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Johnny Doran


Johnny Doran (1907 – 1950) was an Irish Traveller musician who is acknowledged as one of the greatest uilleann pipers ever in traditional Irish music. It was John Kelly who organised to get the only known recordings of Johnny Doran made in 1948.

The two men first met eachother at the Kilkee races in 1932 and they remained very good friends until the untimely death of Johnny in 1950.  Johnny was a regular visitor to the Kelly household in Dublin, enjoying tea and homemade brown bread made by Mrs Kelly, who was like Johnny, also from County Wicklow.

Details: L-R: Pat Cash’s son, Pat Cash and Johnny Doran. Location: Dublin. Date: 1941.

Credit: Courtesy of Oidhreacht an Chláir, “Dal gCais Vol 9 – 1988”. Link.


Meeting Johnny Doran

“The best travelling man that came around was Johnny Doran. And the first time that I met him was either in ’31 or ’32 at the races in Kilkee, the two days racin’ in the month of September. The sun was shinin’ down in (on) a beautiful strand and the sea was so calm and it was gone out two miles nearly as we thought (talked? Maybe) . And the people were dressed to the knocker and they walked around in their shirt sleeves. And you think of people bein’ well dressed today: they were well dressed that time, well fed lookin’ and had plenty in their pockets to drink. You’d get a pound goin’ to the races that time and that was good money.

But we heard this music anyway. I ran, of course, when I heard it, and there was this man playin’ the pipes. He had a small little box under one foot to keep his knee up to stop the bottom of the chanter on it. And he used to play in that position in the middle of the road sometimes, and then when he’d get tired of that he’d sit on the wall. But the people were gatherin’ around and there was a blockage in on that part of the Strand Line and the Guards had to shift the people to make room for the people to pass the odd motor car comin, up or down. He gave a wonderful exhibition of music.

I never heard a real piper in the flesh before as good as him. I heard an old man from Kilrush that played at the College by the name of Scanlon. He had spent 40 or 50 years in the ‘States and he came home and he played at the Scoraíocht in Seán 0’ Connell’s time and he was a lovely player too. But he concentrated more on set dancing and that. He wasn’t as good a real player as Johnny. Johnny drove us mad that day, and he played a good lot of Micheal Coleman stuff that time, ‘Lord Gordon’ and a few things like that. But towards the evening he was ringed around by … it was like held be in the middle of a big fort, and you couldn’t get in to him. Well, I saw ten shilling notes and half crowns, a load of ’em on his overcoat. It was left down (on the ground as) it was a beautiful evening, the sun setting … And men bored their way in through the crowd, priests and doctors and men of … the biggest men in Ireland was there at that time on holidays, you know, and ten shilling notes was no bother. That was the equivalent of five pounds today anyway and I doubt if you’d meet a man today that’d give a five pound note to a travelling player. People liked the music that time.

Well I went up to Talty’s in Kilkee to hear Leo Roweome playing. He was broadcasting that time and they’d a radio. And I thought that all the gaiety was down at the crossroads at Kilkee where Johnny was playin’ in the little square. Ah, we hung around there for a good while with him. I think we brought him to the College one night, to the Scoraíocht. But there was a big night in Bansha, a place called Bansha, and Danny Donnellon (?) and myself went over on two bicycles and there was a great night there. Johnny was playin’ on a half-tub at the back door and there was a fine concourse of people there that night. The house was middling small (but) there was fine men and great dancers; tall “Dicke (láiche) men. Well you’d hear a pin drop when Johnny’d play afterwards. They were caving in on top of him. When the dance finished there it was eight o’clock in a summer’s morning and we’d to start for the West, about 16 or 17 miles. We was ashamed of our life going home because we were seen by the people going to the creamery. If they saw you at that hour of the morning they’d say you wouldn’t be good for land or strand. And they’d say: “God help Mikey Kelly and Micheál Dan. Do you see the way their two sons are gone?”

So, Johnny drifted away then. He went then for a while and a rumour came that he was dead. And everybody said: “Oh, wasn’t it awful about that piper? Wasn’t it terrible about that piper and he was such a grand man and people liked him so much?” But two years after­wards at the races in Kilkee again I was up and goin’ around again and I heard the sound of pipes comin’ from the West End. Comin’ beautiful.

And I ran again, and I had a couple of friends with me too. But here didn’t I see this man and there was something about him that I kind of knew, like, and I never saw him before. He was immaculately dressed with a green sports coat and a beautiful check shirt and a white trousers and beautiful shoes and a lovely head of hair. I thought he was the finest lookin’ boy that ever I saw. Built like a battleship. And he was ‘ playin ‘the pipes and there was something about the way he looked that he reminded me of Johnny.

And I said’It couldn’t be Johnny that came back,” sez I. “Sure he’s dead anyway.” So I got bold on him anyway, I suppose I threw a shillin’ or something, I hadn’t the money. But I got talkin’ to him. And indeed it was hard to talk to him that time, he was so busy, like, and he’d only laugh at you if you didn’t know what you were talkin’ about. (It was) Felix Doran.

Well, (when) Felix played he concentrated on set dances. And I remember him well playin’ ‘The Job of Journeywork’. There was very little difference between himself and Johnny and he went down very well with the people. But I don’t think he went down with the people as well as Johnny but he had the touch and the call and the look. He was lookin’ away into space and he playin’ as if nobody lived (was) around him (as if) he was alone in the desert. He was used to doin’ that. But, my God, he was a wonderful player too, there’s no doubt about it. And such a nice man Felix was. But anyways it went along and about a year afterwards who appeared in full regalia again but Johnny. Felix told me that time that he wasn’t dead at all. But Johnny came again, and he split the atom. It went on the very same as before the crowds threw their hats and their coats in the sky and they danced and they jumped and they roared and they screeched and they laughed. That’s what Johnny’d do, you know. Like the day at Kilrush fair … not the fair, the market, when we used to bring the bags of spuds and oats on our backs into the weighing scales. The horses’d be tied. You couldn’t come within hundred yards or more of it and we’d be strugglin’ with bags in and out of it. You had to wait until your time came to go up to the scales. But didn’t Johnny appear in the crowd anyway and the next thing they were all sitting down on their bags listening to Johnny playing. And then he played lights out and he got plenty of money. And there was nearly an hour lost out of the market and that’s as sure as I’m there. Johnny Doran destroyed the market. There was never a man loved as much as Johnny Doran was in Clare. Because some way his music was most fascin­ating but the man was great too. He was an impish kind of a little man that was so likeable. And he had great manners. Felix too had great manners when he stayed away from the drink. But Johnny of course hardly ever drank at all. We used to try to give him a bottle of stout but he’d only take two sups out of it.”

Details: Location: John’s house in Capel street. Date: 1979. 

Credit: Recorded by John Kelly Junior.


Johnny Doran in Dublin

“Then I came to Dublin and well I linked up with the Pipers Club in Molesworth Street right away. ‘Twas a home from home there. Twas a good lot of musicians. We played and we had little outings. The music was very isolated like you couldn’t take it out into pubs like now or any place. The outings used to be arranged. Then Flag days used to be arranged and some of the players used to play on the streets. I rememeber Tom Mulligan and Tommy Reck playing in O’Connell street during a flag day, in aid of the Pipers Club. 

But the chief men that I met there that time was Jim Seary of course and Sean was a young fella at that time, Sonny Brogan, Bill Harte, Tom mulligan. A number of others. Tommy Potts of course. 

But Johnny Doran’s arrival in Dublin. He camped around High Street. And the first place he played was the Piper’s Club in Thomas Street. He didn’t play the street that time. He was anxious to go to work at that period and the Conroys (of Capel Street) got a job for him out in there place In ’47. He got a job as a tea-boy and other handy jobs. But he was bringin’ in a week’s wages and he was delighted. Andy Conroy was his chief patron, I suppose. They looked after him well around there that time. He was a man that didn’t drink much, he’d take a glass of wine.

He used to play in a very funny way in Thomas Street; he played most of his music standin’ up, like, when he gas in exhibition form. And I remember one night he swung the regulators over the top of the chairs and up and down like a see-saw between the chairs and never lost a bit of time or anything. But he had a little gadget in the body of the pipes to stop the valve in the chanter …

I’ve told the story of how he met with the accident. And before the accident happened I brought him up to Kevin Danaher to record the few tunes that he did. ‘Twas a touch and go thing, because he came in one night with the pipes in his hand – into the shop – and hinself and the missus struck up a great partnership. She used to make good tay and home­made bread. Johnny was mad for that kind of a thing and he’d play upstairs (over. The Horseshoe’, John’s Capel Street shop) and the fire was goin’ well. I don’t think any of our children were born that time. But he used be delighted. Oh, he’d like that’ But I’d give him a bottle of stout and he’d never finish it. He had that bit … he’d go down a little bit and there’d be … When the bottom would be there before him … he’d leave.  He didn’t care about drink.

Well, one night he came in, ’twas a Monday night sometime in November, I think. Early in November. And he sez: “I’m feelin’ very bad,” he sez, “I’ve a pain under my heart, ” he sez, “and I’m (in a) bad way.”

“Leave down the pipes on the floor,” sez I, “and don’t be carryin’ the pipes, or the load.” So, he did. Sure he was very fit lookin’. He was a very fit, tough, hardy fella. You wouldn’t think held have heart disease anyway. I spoke to the missus and I said: “Something is goin’ to happen him,” sez I.   “I’ve a feclin”.

And with that I went over to the ‘phone and I called Kevin Danaher … I’ve this told before on the radio, of course, but it might be handier if I told it again so you needn’t be lookin’ for the tapes. And so we went over (to the Folklore Commission) and Kevin Danaher was there. I didn’t expect him to be there, and … “Oh, by all means bring him over.”

So we went over that night and he played about, maybe, ten tunes. Andy Conroy was with me and Mick and Francis … (?) Then Kevin Danaher gave him a one pound note out of his pocket that time. And Johnny thought it was a great gift. A pound note was big money in those days, ’twas as good as ten now nearly. He said: “That’s a decent man,” he says, “and I’ll go over again and I’ll play more music for him.”

So, a Wednesday night came and we went over again, I think, the same party … I don’t know were the Conways with me the second night. But he played some, tunes and I called the tunes for him, but the time was limited. He wanted me … he wanted to know which tunes would he play. So we hit on the best tunes we could think of that would be most suitable, that he would play well. But he played everything good.

But them nights  I thought, he was sunk down between two counters, like, in the place. He had no real (space in the recording booth?) I suppose the gear wasn’t as good as it is today, but the tunes came out great afterwards. I played a tune with him too, I think it was ‘The Fermoy Lassies’ or something. The fiddle didn’t come so well with it, but you’d hear it in snatches. But then we recorded ten more that night or maybe twelve and we came back. He went to his camp. He was camped in High Street there near Thomas Street. At the junction of Thomas Street. Henshaws was across the road, an old ironmongery place. On Friday morning he got up to go to work and he left his shoe up on a stool for to lace it. And there was a gusty gale of wind blowin’ and there was the top of a wall near, just above the caravan …was camped and whatever way a gust of wind came it shifted the top of the wall and came down with a bang. Some people estimated there was two tons of rubble came down. And he got it in the small of his back and it broke his back. It was a very sad thing altogether.

But he was in a terrible way for a few weeks. He improved slightlybut he had no usebut he had no use of his legs. He was paralysed from the waist down. But he … was in Meath Street Hospital for six or seven weeks or more and then he was shifted to Athy. He struggled to live about a year and a half after the thing happening but he was in dreadful pain. But the last tune he played in the flesh was in our shop – in the room over the shop in Capel Street. But I did hear him playin’ one(ce more), Willie Clancy and me went in to see him, I think it was the time Willie won the Oireachtas when we went out to see him. It was on a Sunday and he had great welcome for us. But he was very bad. He used get … vomits, oh, terrible vomits. But he bucked up courage (when he saw us) and Willie asked him would he play a tune. He said he couldn’t play but he’d like to play a tune on the chanter, Willie’s chanter. So Willie blew the bag and he stuck the chanter in to the bed to suit Johnny and he played a beautiful tune on the chanter. And that was the last tune I beard him playin’. I’m sure that was the last that he ever played.

So he went down to Athy then and he lived there for – in the hospital like, – he lived for most of a year and a half. He died and he was buried in Rathnew, County. Wicklow, among his father’s people. Felix (hwas buried there too. So that’s that.”

Details: Location: John’s house in Capel street. Date: 1979. 

Credit: Recorded by John Kelly Junior.


Getting Johnny Doran recorded

Details: Philip King interview John Kelly. Producer: Julian Vignoles. Location: The Four Seasons Pub, Bolton Street, Dublin. Date: 17th February 1984.

Credit:  “The Green Groves” radio programme, RTÉ Radio 2.


Getting Johnny Doran recorded

Details: Date: Nov 1985. Location: Cultúrlann na hÉireann, Monkstown, Dublin.

Credit: Recorded by Mick O’Connor as part of the Coiste Ceoil of Comhaltas Ceoltoirí Eireann.


Johnny playing for the election

John Kelly Senior (JKS): “A new crop of musicians came in (to Dublin) around the ’50’s, early ’50’s to Dublin. We had Willie (Clancy) came around that time and Bobby Casy and Joe Ryan.  Ah, we used to have great music. Then the Fleadh Cheoils…

John Kelly Junior (JSJ): “Joe Cooley.”

JKS:   “Hah?”

JKJ: “Joe Cooley.”

JKS: “Yes, a thing I left out; Joe Cooley was around and he had a little band in Parnell Square, some teacher’s hall (The Teacher’s Club?) or some where. But he had Johnny Doran as a guest artist every now and then. Well, there was some draoicht in Johnny’s music even then. Even at that time Dublin people weren’t conversant with Irish music, with the sounds of Irish music. Like, they heard it, but it wasn’t their first love. They were steeped in jazz for 20 or 30 years before that and they hadn’t heard much Irish music and they thought anybody who played Irish music was a kind of a queer, or ’twas some kind of antediluvian stuff. But Johnny even brought them up around the stage the night Joe had him. I was with Joe a few nights playin’ there when he’d be short of a man. I remember one night when Johnny came and he gave a star performance. The whole hall, and there was a nice crowd there, over maybe 300 people and the most of them young Dublin girls and boys, they came up around him on the stage. Well, any­thing like it! He was irresistible, so to speak.

But an incident happened in 1948 which I left out: during the election … Clann na tallún, headed by … I might be wrong now, it mightn’t be Clann na tallún … whatever party John … Clann na Phoblachta, theywon twelve seats that time, in 1948, and their star performer in that year during the election campaign was Johnny Doran dressed in Mick Conroy’s suits, with a wrist watch and all – they were about the one height. And in ever street corner for about two weeks before the weddin’ … or, the election they used to be … they’d strap up in the evenin’ and they’d play away there and Johnny’d play away and the man’d make a speech and  Johnny’d play a tune. Well, ’twas great. Johnny used be dyin’ laughin’ at the whole caper. I’m sure he was treated fairly well.”

Details: Philip King interview John Kelly. Producer: Julian Vignoles. Location: The Four Seasons Pub, Bolton Street, Dublin. Date: 17th February 1984.

Credit:  “The Green Groves” radio programme, RTÉ Radio 2.

Musical Connections Musical Context

Johnny Doran