Retired maths man has added melody to his time
Were it not for a long-lost relative, Seán O’Connell’s folk songs might never have been heard.
His guitar was in a closet gathering dust, the melodies and lyrics he’d carefully composed forgotten.
Then he met his Irish cousin Morgan. With his prodding, he picked up the instrument, having left it alone for 25 years, and “started from scratch”.
Roughly a year and a half ago he headed into Just Platinum Recording Studios and recorded his first CD, Father of One.
“People were wondering, ‘You’re so old, why are you doing this? Why not go to a rest home and put your feet up?’” the 76-year-old laughed. “I like to stay active, to keep my mind sharp.”
Aware that fellow Bermuda Folk Club musician Valerie Sherwood had recorded two CDs, Dr O’Connell followed her lead: “I thought, ‘I’ve composed songs, I could do it too’.”
And so began a 20-month process — of selecting eight covers and eight original songs, and recording them.
“John Woolridge did a wonderful job of helping me put together a professional package of songs,” he said. “He was meticulous. His passion for excellence was infectious. It was wonderful to work with him and bring out the beauty of those pieces.”
Ironically, he didn’t find his first music lessons that appealing. Despite that, he stuck with the piano classes he’d signed up for at 13, for four years.
The drudgery came to an end soon after he entered St Andrew-on-Hudson seminary, in Poughkeepsie, New York, in 1959.
“I was raised to be very religious by Roman Catholic parents,” Dr O’Connell said. “I saw it as the highest ideal and thought it would be the best thing to do with my life and so I entered a Jesuit order.
“In the seminary, I was only able to practise [piano] one hour a week, which prevented any real progress.”
In 1966 “an instructional TV series” got him interested in the guitar. He borrowed one from a friend, and was soon hooked. “I enjoyed it for several reasons,” he said. “It was less demanding than the piano — all you need to know are a few chords and you can play an awful lot of songs.
“With the piano, you had to be so much more advanced before you could even dream of performing.”
On a break from the seminary, he travelled to California and met Laura Weber, the woman he had followed on TV. “She asked if I would appear on her programme. At this stage I had composed some songs and she had me play a few. It was great for her, she was showing her audience that they could learn too — look at what my pupil has done.”
He quit the seminary in 1968, two years into his doctorate in mathematics at City University of New York.
“I left because I became more mature,” Dr O’Connell said. “I was exposed to things I never realised in [my Roman Catholic] high school where everything was limited and nothing social existed.
“The seminary was up in the woods, in a cloistered environment, it was a cocooned experience. While studying for my PhD, I met Jews, agnostics and atheists; a hodgepodge of different people that I’d never been exposed to before.
“There was a gradual unfolding of realisation to awareness.”
Work called after graduation. Dr O’Connell spent time in Sweden and England before he decided he was ready for a change. “In 1974, I got a job at the Bermuda College,” he said. “I didn’t know much about Bermuda at the time, but once I got here I loved it.”
In 1976, he made Bermuda history as the first person to swim the entire way around the island, completing the feat in 43 hours and 27 minutes.
He also fell into the rhythm of the Folk Club, where he took his wife Celia on their first date.
The couple met at Horseshoe Bay, on April Fool’s Day 1979, and married in 1986. Dr O’Connell left Bermuda College after 29 years as professor of mathematics, in 2003.
“I continued to play, but over the years I let it die and my guitar gathered dust in the closet,” he said. “My long-lost cousins in Ireland discovered me on the internet that mentioned my round-the-island swim.
“I visited all seven of them over Christmas in 2013 and one of them, Morgan, comes from a very musical family. He was shocked and appalled that I had let my guitar playing die and demanded that I take it up again.”
Before he knew it, he was working on a CD. “I chose 16 songs, those of my own composition that I particularly liked and some traditional songs such as Wild Mountain Thyme, Black Velvet Band, Morning Has Broken, House of the Rising Sun and Annie’s Song.
“I wrote many during my last year in the seminary — when I was starting to experience events but still had a lot of time to sit and reflect. The melody usually came first and then I found a topic to fit the feeling of the music.”
He’s already performed a few songs at the folk club.
“I always felt a sense that [making an album] was what I wanted to do but never had the opportunity,” he said. “I had a model now to do it, with Val Sherwood who had actually done it. I thought, ‘If she can do it I can too’. I was encouraged that someone right here in Bermuda did it and did it well. It opened it up as a practical opportunity, not just a theoretical one.
“We didn’t seem to have that years ago. Forty years ago I didn’t know if people did this here in Bermuda.”
His next move depends on how Father of One is received. At the moment he’s happy busking in Washington Lane every Tuesday, between noon and 1.30pm. “It’s kind of fun to just sing for the joy of it,” he said.
• Father of One is available from Seán O’Connell (firstname.lastname@example.org; 293-3551), The Music Box and Sound Stage, for $20. Lifestyle profiles the island’s senior citizens every Tuesday. Contact Jessie Moniz Hardy on 278-0150 or email@example.com with their full name, contact details and the reason you are suggesting them
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