Cuppa Tea with the McKinneys and Tommy McCarthy

How two Irish pubs were built on music, faith, and four forks
Episode Trailer

Can you really open a pub with a tune and a dream? Siobhan and Brendan McKinney and Tommy McCarthy, owners of two of North America’s most esteemed Irish pubs, talk about what happened when they put the music and the welcome first.


Special thanks to the Massachusetts Cultural Council for supporting this episode. And thank you to Matt Heaton for script editing and production music.

Episode 04-Cuppa Tea with McKinneys and McCarthy
How two Irish pubs were built on music, faith, and four forks
This Irish Music Stories episode aired May 9, 2017


Speakers, in order of appearance
>> Shannon Heaton: flute player, singer, composer, teacher, and host of Irish Music Stories 
>> Siobhan McKinney: Sliabh Luachra born, Chicago-based flute player and co-proprietor of Chief O’ Neill’s pub
>> Brendan McKinney: Chicago-based flute player, piper, and co-proprietor of Chief O’ Neill’s pub
>> Tommy McCarthy: London-born fiddle player of Irish parents who opened the Burren Pub in Somerville, Mass in 1996 with banjo player wife Louise Costello
>> Tom Bianchi: Boston-based singer/songwriter, bassist, engineer who has run a music series at the Burren Pub in Somerville, Massachusetts 
>> Brian O’Donovan: Cork native based in Boston who works in public broadcasting and music production
>> John Coyne: Limerick-born singer and bouzouki player, now making his home in Melrose, Massachusetts


>> Shannon:  I’m Shannon Heaton, and this is Irish Music Stories. The show about traditional music, and the bigger stories behind it. 

[ Tune: “The Boy in the Boat” (reel), from Rehearsal from circa 2008

Artist: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]

…Like the tale of Chief O’Neill’s and the Burren, two successful Irish pubs that were opened by musicians, with no restaurant experience:

>> Siobhan: Yeah, I think Irish music definitely had us take risks, moved us into a different area we might not have gone. It’s guided us, rather than us following or deciding our path. It has chosen our path for us.

>> Brendan: And the luck of the Irish.

>> Siobhan: Definitely 

>> Brendan: Has been on our side

>> Siobhan: For sure. 

>> Shannon: For this episode of IMS, I visit flute players Siobhan and Brendan McKinney at their pub, Chief O’Neill’s, on the north side of Chicago. It’s got a great outdoor garden, a truly epic Sunday brunch, and two owners who have dedicated their lives to Irish music. The McKinneys opened this place in 1999 with the tagline “the pub you’ve been practicing for.” It’s a reference to the early 20th century musical police chief for which the pub was named, he was a flute  player.

I also stop by the Burren Pub in Somerville, Mass, to hear about how fiddle player Tommy McCarthy and banjo player Louise Costello opened their home for Irish music back in ’96. Like the McKinneys, Tommy and Louise were seasoned musicians, but neophyte pub owners. They designed the place for traditional music and trusted that the details would fall into place.

Chicago is where I had my start in Irish music, so I flew back to the windy City on a rainy Wednesday. I tucked into Chief O’Neill’s for a chat and a meal with Siobhan and Brendan. And then we all joined John Williams and Patrick Murray for some tunes in the corner. It was a great night from the moment I swung open the blue and red door on the corner of Elston and Avondale.

>> Siobhan: Hi, Shannon, Welcome to Chief O’Neill’s.

>> Shannon: Thank you Siobhan! It’s lovely to be here!

>> Siobhan: You’re welcome, Shannon. 

>> Brendan: Uh, Brendan McKinney, patron saint of Ireland, uh, doesn’t always do whatever the Gaelic named, Siobhan, says; as much as I should.

[Giggles and laughter]

>> Siobhan: Welcome! Tunes, cheers!

>> Shannon: And cheers to you!

>> Siobhan: We hope you enjoy your far from home as we sit here and converse.

>> Shannon: Thank you! Now, we’re sitting in Chief O’Neill’s Pub, which you guys opened 17 years ago! Very exciting. I first met you in Evanston at the Evanston session, years ago. You were some of my very first Irish music friends and mentors. I’m really excited to hear how the place has developed over those 17 years and what you’ve been up to. But first can we go back? Can we get the backstory on how you both got into playing Irish music?


>> Siobhan: Well, sure. I’m from County Kerry, actually the Sliabh Luachra area. For those of your listeners who are familiar with the Irish music background. Um, and so Irish music is pretty much bread, water and Irish music in Sliabh Luachra. And so my father is a musician, plays the accordion. And, uh, no we didn’t have a television or anything growing up. Or a telephone or anything, so we walked to the neighbor’s house. And he was also a musician and had a flute. And this is how I learned to play the flute. Just being tagged along with my dad and sitting and hearing the music. So, that’s how my introduction to Irish music was, was through my family. And shocking news, but my parents never drank. So we never saw any inside of any pub or anything. So it was all just the neighbor’s house.  

>> Shannon: Wow that is shocking, because often times the music really, socially is living in the pub.

>> Siobhan: Exactly. So I was very deprived. (laughing)

 So that was then and this is now. Irish music in pubs—in her very OWN pub—is the name of the game now for Siobhan McKinney.

So interesting that we would we fast forward and here you are a pub owner.

>> Siobhan: I know, how crazy is that?

>> Shannon: And an owner of a pub that features Irish Traditional music.

>> Brendan: She’s a pioneer! But in a different way than the traditional pioneer her parents. But, uh, but she has been a trailblazer and a pioneer and supporter of Irish music in this town. For sure. So hats off to you, Siobhan!

>> Siobhan: Yes, I mean, it opened a lot of doors for me, being able to play Irish music

>> Brendan: And a few were slammed but we won’t talk about those.

>> Siobhan: Here you go, you always mention that! I did a lot traveling when I was younger, like yourself. And any new city or town you go to, there’s always some pub. And you immediately have friends, and we all know the same music no matter where you travel in the world. And you can all play tunes together, which is amazing. It’s an immediate bond. So it has really been good to me, to be an Irish musician.

[Music:  “Meaning of Life Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: So Brendan, how did you get into playing the music. 

>> Brendan:  I grew up in Detroit of Irish immigrant parents. My mother was a great singer and my father was a great singer. 

>> Shannon: Where were they from?

>> Brendan: My dad was from Derry and my mother was from Kerry. Uh, they met in Dublin.

>> Shannon: Perfect.

 >> Siobhan: Yes.

>> Brendan: Yeah, meet in the middle, you know? And on trips coming back and forth to Ireland I became very connected to my heritage. My mother passed away when I was seven years of age, we went back to Ireland for, say, about a year. And going back, I’d say I spent just about every summer of my life in Ireland until I was about age eighteen. Um, on one trip,when I was about 14 or 15 my brother bought a set of bagpipes in Walton’s music store on Henry Street.

>> Shannon: Yeah, so Brendan gets into bagpipes from a guy called Jim Price. He takes whistle lessons, then teaches himself the flute—he talks about learning from Matt Molloy’s Black Album, listening to it over and over again

 >> Shannon: And for our younger brothers and sisters who don’t know how to really work with an LP. You know it wasn’t so easy to go back to the A part of the tune on the LP. And we did that, we learned how to do that, we have skills.

>> Siobhan: At least you guys had an LP. I only had the neighbors. We had to walk to…

>> Shannon: Uphill, both ways!

>> Brendan: Back then your record players weren’t record players. They were a piece of furniture.

>> Shannon: So Brendan was self-taught on the flute and really took to it during his summers in Chicago, when he connected with flute player and dancer Michael Flatley.

>> Brendan: Summered in Chicago, hung out with Michael Flatley, played the flute more. Moved to Chicago to help Michael franchise his plumbing business. And one weekend, while living down in Palos park, came up to Milwaukee… met this one and uh…

>> Siobhan: And his life has been easy; mine has been wiped clean since.

>> Brendan: That’s all I can remember. All the earlier stuff is vivid. From that point on it’s all a blur!

[Music:  “My Love is in America (reel),” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: So you’re both musicians, and you open this pub which is designed with a distinct musical flavor. In fact it’s called Chief O’Neill’s pub…

>> Siobhan: Captain Francis O’Neill is from Triblane, Co. Cork in Ireland, originally. 

>> Shannon: O’Neill came from Cork. He did a lot of traveling and settled in Chicago. This was during the big wave of famine emigration. He became Chicago’s chief of police in 1901.

>> Siobhan: He left Ireland and eventually ended up in America and he realized that with the famine and other things going on in Ireland and all of the immigration and all the musicians who were leaving Ireland that they were taking with them music that would never be heard again or would get lost basically. He took it upon himself, thankfully, to bring a lot of musicians to Chicago. He would collect them together and write down, put notes on paper. 

[Music: “Lord McDonald (reel),” from The Enduring Magic (restored original recordings from c. 1944)
Artist: Michael Coleman (fiddle), Ed Geoghegan (piano) ]

>> Shannon: Using money from real estate ventures O’Neill self-published 1850 melodies. 

His book O’Neill’s Music of Ireland is still in circulation today. It’s a classic for Irish musicians around the world.

And Chief O’Neill’s pub has become a classic for local Chicago players and visiting musicians.

>> Shannon: So how’d you first go about making this place?

>> Siobhan: Well, actually we were insurance agents, had our own insurance business for ten years or so.

>> Shannon:I remember because Matt and I bought insurance from you! In your kitchen.

>> Siobhan: You did! See, a lot happens in the kitchen.

>> Shannon: And in the kitchen where you told John Williams that he really needed to clean his toaster oven. And months later he had a fire.

>> Brendan: A fire out of his toaster that burned the cabinets, yeah. See? People don’t listen, they just don’t listen and they get burned!

>> Siobhan: Just one day I said to Brendan, how about just doing something fun, and how about just opening a little Irish pub, where we can have Irish music, open to everybody to come and, you know, we can promote Irish music and all be welcome. It could be so much fun on weekends, think of how great that would be.

>> Shannon: And this was the central mission? Let’s make a little pub where we can have some Irish music?

>> Brendan: And a home for Irish music. There were a couple places doing Irish music, and doing it well, but they were, sort of, not really committed to one thing. It would be Irish music one night, and it would be, you know,  rock the next night. Which is okay,  It’s probably a good business platform. Um, but like I said, Siobhan said, we were really looking to do something really focused in on Irish music. Kind of low key, a place where you really enjoy having great musicians come through, and kind of doing kind of a small scale.

>> Siobhan: : Well Brendan sat up in bed one night and started screaming, “I’ve got it, I have it!” And I’m, “What do you have honey?” “The name!”

>> Brendan: The name, I have the name!

>> Shannon: Really? Really, it just came to you?

>> Brendan: Literally, I was dead asleep and I sat up in the bed and, wake up! Wake up! I have it, I have it! I know what it is! So, it’s a fact.

>> Siobhan and Brendan: It was good, it was good! 

>> Shannon: A friend told them about a place that had gone on the market.

>> Siobhan: So we come in. This business was closed at the time. Um, we just walk in, we walk through this first room, then we walk through the next room, then we see a green field—there wasn’t a thing on this empty lot in the middle of the city. Beautiful grass, apple tree, pear tree. Alright, OK, this is the spot. So.

>> Shannon: Even though when you first walked through it you realized this was not little?

>> Siobhan: I know. Well, at the time we didn’t even think about that.

>> Shannon: Was it the garden?

>> Siobhan: It was the garden. I mean, just so right there, it was so beautiful we thought oh my goodness, look at this space. It’s incredible. And so we didn’t even look at anything else. This is it. We’ll take this. And, uh, WOW,  have things changed in 17 years. I mean we had a lot to learn because we didn’t come from the hospitality industry.

>> Brendan: We were in pubs though. We played  in them.

>> Siobhan: Sure honey.

>> Brendan: A couple times.

>> Shannon: Sure you’ve BEEN in pubs. That’s your experience. That’s enough to be president..

>> Brendan: Clearly!

>> Siobhan: And so, um, the first few years were definitely challenging. 

>> Brendan: You know, our little pub dream turned into a 600 seat restaurant. That’s the aspect that we never really thought was going to be the thing. We knew there was a need for a home for Irish music in Chicago. But on the north side, where we’re at here, there were no good Irish pubs with good food. We asked a friend to come in and help us consult and put a menu together and do some training in the kitchen, which was tragically undersized for the capacity. Which we figured, you know, there’s a stove, we’re good! It’s good enough for my grandmother ’twill be fine. Not so much! Our friend put a really strong menu together. Didn’t the Chicago Tribune pick it up and give us four forks perfect score on food when we first opened. That’s when we became a restaurant.

>> Shannon: Now before that, did you know that there was a FOUR FORKS award?

>> Brendan: Oh, no! We had no idea

>> Siobhan: In fact, we didn’t even know we were in the paper

>> Brendan: I didn’t even know there was a paper! I thought that was something you put in the birdcage.


[ Music: “Sabai Sabai,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: There was a line down the street that first night. Siobhan called it a bit of a disaster and a steep learning curve. But they muddled through!  

>> Siobhan: It’s just that we expected to be a small little pub, and that we’d have a few years for people to hear about this, you know. 

>> Brendan: It would be a casual growth process. 

>> Siobhan: Yeah, it would be a gradual growth process. But that’s why we had our insurance business. It was a gradual building.

>> Brendan: Yeah, for sure.

>> Siobhan: And so we just didn’t realize the impact that Chief O’Neill, Chief O’Neill’s name would have in the Chicago community. And all of a sudden everybody wanted to be here. And we were just not prepared.

>> Brendan: We were caught a bit flat-footed.

>> Siobhan: Yeah, we were. And so we have recovered, though. We’re still here. But you know, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

>> Brendan: Here’s to recovery! I’ll drink to that!


>> Shannon: And the garden that drew you in the beginning has gone on to become this incredible place to eat and visit. 

>> Siobhan: And we have lovely sessions out there on Sunday afternoons now. So here on Sundays it is very family friendly. All the kids come and play with their parents, their grandparents. Once a month we have a hooley where you have dancing and singing and the whole thing going on. It’s, of course, sold out so reservations are recommended for the hooleys on Sundays.

>> Brendan: Celtic Chuckie Cheese’s with Guinness.

>> Shannon: That’s fantastic.

>> Shannon: In addition to the Sunday afternoon session, there’s a robust Wednesday night session. For the rest of the week, there are back room concerts with renowned touring acts and local heroes. And there’s spontaneous music, too. 

>> Brendan: A lot of times if the guys are going to be doing a show or something needed to rehearse their music sometimes, they’ll just come in and sit down, throw some music out because there’s an in tune lovely piano in the corner. Um, so, sometimes there is just impromptu stuff. People come through, and, you know, again; we encourage the music so they’re allowed to come in and encouraged to sit and make some racket. Irish music here isn’t just tolerated, it’s encouraged.

>> Shannon: Why do you think that people come every week to play music together?

>> Brendan: To get their fix.

>> Shannon: To get their fix?

>> Brendan: Yeah, when you’re … it kind of gets pent up in you after a little while, and  you have to get it out. It’s a great source of not just satisfaction but it’s a stress, it can be very stress relieving. If you can get out and just kind of disengage… tune out and tune in and play some music and just kind of groove and chill.

>> Siobhan: I mean, it’s a great bonding experience for the musicians. Of course they’re all friends and they look forward to seeing each other. And, of course, hearing the music. You know, just hearing all the other musicians play and how sweet the music is. I mean, it’s better than any drug, it’s a drug. Did you know, Shannon? It’s a drug.

>> Shannon: I think I’ve just figured that out just now. I think I just realized that’s why I’ve done this all this time.

>> Brendan: Shh! Somebody will try to regulate it and tax it!

[ Music: “Jackson’s Jig,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: For all the gain, it’s clearly a lot of work. I asked Siobhan and Brendan… outside of making a living… WHY they continue to do this?

Siobhan: Um, it’s a way to keep the culture and the legacy going. It’s a way to inspire other people that would be listening. 

>> Shannon: Do you have any idea of, sort of what Irish music has meant for you, what it means for you, what IS Irish music for you?

>> Siobhan: Well, for me Irish music has shaped my life, actually. It guided me through when I was in college, where I hung out on the weekends, what I did for a hobby. It has really, um, I have lived my life by Irish music. It has guided me, more than me following a direction. I sort of followed the music where it was. And then, uh, you know, I ended up marrying an Irish musician. And so, I mean, it is maddening, it is one’s life, once you get addicted, as we say, to this type of music. It leads you along to where you can’t just leave it behind. 

>> Shannon: (to Brendan) What about you?

>> Brendan: Um… Irish music saved my life. Because I was on a path in an industrial state of Michigan in the Detroit area, and had I not discovered Irish music, I wouldn’t have married Siobhan, I wouldn’t have done anything exceptional. I would have been ordinary. And there’s nothing wrong with ordinary. But isn’t it always more interesting to try and do something extraordinary and be successful at it? And I think we’ve done something extraordinary here. 

>> Siobhan: Yup.

[ Music: “Abbey Reel,” from Kitchen Session
Artist: Matt Heaton ]


* * * * * *

>> Shannon: A thousand miles away sits the Burren Pub in Somerville, MA. Fiddle player Tommy McCarthy and his wife Louise Costello who plays banjo and accordion opened this pub in Davis Square in 1996. At one point there were eight Irish music sessions per week (two on Sundays). The pub now hosts traditional American music, and some of the Irish nights have been replaced with bluegrass and old-time jams. And Tommy and Louise have moved back to Ireland. Now located in Galway for much of the year, they stay busy with music, and keep the Burren running from both sides of the pond.

The Burren is a natural easy place to be and as we sat in a booth in the middle of the restaurant, folks stopped over now and then to chat. Tommy told me how he’d gotten into Irish music. His father played pipes, whistle, concertina, and a bit of fiddle—and his sisters and friends were musical. Tommy says he got into fiddle because he didn’t want to be the black sheep of the family.

>> Shannon: So do you remember really wanting to play the fiddle?

>> Tommy: Uh, I think I was at a Fleadh in London. I was about 12. And my friends were playing. And the sisters were playing. I was thinking, it really occurred to me…I was only about 11 or 12, at the time I was messing with the mandolin. I kind of thought to myself I have to do this or else my life will be completely different. So that’s when I started to take it really seriously and started playing.

>> Shannon: Before Tommy came to America, his father toured the States on a Comhaltas tour with Seamus Connolly (whom you’ll hear from next month). Tommy Senior had big stories of the riches in America.

>> Tommy: Apparently my father came home and was like, “Oh geez, I met a neighbor who lives in Long Island, he has a driveway and the sprinkler system’s going off. He said we could have that for you!” When he did come home he brought home toys for me, I remember, an ambulance and a fire engine and a police car. They seemed to be like this high! My toys were this high. I remember dad saying, “Everything is big in America, Tommy.” I suppose that’s what probably inspired me to come to America because he talked about that trip for the rest of his life, you know, in Chicago. He stayed with, at that time, I don’t know, they still do; he stayed with families. At that time he stayed with the Flatley family. Michael was only 12 or 13. Dad played a few tunes in the kitchen and Michael’s dad sitting in. In Boston he met Larry Reynolds. God knows where else they were but they met musicians everywhere they went and they played every night. So when he came home with all those stories. I’d be kind of, in the back of my head, when I got the call would I like to come to America, I was like Jesus, Yeah!

>> Shannon: You came here for the sprinkler system?

>> Shannon: When he was 18 years old, Tommy McCarthy,  flew to New York with his friend Tommy O’Sullivan: Virgin Air helped finance the ticket, in exchange for IN flight musical entertainment! 

>> Shannon: NO! you performed ON the plane

>> Tommy: I said yeah, I’ll go for that. We had to go for a little audition. They said, yeah, this fits into what we want. So we flew over to New York. We had one address for a place called the Eagle Tavern. The guitar player asked me what my plans were. He said I’ve got a couple of gigs for St Patrick’s Day. So I didn’t bother going back. Tommy went back to London and I stayed on and then came to Boston. I  met Louise at a session… and we’ve been playing together since… 

>> Shannon: Aww..

>> Shannon: So Tommy met Louise Costello at a session, in Boston. She was in town playing banjo, staying with a friend from back home in Galway. 

>> Tommy: We stayed, uh, for about 3 years, until about ’91. And then we decided to go back to Ireland. We thought we were leaving Boston forever. We were going to, we went to London for a while, maybe a couple of months. Although I had no family in London at this stage. I just had some friends there. I suppose we did a few gigs in London and then we ended up in Australia then. We had one of these passes that went around the world, so we ended up in San Francisco for a while. Then we got a train to Chicago, and lived there for at least 4 or 5 months. Met the musicians on the north side at the Abbey Tavern. And Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill. And Brendan McKinney and people you’d know. Then we decided we’d head back to Boston. So we came back to Boston.

>> Shannon: So that was your trip around the world— with SF, Chicago, and Boston?

>> Shannon: This was Boston stop #2 for Tommy. They stayed for a while before returning to Ireland, where they got married, taught music. And Tommy played with the trad band Arcady for about a year. But Boston was calling.

>> Tommy: We did, like, the March winter tour and the last gig was at the Somerville Theatre. 

And the band was kind of going back and there were no more gigs set up for a few months. So I said I might stay around. Louise was here, she came over as well, she was doing local gigs. So I remember the night we played the Somerville Theatre, I was walking down the street and said there’s no place to go for a beer after, that’s unusual. Every theatre has some place to go afterwards, generally. I know, I think we came over here a few days later just walking up and down and then I just kind of thought, “this place needs a pub.”

>> Shannon: So what was the Burren before it became the Burren? What was the space?

>> Tommy: It was a family friendly, sounded like a family dollar store. It was just one square. Obviously, I must have saw something and thought what have I got to lose? I mean, I was only 28 at the time. I mean, I’d never run a pub before. I’d never bartended. But I think the only thing in my head is we really wanted to have a place to play music in, and didn’t think about the rest of it. The rest of it would just come, you know?


>> Shannon: Tommy and Louise love traditional music of all kinds. That day Tommy was really excited about a Greek band that was coming in the next night.

>> Tommy:  You could have the same instruments that we play, you know, music that’s traveled across the Atlantic Ocean come in here tonight and there would be a piano accordion player, fiddle player, banjo player, double bass. But they’re not playing traditional Irish music. They’re playing some form of traditional American music that came from somewhere, wherever. If it’s, you know, could be Yiddish music, Greek music. Tomorrow night we have a Greek band here. There’s nothing stopping myself and Louise from jumping up on the stage tomorrow night and trying to play something with them. I’m sure we’d figure out something. And it’s nice—it’s traditional. Louise has arranged one of the girls to get white and blue tablecloths, and get some kind of yogurt or spinach dish on. I think those little things like that, makes the difference and makes them feel welcome. That’s the most important thing about the Burren, to make the musicians feel welcome. The rest of it takes care of itself.

[ Music: “Ramblin’ Man Theme,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Shannon: Well, the rest is taken care of by a great team. They’ve got a dedicated staff. And with the help of Boston producer Brian O’Donovan, they have ticketed Irish concerts on Wednesday nights

>> Tommy: I mean, definitely now without Brian O’Donovan running the backroom series shows, it’s something I don’t have to worry about. He takes care of that, I think he enjoys it. Initially when we started it, we both agreed well we’ll try one and see how it goes. And if it becomes like work we’ll forget about it. But we’re four years into it now, it’s great. 


>> Shannon: There’s also a weekend series that bass player Tom Bianchi puts together, featuring songwriters and American musicians.

>> Tommy: Well I encouraged Tom to do this series. He just wanted to do something at his own place. At the time he said, “I’m busy!” Just run it, just start it off. So, he’s enjoying it now. What is he? Eight, nine months into it? Bigger acts are getting booked and he’s…

>> Shannon: And who should walk through the pub at that very moment, but Tom himself!

>> Shannon: Hi, Tom Bianchi! Tell me a little about your music series!

>> Tom: Rock and roll, it’s awesome, Thursday Friday Saturday going well. 

>> Shannon: Keep it up!

>> Tom: It’s ah.. Brian and Tommy started Wednesdays a bunch of years ago doing traditional Celtic shows on Wednesday nights. And after a year or two of doing shows, we were sitting around one night we’re all looking at the room, looking at ourselves thinking why can’t we do this every Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Why can’t we do more shows? Bluegrass, Jazz, Americana, Singer Songwriter, Folk, World music, Ethnic music? So that was the conversation, and the conversation has grown to a wonderful weekend series. 

>> Shannon: That’s great. Congratulations

>> Tommy: It’s great to see it, you know? Keep things going here. But a lot of my work I can do on my phone now. Just keep what we’re doing really. Just keep the music going, that’s the most important thing for us.

>> Shannon: Yeah.

>> Shannon: So Tommy and I met toward the end of one of his Boston trips. He would travel back to Ireland a few days later. And though the Burren has shaped his life—just like Chief O’Neill’s has guided the McKinneys—normal life for Tommy is now back in Ireland, where his daughter Rose is also playing Irish music.

>> Tommy: I’m looking forward to getting home now, Sunday or Monday. And getting back to a regular life again. I’ve done my time  here in Boston. But now it is time to go home and dream it all up again and plan for the next events and spend time with Rose and cook dinners and play music and work on what I plan to do here for May and June, you know?

>> Shannon: Sounds very nice!

>> Shannon: As we wrapped up our chat, the great fiddle player, piano player and composer Charlie Lennon began setting up in the backroom. 

>> Shannon: And so Irish music has shaped greatly the way that your life has run. What does Irish music mean for you personally?

[ Music: “Meaning of Life Reprise,” from Production Music Made for Irish Music Stories
Artist/Composer: Matt Heaton ]

>> Tommy: Uh, I suppose sitting here and hearing it in the background and tapping my foot while I’m talking’ to you; it’s taken over my body. What’s it done for me? I mean, my father handed down the music, I met Louise through the music, my friends are through music, I have Charlie there and company tonight who would’ve played with my father in the ‘60’s when he lived in Liverpool. I suppose our life is continuously a celebration of music. It’s great really, you know?

>> Shannon: It IS great. It’s great for Irish music, and for Tommy & Louise, and for the McKinneys in Chicago. 

It’s great that these places were built by people who actually KNOW and love traditional music. And it’s great that with hard work and faith—and a lot of nights of music—these places have become true shelters from the rain, the wind, and the troubles and anxieties of the world, well, at least for a few hours at a time.

Back in Chicago, on that lovely May night, with sheets of rain outside, Siobhan and Brendan’s hospitality —and the tunes—kept us warm around the piano, inside Chief O’Neill’s Pub

>> Brendan: You know, with 17 years in this business, we have had people who met here, had their first date here, had their rehearsal dinner here, got married here, had their christening, their communion and confirmation and wedding anniversary. So, they’re coming back because of the Irish music. And the heart and the soul of this place is Irish music, it really is.

>> Shannon: And you made that, from the ground up.

>> Siobhan: Well, Shannon, you had some part to blame too, right? Can you take some blame?

>> Shannon: Well thanks for helping make a real beautiful home for Irish music here in Chicago!

>> Brendan: It’s the pub you’ve been practicing for, girl!

>> Shannon: It is, and I’ve been practicing since I met you. 

>> Siobhan: I know! And thank you for thinking of us and coming to see us, and don’t be a stranger.

>> Shannon: Good luck on 17 more years!

>> Siobhan: Yes, slainte (cheers)! Hahahaha!

[ Music: “Marty Fahey March,” from Chief O’Neill’s Pub session
Composer: Marty Fahey
Artists: Siobhan & Brendan McKinney with John Williams ]

>> Shannon: Folks, thanks for tuning in. This episode of Irish Music Stories was produced by me, Shannon Heaton. My thanks to the McKinneys and to Tommy McCarthy for taking the time to chat.

If you’d like to learn more about the people and music in this episode, please head to There’s also a donate button there, if you’d like to support the show. Donations help with travel and production costs. And they show me that this is worthwhile for you, which means a lot to me. 

To thank you for listening, this episode’s Coda features a poem I wrote called “So This is Irish Music. I read this poem with my friends John Coyne and Brian O’Donovan, and my husband Matt Heaton played guitar. 


So this is Irish music, songs about loss and exile

Sung by two Galway girls and their niece

East Clare jigs played on fiddle and pipes

In Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Tokyo and Berlin

Dance steps on a Boston tabletop

As the session gets its second wind

Streams of slides and polkas

Cascading from the barefoot accordion player 

with dirty fingernails

Hornpipes from the banjo player

Resting his feet on his dad’s guitar case

Because the floor is still too far away

Sligo reels from a gruff Italian American fiddler 

Played in the key of F, f’love

The tunes and songs and steps and stories

These are the units of currency in the Irish tradition

While players collect to play and pass on

To teach in kitchens

To perform in folk clubs, to present at the White House

There is a reel that the fiddle player that just bought a round of drinks

Knows by one name

And the flute player who calls it something else

Are playing with the box player leading the session

Who’s never had a title for the tune

Though he’s known it forever

There’s the Em jig that the fiddler in the wedding gown plays

After cueing her guitar strumming groom

There’s the old Irish washerwoman

Played by ancient hands, 

They stop trembling as soon as they grasp the concertina

There’s the lullaby the flute player sings

Just as the baby in her lap begins to squirm

There’s the Whistling Postman

The reel that one of us started

Followed by the tune we all knew would follow it

As our friend’s coffin was lowered into the ground beside us

And we played it like we meant it

Since it was for Sean,

That’s what he always called out to do

At the end of the day there is a table of musicians looking at the floor

Or into the Guinness after a satisfying set of tunes

Not daring to dilute the moment of shared contentment with unnecessary congratulations

All the nods and encouraging utterances of, “hup” while playing

Led to this deeper subtler moment

While the tunes settle 

Before new ones get called up

[Music: “Si Beag Si Mor,” from Pajama Sessions
Artist: Matt & Shannon Heaton ]


>> Siobhan: Did you know that the rain in Ireland is warm now, with global warming?

>> Brendan: Thanks be to God.


>> Shannon: cut, cut, cut!

>> Shannon: But I don’t know if that’s any better. You know, warm rain? It’s like pee!

>> Brendan: It’s better than a cold shower!

Bonus Content

Related videos

Companion Chapters

Related essays

Cast of Characters

Episode guests in order of appearance

Sliabh Luachra born, Chicago-based flute player and co-proprietor of Chief O’ Neill’s pub

Cork native who works in public broadcasting and music production

Brendan McKinney


Chicago-based flute player, piper, and co-proprietor of Chief O’ Neill’s pub

London-born fiddle player of Irish parents who opened the Burren Pub in Somerville, Mass in 1996 with banjo player wife Louise Costello

Tom Bianchi


Boston-based singer/songwriter, bassist, engineer who has run a music series at the Burren Pub in Somerville, Massachusetts 

The Heaton List