Tuesday 23 October 2018

Dermot O'Brien

Kevin Mulligan

AT THE height of his sporting prowess, Dermot O'Brien was forced to listen to a small voice within that asked was he right to put at risk his love of music and career prospects for his passion and commitment to Gaelic football.

Fortunately for Louth he compromised and the Ardee footballer singer, accordionist, songwriter, arranger, and producer, who died on May 22 aged 74, managed to captain Louth to their third All-Ireland title (1957) before going on to establish himself as an international entertainer of some repute.

The compromise he made to the many who were encouraging him to abandon football because of the risk of injury to his fingers was to tape the index and middle fingers of his right hand together when playing football as those fingers, he felt, were the most important for playing his accordion keyboard.

Ironically enough it was a broken finger, sustained in 1960, that prematurely ended his football career and allowed Dermot concentrate exclusively on his music which eventually led him to the top of the entertainment ladder not just in Ireland where he matched the Beatles and Elvis Presley when his hit record The Merry Ploughboy went straight to number one in the Irish charts, but most notably in America where he appeared with Bing Crosby on the Ed Sullivan show.

Last week Dermot lost a long battle with cancer telling a colleague from that 1957 team, Frank Lynch, just six weeks ago, that "it was all over, the battle was lost".

Throughout that battle Dermot never flinched, bravely attending most of the celebrations that marked the 50th anniversary of Louth's All-Ireland win, his courage, the eloquence of his delivery, and the reflective content of his captain's speech touching the many hundreds that gathered in the Fairways Hotel in Dundalk last February to commemorate the team's last senior All-Ireland victory.

At the end of the night, formalities over, Dermot produced the accordion and led his appreciative audience with some of his hits.

That was Dermot, the entertainer, on stage or on the football field, for he was a very stylish, skillful and intelligent player who, finally accepting the talent he had at his finger tips, abandoned the security of a clerical job in Meath County Council for the lure of a career in music. It immediately paid dividends for he was able to match the four pounds a week he was earning with the Council on just one night's stint with the Vincent Lowe Trio from Newry.

For Dermot, growing up in the sleepy market town of Ardee, there was always a conflict between sport and music, the sport provided by the local club, St Mary's with whom he won three Louth SFC titles, and the inspiration from his musical career coming from a very special lady, Sr Malachy in the local school.

Dermot often said afterwards that he felt that he was the son she never had for in each of the four years between the ages of 14 and 18 when he came under her tutelage she crammed two years' teaching into one, providing the solid foundation for his remarkable musical career.

The rare combination of footballing and musical talent meant that Dermot was much in demand and his development as a footballer through the minor ranks in Louth was matched by his progress as a musician. At 19 he was a member of the Emerald Ceili Band operating out of Slane and earning one pound a night in venues as far away as Cork.

Following his debut as a senior player with Louth at the age of 20 in 1952, he managed to combine both football and music but decision time was rapidly approaching and in 1953 when helping Louth to an All-Ireland semi-final in which they were beaten by Kerry, he sustained a serious injury.

Hospitalised and unable to make a engagement with the Emerald Band on the night of the semi-final he was fired on the spot.

In ways, as he reflected afterwards, both the injury which kept him out of football for a lengthy period, and losing his job with the band, afforded him the time to develop his musical talents and give more consideration to his long-term commitment to football.

Eventually he returned to the Louth colours - the 1957 campaign being the highlight. After taking over from injured club colleague, Patsy Coleman, as captain for the Leinster final, he became the third Louthman to lift Sam. That famous victory that will forever remain part of Louth folklore.

There was a major background drama before the team took the field against Cork. Some 15 minutes before throw-in, there was a public-address announcement asking the Louth captain to report to the dressing-room. Little did the capacity crowd know that Dermot was getting a last-minute injection for an injured shoulder in a Dublin hotel. When he reported late to Croke Park, the gateman refused to believe that he was the Louth captain and denied him entry. Fortunately, a young Garda on duty recognised Dermot and he made it on time to lead out his county.

Dermot continued to turn out for his county and club until he sustained another injury in 1960 when he finally decided to hang up the boots for the accordion buttons.

He turned professional in 1962, forming his own band, the Clubmen.

His reputation soon grew beyond these shores taking him to England, America, Canada, Germany even the United Emirates.

In Scotland, where the accordion is really appreciated, he was known as the "King of the Accordion".

He had many hit singles, the biggest of which was The Merry Ploughboy and had his own TV show which regularly topped the viewing ratings.

He appeared on stage with the best, Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Bill Haley, Buddy Herman, and that Ed Sullivan St Patrick's night appearance on US TV with Bing Crosby.

He found time to arrange and produce for top Irish and American artists and was the subject of a documentary Laochra Gael on TG4 which highlighted his fluency in Irish as well as his musical talents.

Dermot shared his time between America and his native country, leaving his band to pursue a solo career in 2000, and he continued to entertain until illness took its toll in recent times.

He was predeceased by his wife, Rosemarie and is survived by his four children, Ronan, Dermot, Grace and Roisin.

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