators, and they had a repertoire of tunes that you must play, you pick one of those and do it. I went on and I broke it then again. But look, it was a bit of fun, and it was nice to be in the Guinness Book of Records. And I’m still in it! So it’s still good [laughs].”
The speed at which Liam can play, was that something he set out to do through practise, practise, practise? Or was that speed always part of his natural talent anyway?
“No, no, no. I play many different instruments, but I have a good feeling for the accordion. But it’s not about speed at all, music is not about speed. I love music and I love the right tempo and all that. There’s an old saying, ‘Give time time’, ya know. Take your time. It’s not about speed, but I suppose I can play fast and that’s ok too.”
Some wonderfully talented names had come up during the course of our chat, from Moya Brennan to Brian Kennedy, Maureen O’ Hara to Danny O’ Reilly, and others too. But who else, I wondered, might Liam love to perform with or for?
“Well I did the famous flashmob with Christy Dignam on the streets of Killarney, that was another big one. If anyone searches flashmob and my name they’ll find that. Who else would I like to work with? Well there’s so many famous artists, isn’t there. It all depends. If we cross paths, that’s important. I have some beautiful new music coming out, a couple of tunes I recorded with Michael McGoldrick during lockdown. They’ll be coming out in the new year. Just a couple of singles, a couple of tunes.”
Liam had mentioned his daughter Saoirse who now performs with him, as do his sons Oisín and Cillian too. And I’m sure Liam has been able to give them some priceless pieces of advice for working in the entertainment and showbiz worlds. If he could share one or two similar pieces of advice with anyone else already in those industries, or coming into them, what might he say?
“Work hard. Practise. Be honest about it. And don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of being yourself. And don’t be a bad copy of anybody else.”
~ LIAM O’ CONNOR will be performing at Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Killarney on December 8th, with MOYA BRENNAN, the SAINT BRENDAN’S COLLEGE MUSIC GROUP and SOLOISTS, and with guest speaker JOE CANNING. Tickets available from 064-6631021 and ticketstop.ie Show begins at 8pm.