A piper and musician, Padraig O’Briain was born in Labasheeda, County Clare around 1773. His parents were well-off farmers and Padraig was a native speaker and a good scholar. He received his early education at a local hedge school and later acquired a knowledge of the classics. He seemed destined for a scholastic career but unfortunately he suffered from a serious eye complaint which led to his blindness while still in his twenties. To earn a living, he turned to his love of music and, in particular, to his skill on the pipes. He moved to Limerick hoping to find a position as an entertainer in one of the big houses but he was unsuccessful in even finding a patron to appreciate his music. Padraig was forced to become a street musician and records show that he became a familiar figure at the corner of Hartsonge Street and the Crescent.
The famous Galway artist, Patrick J. Haverty, saw him performing and was impressed with his fine features and noble build. Padraig thus, in 1844, became the subject for the painting The Limerick Piper. This became one of the most famous lithographs of the nineteenth century. In the painting Padraig is depicted as an old man, bent and grey but whose fine features are retained, intent on his art while a young girl sits beside him. In the romantic spirit of the time the piper is seen playing against a background of an attractive woodland scene, and not in the reality of the cold, damp streets of the city. The original was sold to Sir Josslyn Gore-Booth who exhibited the painting at the Cork exhibition in 1852. William Smith O’Brien commissioned Haverty for a copy of the painting which was presented to the National Gallery in 1864.
Meanwhile Padraig O’Briain continued to eke out a paltry existence playing music on the streets of Limerick. On a frosty morning in March 1855 he slipped on ice and was badly injured. He lay in bed for six months and died in December of that year. He is buried in Kilquane Cemetery, Parteen, County Clare.
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