John Keating, left, the director of "Peace and Love in Brooklyn," with Eamon O'Tuama. [Photo by Diego Quintanar]

Friendship inspires a musical

Imagine you go into the attic to look for something in a box. Then you find a picture of somebody, which in turns reminds you of somebody else or something else. Soon, long-forgotten memories, feelings and emotions come from out of nowhere. 

This is what the process of writing has been like for Eamon O’Tuama.

His musical “Peace and Love in Brooklyn” is not autobiographical, but it’s hard not to bring one’s own experiences to the page. 

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“When you open that door, you allow it,” he said.

Annalise Chamberlain plays Carmel.

According to the publicity materials, the production, which will run next week from April 3-7 at the Cell Theatre as part of the 2024 edition of the 1st Irish Festival, “follows the lives of Jim, an anxiety-ridden musician, raised by a single mother Theresa and his father Kiero, a troubled and colorful rock n’ roll roadie.  Father and son have never met until Theresa hums a melody she has carried for 30 years. A musical thread unravels and a reckoning begins.”

And it’s also billed as a “New York story about an Irish family that never was.” 

The Cork-born singer-songwriter O’Tuama does reveal that Kiero has an inspiration in the real-life roadie Kieran Ryan, a neighbor in Astoria, Queens, whom he and his wife were friends with in the years before his sudden death in 2005. 

That friendship coincided with and was linked to the start of the second act of O’Tuama’s musical career, his time as a vocalist and guitarist with the Prodigals.

Before that, for O Tuama, song-writing was “the purpose” ahead of any others. 

A big influence for the University College Cork graduate was a fellow singer-songwriter from his home place. “I used to love Freddie White,” he said. “I used to go see him all the time.”

White’s cover versions introduced him, too, to the sort of American songwriters he soon fell in love with, like Paul Simon, Randy Newman and Neil Young.

Will Paddock plays Kiero.

“In the 1990s, I did some shows around the Village and wherever I could get a gig,” he recalled of his early days in New York, “I banged around with that for a bunch of years. I did an album with a small Irish label in ’96.”

There would be several more albums.

One could likely have detected influences from home in his brand of folk rock; the offer, however, from Andrew Harkin in 2003 to join the Prodigals came as a surprise.

“I’d never played Irish music, never played in a band before,” he said.

Now, O’Tuama was in one that did more than 200 gigs a year. Paddy Reilly’s every Friday night was the easy part. “We’d travel all over the country. Florida, Idaho, Michigan,” he recalled of his five years with the band. “In the summer, we’d do all these festivals. It was a great experience.

“Most of our stuff was weekends, but it was still a lot of traveling,” said O’Tuama, who always kept his regular day job. “It was pretty exhausting. I kind of got burned out.”

He went through a divorce and other life changes, and for a time he didn’t even listen to music. But he would always have the catalog of songs he was proud of – and included in that was “Peace and Love in Brooklyn,” which he wrote after the death of Kieran Ryan.

The Dubliner, who struggled with addiction problems, was a “hard-edged road warrior.” He’d worked with the Thompson Twins, at “Live Aid” with Ultravox and with Thin Lizzy.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, O’Tuama began work on a play that was loosely based on his relationship with Ryan and on his own experiences growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s in a country that was becoming a modern one.

“When I look behind Kieran, there’s myself, there’s Ireland, there’s all of that,” said O’Tuama, who is a director at a day program for adults with intellectual disabilities.

“I had very strong emotional memories of certain things in my childhood, not necessarily bad things, but specific things I remember and those were very helpful I found in writing this,” he said. “I had a child myself when I was very young, 23. So some of that I can draw on.

“As a young teenager, there’s was a certain drabness to Ireland, a certain kind of dullness. I remember finding music. It just felt like a new world, it had color, and it had life, a kind of opportunity.  When I started writing songs, I just wanted to be part of that.”

He added, “I think, if I can speak for Kieran, I think that was also his experience. The real Kieran was a really cranky kind of guy, but he was incredibly knowledgeable about music. He knew everything. He was a real aficionado.”

O’Tuama always felt that his songs could be in a musical, and could be in a story. When he started to write in 2020, the song about Ryan came into his head. “So, I started to write a play based on this song,” he said.

An editor friend encouraged him to keep going, while Larry Kirwan put him in touch with the Irish American Writers & Artists and its then president Maria Deasy, who is in the theatre world. Like the others, Mick Mellamphy of the Origin Theatre Company, which hosts the 1st Irish Festival, was very supportive.

Somebody suggested a reading. “I’d no idea what that was,” O’Tuama said. 

Ultimately, at last year’s 1st Irish, there was a reading in the form of a concert at the Irish Arts Center with a full cast and a full band following a couple of months’ rehearsal. “It was sold out,” he said. “It was a fantastic night.”

O’Tuama said when he’s told that something in particular doesn’t work, he enjoys the “puzzle” of fixing it.

“After we did the Irish Arts Center, for a few months. I locked myself away and did that,” he said.

The most difficult part of the process for him, though, has been listening to the work being read. He said he’s a shy person who wrote “cryptic, impressionistic” songs, but the play gave him “freedom because I wasn’t writing about myself.”

O’Tuama said, “I will admit when I hear people reading the words that I wrote, sometimes I just get so tense because it is very personal, even though it’s not directly about me.

“I’m getting better at it,” he added, laughing. “I don’t bury my head when people are reading the words.”

O’Tuama doesn’t read music and so has listened to the musical director who might say, “It’s easier for singers to land on this note.”

He has also consulted with a couple of dramaturgs, one of whom said there are 10 things that a musical should have. While respectful of such advice, he said that, “It’s definitely not a traditional musical. It’s definitely not, ‘let’s get to the next song.’

“I hope it’s a good story,” O’Tuama said. “I want people to like the story.”

"Love & Peace in Brooklyn," which is directed by John Keating, stars Adam Kee, Annalisa Chamberlain, Barrie Kreinik, John Charles McLaughlin, Katie Fabel, Maria Deasy and Will Paddock. Go to for tickets to the show from April 3-7.