Saddened friends and colleagues of Dermot O'Reilly said the Irish-born folk performer left a rich legacy of songs, but will be remembered for far more than the music he created.

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Dermot O'Reilly "wrote some amazing songs," Great Big Sea member Bob Hallett says. ((CBC))

O'Reilly, 64, a founding member of legendary folk trio Ryan's Fancy, died Saturday of an apparent heart attack.

"It's a terrible loss, for me personally as a friend, but for the traditional music community in Newfoundland," said Great Big Sea member Bob Hallett.

"His own enthusiasm was so infectious, he kind of led us and pushed us along… He was like a Santa Claus character walking through life."

Great Big Sea recorded their debut album on a budget of less than $1,000 in O'Reilly's home studio. It went on to sell 50,000 copies, and launched their careers as international mainstays of the Celtic music boom.

O'Reilly was a fixture on the St. John's music circuit for decades, right up to his death.

O'Reillyperformed for the last time on Friday night, in a St. John's pub. A night earlier, he and long-time performing partner Fergus O'Byrne opened for The Rankins at Mile One Centre in St. John's.

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O'Reilly moved to Newfoundland in 1971, and earned fame as a member of Ryan's Fancy. ((CBC) )

Brookes Diamond, the Halifax-based promoter who sponsored the Rankins show, said he was stunned to learn of his long-time friend's death over the weekend.

"I don't think he has sung better— ever— than he has sung in the last while," Diamond said.

"He had great love in him… He was wonderfully honest, and he was so much fun, so introspective and so caring. But he was sharp, too— he wasn't afraid to tell you what he really thought of things."

O'Reilly, who emigrated from Ireland to Canada in the 1960s, moved to Newfoundland in 1971. He formed Ryan's Fancy with O'Byrne and fellow Irish expatriate Denis Ryan, and the trio earned fame through recordings, tours and a CBC Television series.

"Certainly, there was such a considerable contribution to the music industry, and to the province. There's a tremendous legacy there," said Denis Parker, executive director of Music Newfoundland and Labrador.

'Warmth and love about him'

Guitarist Sandy Morris, who worked with O'Reilly over more than three decades, said young music fans in particular loved O'Reilly's performances.

"He had a great sensitivity and warmth and love about him. I think it reflects in his songs," Morris said.

"His songs are timeless, and just beautiful."

Hallett said O'Reilly may well be remembered for the songs he composed, particularly West Country Lady— a nostalgic song based in his adopted home of Torbay, just north of St. John's— and the popular Christmas singalong tune Children's Winter.

"He wrote some amazing songs," he said.

"Children's Winter has become a standard Christmas song in the repertoires of singers around the world… West Country Lady has become one of the great Newfoundland folk songs," Hallett said.

"As somebody who does that for a living, I know how hard it is to write a song that stands up to the great folk music. That's what Dermot managed to do, and it's no easy task."