By Geoffrey Cobb
Charlie O’Brien is a unique singer, songwriter and documentary filmmaker from Killarney, Co Kerry, but he finds his muse far from Kerry in the stories and songs of the Irish in Latin America. Charlie writes in both English and Irish and can speak both fluently.
He first worked on a documentary about the ill-fated San Patricios, Irishmen who jumped sides from the American army to fight for the Mexicans in the Mexican-American wars and he has written songs dedicated to the Patricios as well. He has also made his own film called “A Captain Unafraid” about the amazing exploits of Johnny Dynamite O’Brien, an Irish American who ran guns from New York to Cuba during the island’s fight for independence in 1898.
O’Brien is a creative dynamo. He has made three musical albums and is now working on his fourth. “Hy Brasil,” his latest studio album, contains songs that tell varied stories of the Irish in Latin America. The songs he has collected over the last decade span Cuba to Mexico, Brazil to the Philippines and from Buenos Aires to Havana. He is, however, short of money to complete the album's mixing, mastering, printing and dissemination and is looking for people to help him finish the album through his crowd funding campaign: To help, go to here.
O’Brien is more than just another Irish singer-songwriter. He is a man with a unique artistic vision whose stories remind us of the many connections the Irish have with Spain and with Latin America. His films and his songs do not just sound nice, but they also build cultural bridges and tell fascinating stories about the Irish diaspora. If you pre-order the album now, you will get it in September and enjoy some fine songs and fascinating stories of the Irish far away from Erin’s shores.I caught up with Charlie and asked him some questions.
What were your musical influences?
My musical influences come from everywhere, but I do get a lot of inspiration from old Irish songs, history, poetry and music. For instance, there is a song “Hy Brasil, The land of the Blest” that I've recorded for this new album. The song was written in the early 1800s by Limerick man Gerald Griffin. The main thoroughfare in that city is called after him. The song is not at all well-known now but was popular in my father’s time when they learned the words in school. I find inspiration in overlooked stories. Ireland being a small island and mostly former British colony we are often misunderstood, and I think delving into these outlying areas of Irish history -- such as the story of the Irish in Latin America – help to redress the balance.
What attracts you to Latin America?
After the fall of the old Gaelic order, one of the main destinations for the Irish was Spain. Spain was full tilt in its conquest of the Americas at this time. So you find Irish names cropping up in seminal moments all over Latin America. The last King of New Spain (Mexico) was Juan O'Donojú O'Ryan. Miguel Barrigán was another Mexican president in the 19th century. Alvaro OBregón (O' Brien) is a more recent president with an Irish second name.
To what extent does your music draw on Irish traditions and how much Latin influence is there?
There is only a slight Latin influence in the terms of sound, the album is in my own folksy style, taking strongly from the Irish tradition but going my own way with many of the sounds.
Geoffrey Cobb will read from his latest Brooklyn-themed work of history, “The Rise and Fall of the Sugar King,” on Tuesday evening (7 p.m.), June 18, at the Brooklyn Public Library, Williamsburgh Branch, 240 Division Ave.