Who: Damian O’Braonáin
When: June 9-10, 13-15
Where: Dubh Linn Gate Pub
Admission: The cost of a pint
Damian O’Braonáin, otherwise known as Damian Brennan of Murphy’s Lágh, plays an Irish dittie Farewell to Glasgow at one of his regular gigs at the Dubh Linn Gate.
Unlike any other musician at the Gate, the song harkens back to true Irish roots, Brennan’s own.
O’Braonáin remembers a very special day in Belfast in the mid 1970s – the darkest days of Northern Ireland when bombing, riots and murders were a part of daily life. The special day isn’t recorded in history books, but instead in O’Braonáin’s realization of the power of music.
A then-young O’Braonáin practised his penny whistle in his family’s upstairs bathroom. The acoustics were fantastic, the haunting sounds of Farewell to Glasgow echoed throughout the house and into the street through the open window.
His mother began shouting from downstairs. Two British soldiers of the hardened Scots Guards Regiment were coming up the driveway. Uniforms never brought good news.
"What happened next was quite surprising, but also uplifting, and I have never forgotten it," O’Braonáin says.
The soldiers explained they were conducting routine foot patrol when they heard music coming from one of the windows in the home. They wanted to know who was playing the music. A nervous O’Braonáin was called downstairs. The soldiers only had one question for the boy: Did he know any other tunes?
"Maybe it reminded them of home or something," O’Braonáin says. "It’s proof that music can breach many a barrier of cultural, racial and political divide… Religion doesn’t matter when it comes to music."
Thirty years of music making later, O’Braonáin continues to use his tin whistle, guitar and bodhran (Irish drum) to bring together people from far and wide at the Gate.
Music has always been a way of life for O’Braonáin, the youngest of 10 siblings growing up in a Catholic household. To combat the risk of culture dying out in Northern Ireland, students began music studies in the elementary grades. Students had no choice. It was either the recorder or the tin whistle.
"I took the shiny one," he laughs. "Growing up in Belfast in the ’60s, it was easy to get sucked into trouble. Music kept me out of it."
Traditional Irish music was a staple of O’Braonáin’s up bringing. The family visited the two churches of Northern Ireland on Sunday: Sunday mass and a local pub chalk full of live music afterwards. O’Braonáin’s musical score expanded beyond reels: he lived off hand-me-down records from his siblings, spanning everything from Perry Como and The Beatles to Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
Nothing has changed; Along with Celtic songs, O’Braonáin throws classical and contemporary music greats into his lineup at the Gate. He also performs regular shows at the Irish Times Pub in Victoria and Atlantic Trap and Gill in Vancouver.
"It’s very happy music," O’Braonáin says to explain people’s draw to the music. "You look out at the crowds and you see their toes tapping… People who never heard (of a song) before get up and dance. It’s a spiritual music. It’s got soul."
Not a day goes by without O’Braonáin listening to his daily dose of traditional Irish music. His mom raised him well, but she isn’t so sure about his musical career.
"She came to see me perform at the Trap and Gill in Vancouver for the first time," he recounts. "Of all nights, they had a beach party going on with bikinis and everything. My mom sat there tutting away the whole night."
Four years later, his mom still phones from Ireland asking if O’Braonáin is playing at bars with those "filthy, dirty, dirty women."
Twenty-two years ago, he immigrated to Canada and began playing the Irish pub circuit, and there is nothing to suggest the Irishman doesn’t have decades more of music to come.
O’Braonáin and guest musicians perform as Murphy’s Lágh Friday, June 9 and Saturday, June 10. He also performs solo June 13, 14 and 15.