If Celtic folk music had a yin and yang, they'd be personified by the duo of Seamus Begley and Stephen Cooney.
Begley, from a family of at least three generations of musicians, is a part-time accordionist and singer who has a casual, for-the-love-of-it attitude about music. He'd just as soon sing and play between pints of Guinness at the Brothar, his neighborhood pub in Ireland's County Kerry.
Cooney, a professional, serious-minded Australian, on the other hand, has mainly played guitar and bass in rock-reggae bands and has worked with many of Ireland and Scotland's biggies, including the Waterboys, Dermot Byrne and the great tenor Frank Patterson.
"We're totally opposites," Begley said in his thick Kerry accent during a recent phone interview. "Stephen's a bearded hippie from Australia, and I'm a farmer from west Kerry who plays for the simple reason that I love it.
"He's quite brilliant and can play virtually anything: guitar, bass, banjo, the didjeridoo. Even though he never played it until he met me, Stephen taught me things about the box [button accordion] that I never knew."
Whether despite or because of their differences, the two are finding a receptive and expanding audience for their unusual style of Celtic folk-rock.
In blending traditional Irish music, reggae-tinged rock and Australian tribal music, the dexterous musicians can swing from Elizabethan baroque to bluesy rock and then spin into infectious jigs, reels, slides and polkas.
The New York-based Kells Music label has just released Begley and Cooney's debut album, "Meitheal," stateside. It had been available in the U.S. only as an import.
Their current, first-ever tour of the U.S. includes a stop Saturday night for two shows at the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library.
Their initial collaboration created barely a ripple of public notice back in 1988. Nevertheless, Begley felt an immediate connection during a chance encounter with Cooney at a local pub.
"As I remember, it was a holiday when we met in a pub in Kerry, and I loaned Stephen a guitar because we just felt like playing some stuff together," recalled Begley. "I knew the minute Stephen started playing that he was out of this world. His playing excited me so [much] that it made me want to play more and more."
While remaining respectful of the traditions of the music he plays, his goal is primarily to communicate the excitement he feels to audiences--especially dancers. Not surprisingly, they've ruffled some traditionalists.
"I'm sure a lot of the old-timers would be delighted to call us [the Irish] Guns N' Roses because they don't agree with what we're doing. I can understand that," he said. "And I don't mind being criticized."
Some of what they do, he conceded, is "designed for madness--the dancers literally lift off the floor and go crazy. That's what they want us to do to them. The aim is to get them off their rear-ends and on to the [dance] floor."
Begley's love of tradition flourishes on many levels, from his accordion playing and singing in Irish to his cherished family life. He and his wife raise three children and about 20 cows on a 50-acre farm located seven miles west of Dingle.
At the same time, he believes that the old ways need to be nourished with renewed spirit and appetite.
"To keep this music alive, I suppose you have to do something new like getting the young people on board," said Begley, whose 6-year-old daughter, Meabh, is already playing the button box.
"It has to do something for them, or they'll turn away," he said. "A lot of crusty Irish musicians sit in the corner, looking far too serious. Forget it. . . . Today the young kids are responding to folks like [accordionist] Sharon Shannon because she's attractive, smiles, is charismatic--and plays brilliantly to boot!"
Begley said his own experiences with hard times have helped him maintain a healthy perspective.
"I went to Chicago about 20 years ago to work for a couple of winters," he said. "I drove a bus to make a few pounds because there was no work back at home. You know, it was the best thing that I ever did because I can appreciate what I have and all that it means to me.
"I'm not really looking beyond this tour. We're sort of taking it day by day," he said. "We're probably not as ambitious as other musicians. . . . I guess if we worked at it, we might get places. But music to me has to be for pleasure first, not just for work. That's why I never take it too seriously."
* Who: Folk music duo Seamus Begley and Stephen Cooney.
* When: Saturday at 7 and 9 p.m.
* Where: San Juan Capistrano Regional Library, 31495 El Camino Real, San Juan Capistrano.
* Whereabouts: Exit Interstate 5 at Ortega Highway and head west. The library is adjacent to the mission.
* Wherewithal: $3-$5.
* Where to call: (714) 248-7469.