Honored posthumously, May 6, 2017
Keith O’Neill was born in the Bronx on September 25, 1967, to proud parents Frank and Teresa O’Neill. Frank emigrated from Ballina, Co. Mayo, and served as Chairman of the Michael Coleman Branch of Comhaltas during the early 1980’s. Teresa (nee McKenna) came from Ballinamuck, Co. Longford.
Influenced by his parents who came from a very musical family, Keith started taking violin lessons at the age of six. He attended the Irish music school of the late and great Martin Mulvihill. Becoming an accomplished musician at an early age, Keith won many solo competitions, as well as duet and trio with his brother Frankie on the piano accordion and sister Pauline on flute, both in New York and in Ireland. Keith was greatly influenced by Andy McGann and his good friend Eileen Ivers.
Martin Mulvihill formed the Garrai Eoin II Céilí Band in 1976. In 1977 the band won First Place Under 11 in the New York Fleadh at Manhattan College. They travelled to Ireland that August, competed in Fleadh Cheoil Na hEireann in Ennis, Co. Clare, and won the All-Ireland Under 11 Championship. That year, with the Tara Ceile Band, the Garrai Eoin released a record through the Green Linnet Record Label. Their success continued with All-Ireland Championships at Listowel 1978 and Buncrana in 1979 and 1980. In 1982, Keith travelled to Ireland and won 1st place in the Under 15 Solo Fiddle competiton. This was one of his greatest achievements.
In 1980, the Garrai Eoin II Céilí Band, including Keith, took part in Did Your Mother come from Ireland?, a documentary film recorded in the late Martin Mulvihill’s home. Did Your Mother come from Ireland? was produced and presented by Conrad Fischer and Mick Moloney for RTÉ (Ireland’s national TV broadcasting service) and it documented the “renaissance of Irish traditional music in NYC during the 1970’s and […] the renewed vitality and growth of this music, after years of dormancy, revealed through performances by second and third generation children of Irish immigrants.”
Keith graduated from Mt. St. Michael Academy in 1985 and became a Master Plumber, but he continued to play Irish music with local musicians at many sessions in the Greater New York area. Many would say that his presence immediately electrified a session! In 1992, Keith joined a band called Four to the Bar. This popular band played classic folk songs and traditional ballads. Over the years, they released three cassettes/cds, including Four to the Bar (1993), Craic on the Road (1994) and Another Son (1995). Keith composed three original tunes, “Shelli Sullivan’s,” “Passing My Time” and “Marie Harvey’s Delight.” Keith was also a gifted craftsman who repaired banjos and built three violins. He inspired many of the city’s younger musicians. He truly loved playing music and enjoyed spending time with his good friends at sessions.
On September 28, 2015, Keith passed away unexpectedly. His death was devastating to his family and friends. He will always be remembered for his comical and big hearted nature which endured so many, as well as for his brilliance as a musician.