O’Shea’s Irish Pub on Clematis to host memorial jam session for beloved musician.
WEST PALM BEACH — For nearly 20 years, Keith Aherne was a charismatic fixture at O’Shea’s Irish Pub, first as a tattooed bartender serving up pints and wisecracks, then as a larger-than-life musician who commanded the pub’s tiny stage with his acoustic guitar and soulful voice.
Whether playing a whistle on traditional Irish folk songs or performing acoustic covers of modern bands like U2 and Oasis, an Aherne performance almost always turned heads and inspired sing-a-longs.
"He was someone people were drawn to. He was really a remarkable musician who was able to connect with people through his guitar and his singing,’’ said Robert Norvell, a lawyer who played fiddle in Aherne bands like Innis Free and Lahinch Mob.
But Aherne had personal demons that he kept from friends and family. In June, frustrated by complications from diabetes, he took his own life. He was 46.
Now, friends and fellow musicians are planning to honor him in a way he could have appreciated — with a daylong jam session that will serve as a tribute, memorial and fundraiser for his wife.
Initially scheduled to take place a few weeks after his death, the event was postponed two months because of demand from friends and musicians from around the world who wanted to attend and needed extra time to make travel arrangements.
Starting at 1 p.m. on Aug. 25, dozens of musicians from as far away as Australia, Dubai and Aherne’s native Ireland will take turns remembering Aherne by performing his favorite songs on stages inside and outside O’Shea’s at 531 Clematis St.
O’Shea’s is hosting the event, but nearly a dozen Irish pubs and area restaurants — including many where Aherne performed — are participating.
"It’s going to be a jam session with anybody who has played with Keith in the past, what you could almost call an Irish wake,’’ said O’Shea’s owner, Maurice Costigan.
"Musically it should be an outstanding day, even if you didn’t know Keith, because there will be an enormous amount of talent. The event will be fun and sad at the same time, and knowing Keith he’d want to go out with a big party.’’
Aherne was already an accomplished musician when he left North Dublin and arrived in South Florida in the 1990s. Costigan hired him away from the old Irish Times pub in Palm Beach Gardens in 1998.
"I kind of suggested, ‘If you get back into music and help me put up a house band, I’ll give you bartending shifts,’’’ Costigan said, recalling the origins of the popular O’Shea’s quartet Innis Free.
A few years ago, Aherne left South Florida to fulfill his dream of owning his own pub, in Savannah, Ga., with his wife, Belle, who quit her longtime job as a teacher at Highland Elementary School in Lake Worth.
But Aherne struggled in recent years with chronic health and mobility issues related to diabetes, said his wife and friends. He’d been hospitalized for a few weeks earlier this year.
He was home in Savannah on June 1 when he took his own life.
"I think he just had a dark moment that he couldn’t pull himself out of,’’ said Belle Aherne.
Belle said she has been touched by the support she has received from people who knew Aherne, including childhood friends from Ireland.
"One of them said to me the other day, ‘I’m so sad but my heart is full when I think of Keith because he lives on in every single one of us,’’’ said Belle, who met her husband one night 12 years ago when he was performing at Brogue’s in Lake Worth.
Aherne is also survived by a daughter and three step daughters along with his parents and two brothers.
The memorial at O’Shea’s will include raffles and fundraisers to collect money for Aherne’s wife and children.
"We want to remember him and sing his songs and tell his jokes. That’s what I think his day will be about,’’ Belle said.
"He really lived the American dream. He came over from Ireland with nothing. He only had his brother here. He built himself out of nothing with his talent and his charisma and his heart.’’
The businesses banding together to help with the event by donating raffle items include a who’s who of Palm Beach County establishments where Aherne performed and visited over the years.
They include: The Serenity Garden Tea House, The Lion and Eagles Pub, Tim Finnegan's Irish Pub, The Old Key Lime House, The Bistro, The Irishmen, Paddy Mac’s Irish Restaurant, Novello Restaurant and Bar, Dubliner Irish Pub, The Aranmore Academy of Irish Dance and the Black Pearl bagpipers.