By Olivia Tracey
Across the United States, Irish music and Irish pubs are thought of as going hand in hand like a fiddle to a fiddler. However, 25 years ago, stateside Irish musicians were something of a rarity, particularly on the West Coast. Then along came Ken O’Malley and changed all that, a 20-year-old gigging in Hollywood’s Molly Malone’s and creating quite a stir in the process. Twenty-five years later, I caught up with the talented performer in O’Brien’s on Santa Monica’s Main Street, where every foot in the place, including my own, tapped along to the beat of his Celtic sounds.
Considering the Dubliner’s background, it’s not surprising that he has pursued a musical career. His father, a Mayo man and high-ranking civil servant, was also a pianist, while his Corkonian mother and her sisters played the violin. His uncle Kevin played tenor sax and clarinet, but it was his grandfather, a band leader in the West of Ireland, who exerted the strongest musical influence on the young O’Malley. At the age of 10, he was strumming on his friend’s guitar until his father bought him his own instrument two years later. By age 14 he was a regular performer in the popular Baggot Inn and The Coffee House across from the Dail. Then opportunity struck when one of his father’s work colleagues needed a guitarist to play with the band Trudy’s People for a national Irish language television program called "Isteach leat" (In You Come). Being a fluent Irish speaker, the teenage talent fitted in beautifully, appearing with other noted bands, including Clannad. It looked like he was on his way to joining the celebrity ranks of his Upper Mount Street neighbors, Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan, who incidentally he remembers seeing on numerous occasions under the influence of at least a drink or two.
However, gladly graduating with his Leaving Certificate from CBS Westland Row, he found himself with a "real job," working as a credit manager for a domestic appliance company earning £14 a week, six of which he gave to his mother. Though not exactly his dream job, it led him to his future wife whom he met outside the Wicklow Hotel in Dublin. Her name was Patricia Martin, an Irish American born and bred in Beverly Hills, who was visiting Ireland at the time. Coincidentally, Ken worked with two of her numerous Dublin cousins, while her mother, a successful Powers model and former girlfriend of JFK himself, was born in Fitzwilliam Street, only a stone’s throw from his Mount Street home.
With fate pointing to America, the young O’Malley gave up the day job to pursue music and to join Ms. Martin, his Beverly Hills beauty, in sunny California. He remembers frantically running through airports to catch connecting flights, somehow managing to keep his balance in his blue and red six-inch platform shoes while lugging that indispensable guitar. That was October 1974. A year later the couple were married and went on to have three children, Brendan (now 18), Rory (14 and quite a saxophonist) and Angela (12), the latter being, according to daddy, "great at interior design, piano playing and growing up too quickly!" Well, by all accounts, little Angela is doing a great job of updating Dad’s West L.A. apartment at present. Although the marriage ended 18 years later, the couple are still the best of friends. He has since fallen in love with a pretty blonde called Gina whom he describes as definitely the woman for him.
Back in the 1970s, however, with a wife and three children to support, O’Malley did everything from cooking and selling fish to gigging in L.A’s Molly Malone’s where he says he got his real education from all the colorful characters who frequented the place. He was also becoming quite a celebrity in the process, with everyone asking about the new young Irish musician in town. In no time he was also gigging at Ireland’s 32 pub and Des Regan’s, and formed a band called the Molly McGuires. He also earned a superlative reputation from his peers, being hailed as "the godfather of the mandolin for Irish traditional music" by Des Regan, and accredited by Keith Roberts of The Young Dubliners as the one who "paved the way for Irish music and Irish musicians to come out and work here." Roberts also remembers O’Malley’s unbelievable last-minute substitution for The Young Dubs’ Paul O’Toole, who was detained in Ireland over green card complications, during the 1993 Santa Anita Irish Fair. Within a week, O’Malley had learned off every song and piece of music, and played guitar, mandolin and harmonica with not one stray note or lyric. He is also admired for his generosity toward other musicians, always willing to teach them or invite them to perform with him on stage.
Never miss an issue of The Irish Echo
Subscribe to one of our great value packages.
The irony of O’Malley’s move to the mecca of movie making is that every member of his family, except him, seemed to be getting parts in the movies, including his father, who had a speaking role in Hugh Leonard’s "Da." That was, of course, until "Patriot Games," when Ken got to play himself opposite Harrison Ford and Richard Harris. He has also had the privilege of mingling in pretty impressive circles, playing at the weddings of Bob Dylan’s two children, Maria and Jacob, the latter being the lead singer of The Wallflowers. In addition, the various members of his band, The Twilight Lords, have played with some of the greats, including Rita Coolidge, Gloria Estefan, John Sekada and The BeeGees. Now, they have released their latest CD "The White Seahorse," an eclectic blend of traditional Irish and rock sounds, working beautifully with O’Malley’s strong yet dulcet voice. A 15-date Irish tour is on the cards for September followed by a festive anniversary gig in Molly Malone’s on Oct. 6, in celebration of O’Malley’s 25th anniversary as a musician in the United States. Indeed he has every reason to celebrate, having spent the last quarter century doing what he loves and doing it brilliantly.