Michael O'Shea was an eccentric, maverick world musician. He was a virtuoso of the Mo Cara, a 17-string instrument he invented and built, on which he created hauntingly melodic works combining elements of Celtic and Asian musics. Although primarily a busker, in the early '80s he enjoyed a brief legitimacy, releasing one album and even opening for Ravi Shankar at London's Royal Festival Hall.
O'Shea was born in Northern Ireland in 1947 but grew up in the Irish Republic. Keen to see the world, he joined the British Army at 17. However, military life didn't suit him; he went AWOL for two years and was court-martialed. On release from jail, he moved to London where he gravitated toward the folk scene, mixing with musicians like Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger.
In the mid-'70s, he went to Bangladesh as a volunteer, returning with dysentery, hepatitis, and a sitar. While convalescing he learned to play the sitar and then busked around Europe and the Middle East. In France he traveled with an Algerian who played an instrument known as the zelochord. O'Shea hit on the idea of building a hybrid of a zelochord, a hammered dulcimer, and a sitar; the result was the Mo Cara (Gaelic for "my friend").
Back in London, O'Shea busked with the Mo Cara, the bizarre sight and sound of the instrument instantly attracting crowds. In early 1980, he was spotted by a talent scout for Ronnie Scott, who was fascinated by the Mo Cara's mix of East Asian, South Asian, and Irish sounds. Scott offered the Irishman a residency in his club's prestigious Downstairs Room and became his agent. This led to his opening for Ravi Shankar at the Royal Festival Hall and he even played on a Rick Wakeman project, although his contribution was subsequently discarded.
Despite encouraging signs, O'Shea's career did not take off and he returned to busking. While playing in Covent Garden, O'Shea was noticed by Tom Johnston, an early member of The The. Johnston introduced O'Shea to Wire's Bruce Gilbert and Graham Lewis, who asked him to record for their Dome label. Due to his previous disappointments, O'Shea was ambivalent about others' efforts to launch his career and was convinced that his music was best-suited to spontaneous street performance. An invitation to Blackwing Studio was nonetheless extended. A year later, he appeared unannounced, saying his horoscope augured well, and recorded the album.
In 1982, O'Shea worked with Tom Johnston and Matt Johnson on a projected album, but nothing came of it. Later that year, he collaborated on two tracks for John Denver Stanley's Content to Write in I Dine Weathercraft. In 1985, he played on the title track of Larry Cosgrave's Easter Island. (Material from the Stanley and Cosgrave projects appeared on the 2001 CD reissue of O'Shea's self-titled album.)
In the late '80s O'Shea became involved in the burgeoning rave scene and rarely performed. In December 1991, he was struck by a van in London and died two days later. (amg)