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Music in Dublin in the 20th century


John moved from West Clare in 1945 and worked in the Bog of Allen for a few months.

After that he went to Dublin and set up his shop in Capel Street. Dublin was a very different place then and not very welcoming to Traditional Irish musicians.

Listen and watch below to learn from John what it was like.

Credit: Photo portrait of John Kelly Senior taken sometime in the 1950’s. From John’s personal collection.


Leaving Clare & first coming to Dublin

“I left home in ’45. My transtional period was, you’d say, the Bog of Kildare and my musical link-up with the musicians there. It was new ground broke. t was seven months on a bog, from about March until ’round October, and I never enjoyed … (anything as much). ‘Twas  the best life I ever had. There wasn’t much waste, (? unclear), like, ’twas all walkin’ and workin’ and the food wasn’t that good but we had great recreation. There was quite a number of fiddle players there from Donegal, Sligo, Mayo. I haven’t any great extraordinary stories about any of them. But Patrick O’Gara, as I mentioned before, he was the best man thare. He was a very musical man and we had some great nights together. He told me all about the Dohertys, the Micky Byrnes and the Francie Deargs and the great fiddlers of Donegal. Well, there was quite a number … We had a few sets in houses in Kildare. Very rare houses though. There was a few people, I forget their names now .. Thomas)

Well, I went up to the Piper’s Club in Molesworth Street right away and ’twas like home from home there. There was a good lot of musicians there and we played and we had outings. But the music was very isolated, like, you couldn’t take it out in to pubs like now, or anyplace. Outin’s used be arranged. Then flag days used be arranged and some of the players used play in the street. I remember Tom Mulligan and Tommy Reck playin’ in O’Connell Street durin’ a flag day in aid of the Piper’s Club. But the chief men that I met there that time was Jim Seery, of course, Seim (Seery) was a youngster that time, Sonny Brogan, Bill Harte, Tom Mulligan and a number of others ….Tommy Potts, of course.”

Credit: John Kelly Junior Interview 1979.


How Irish music was viewed

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. Repeated by Peter Browne on his show ‘The Turning Wave’.


Getting jeered in Dublin

“Fiddle players he says they’re always jeering him around here, he says. Patsy Geary is known as the fiddler Geary he said and sure I took that with a pinch of salt of course. They’d shout fiddler. 

A fiddler was a kind of a sly kind of a man especially in Dublin. When I came to Dublin then you see the young lads knew I was a fiddler. And I was fiddler Kelly.  They made a show of me. When I’d go around in an overcoat….Even up until about 5 or 6 years ago, one fella user to creeo up from behind the car and should fiddler Kelly and he’d put down his head.”

Details: John Kelly talking about life in Dublin.Lecture: ‘My Musical Youth – John Kelly’. Willie Clancy Summer School, July 4 1978, Community Hall, Miltown Malbay, Co. Clare.

Credit: Credit: B R Taylor Collection, Tapes 37, (Maxell UDXL II)


The music scene in Dublin in the 1950’s

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.


Sessions in Dublin in the 1940’s and 1950’s

“Life in Dublin was very interesting outside the Clubs … outside the Clubs we had great sessions in friends houses, like, and we could play in any house. Older men used bring in a few bottles of stout and we had a very select audience. I remember Tommy Reck’s house, now, in High Street … I think it was near High Street there. Old John Potts’ used to come up there and Tommy and Sonny Brogan and a few of us there.

And you’d hear a pin dropping (when) fiddles and pipes’d be goin’ on. Unfortunately all the listeners were musicians, like, you hadn’t many freelance people eosin’ in. They were interested but they wouldn’t know, like, ‘twould be on that Sunday. BUJ we learned great respect for the music. It was played well and played right, they were very particular about the settings of tunes.”

Credit: John Kelly Junior interview 1979.



Old John Potts

“Old John Potts, he was a hardy man that time, I suppose he’d be about 75, maybe, or maybe pi:shin’ 80. He used come over to see us. He liked flute playin’ very much as well as piping. But I had some lovely records of Tom Morrison, John McKenna, and we played them in the house and be was delighted to hear them. He was a big man. • We had a small stairs goin’ up to the top of the house. Mind you, he was able to go up, and he was a strong man up till the day he died. And he was a great music lover altogether. He spoke very well and he was a great jester; the funny stories, he seemed to know all. He told great stories about … I couldn’t go into ’em now because I’d be … He had great sayings …

(He was) a gardener too and he had plots of ground and he used to sow great cabbage. He’d be up maybe at four o’clock in the mornin’ fillin’ a load of cabbage. But he hired a horse and a dray and a man, of course, to bring a load of cabbage to the market here in Dublin … the Vegetable Market. But he made a bargain for four an’ six; that’s the money that the lorry man would get. The lorry man brought the load of cabbage to the market and sure there was cabbage goin’ up through the roof there … He barely sold it, and all he got for it was the half-a-crown. It was a big horse-load of cabbage for half-a-crown. He ran home as fast as he could and he went down to Mrs Potts and he said:

“I want my four and sixpence,” he said, “I’ve a load of cabbage sold.” She paid him out the four and sixpence. And he met John afterwards, he handed him the half crown.

“That’s all I got for the load.”

“Well I declare to God,” he said, “you weren’t long comin’ to my wife to get the four an’ six. You weren’t entitled to it at all!”

Credit: John Kelly Junior interview 1979.


Musicians in Dublin: Joe Cooley & Johnny Doran

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. The the Fleadh Cheoils.”

John Kelly Junior: “Joe Cooley.”

JKS:   “Hah?”

JKJ: “Joe Cooley.”

JKS: “Yes, a thing I left out about; Joe Cooley was around and he had a little band someplace 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 draoícht in Johnny’s music even then. Even at that time Dublin people weren’t conversing 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 Tall, headed by … I might be wrong now, it mightn’t be Clann na Talun … 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      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.”

Credit: John Kelly Junior interview 1979.


Emigration hits the Dublin music scene

“Joe Ryan (from Inagh) and Willie (Clancy) and Bobby Casey (from Annagh) spent about two, or maybe two and a half years here. They worked around in different jobs and then one of them went to England. I think Joe (Ryan) went first as far as I know. But then Willie and Bobby went together.

And we felt their loss because we thought the city was very quiet when they (went). Musicians were rather scarce in those days. At this time too Andy Conroy went to the ‘States, I think in ’51, was it? Early ’50’s.
And also Joe Cooley went in the early ’50’s. Well, we were stripped out of musicians of the country lineage and background. So then Sonny (Brogan) was the dominant man, and Bill Harte and a few others, John Egan, John Brennan.

But the Fleadh Cheoils started in early ’50’s, maybe ’54 or ’55, could be. The first one was held, I think, in Mullingar, and the second one was in County Monaghan, in Monaghan Town. And that was a bit of a break for as. We had journeys out there and we enjoyed them together with the music.”

Credit: John Kelly Junior interview 1979.


Niall O’Boyle

“Then there was a programme on the radio where country players were invited to play and we saw the thing advertised in the paper … and we were all prepared to meet them when they came. I can remember a few; Niall O’Boyle came maybe three times, but I met him every time he came and I brought him up to the house and we had some great nights. He spoke Irish very fluently, as well. He was a great fiddle player. Willie (Clancy) was around at the time and he stayed one night until morning. And he (Niall) played a great settin’ of ‘The Fox Chase’ and other airs and (he was) a great reel player. He never stopped smokin’ the pipe and playin’ the fiddle and he drank tea about ten times that night. And he only rested in the chair for about half an hour and he caught the train in Westland Row. I thought he was a very hardy man at his age. I suppose he’d be sixty-four or five at that time.

He told me a few stories. One night we had a drink in the pub, O’Dwyer’: across the street and I asked him about players, the Doherty’s and people he met, and I asked him about Scott Skinner because he worked in Aberdeen and he used to come down to Skinner’s concerts and I’m sure he got a few tips from Skinner. He was a good player too, but Neilly wouldn’t give best to anybody, he was something like Patsy Geary. And I said:

“And was Scott Skinner a great player, Neilly?”

And he thought for a while. He said:

“No, no, no. A very bad player. A. very bad player!”

I suppose he thought … I’d heard Skinner’s records that time and I thought he was a very good player.

But then he spoke of things at home, he was a seanachai of the last … of the greatest. He told me a story of an old man that came around their place (Dungloe) after beint gone for twenty years. He was blind. He was tryin’ to know the crowd of people that was in the house. By their talk he knew a good few of them, but the young lads of the twenty or twenty-four years of age, he didn’t know them at all. How could he anyway? But there was one young felow spoke during the night and he cocked up his ears and he said:

“I think I know who you are,” he said.

“But,” sez the woman of the house, “you never saw the boy. How would you know him?”

“But I knew his people,” he sez, “if he’s (from) around here. And I think I’m right.”

With that he went up and he felt the little boy’s cheeks, you know, around with his fingers, around his neck and forehead and all his poll. And he composed this little verse in Irish and I never forgot its

“Teo no mairbh, muc no tarbh

Is mion (mise?)Ina gcara

Is to mac Sen gCarraibh.”

Well I’mm sure that I could have learned an awful lot from him. He was quick in the tongue and he travelled a lot, you see, an’ he had great stories about Donegal. He was one of the men that made a great impression on me.”

Credit: John Kelly Junior interview 1979.


Playing on the radio

“(Radio) played a big part in the music of the day, but it was very hard to get on radio, you had to (have) great influence. And people tried it and they went for auditions and they were turned down. The truth of the matter is they didn’t want to spend money. They only wanted to give the most minimal time to (traditional music on?) radio. Irish music wasn’t their first love or it isn’t today on the same station. They’re only just givin’ a fraction of the amount that the people should get.

But any player that played, like, from the west of Ireland or anything he was set up as a God, like. He was looked upon as bein’ the greatest, you. know. You needn’t be as good at all as … you needn’t be half as good as a good player to get on if you had the right influence. I remember Mrs Galvin playin’ in, I think it was 2RN ‘Twat; in 1933, I  think, or 1934 we listened. We were coming from the bog and I went in to Batt Murphy’s in Kilkee – incidentally, he was a piper too – they were friends of my own. And I heard Mrs Galvin playin’, she played beautiful, I thought. She came over well. Then she played another night and a string broke and there was consternation for a while but I’m sure she got the loan of a fiddle. They put on some thing (a record?) until she got a fiddle. She done well that night too.”

JKj   “Did it alter style in any way; radio?”

JK   “Well it was good for people to hear people playin’ on radio even though they had no tape recorders. But the musicians was always lookin’ to imbetter himself and he thought by takin’ his cue from radio that (it) would be an improvement, the same as we took from records. All of us got information and tips from records such as Micheal Coleman and James Morrison. The flute-players benifitted too by listenin’. But then the traditional style as we knew it was gone out, nearly, at that period, like. Take Thady Casey’s style, now, and old Mooney, them old, very old, players, they had more had a they had a more pronounced style. A different style of bowin’ altogether than even other parts of Clare had. I think, like, today there’s a mixem-gatherem style now. Even the North of Ireland people are playin’ the music of Kerry, polkas … Which is not a bad thing, I suppose, either.”

Credit: John Kelly Junior interview 1979.


Dan O'Dowd day trip

Credit: Courtesy of Peter Laban. 

“I always laugh when I think of Dan Dowd and me goin’ up in the Dublin Mountains to play for some courier of Bard Fililte or some other group (of) people like that. They took pictures of us with girls dancing* and scenes … beautiful scenes. And we were dressed … Dan had a bawneen and I think I had a kind of an Aran sweater, I don’t know whether I’d a crois or anything.

But this man came from Dublin airport in a fright lookin’ for me one morning and I never heard a word about it (in advance). He arrived in and his heart up to his mouth lookin’ for me and he had Dan Down lined up. He had a taxi waitin’ and we were whirled up in to the Dublin Mountains, ah, sure that was twenty years ago and we was mad for a day out! And I didn’t like the look of Dan when we picked him up anyway and he sez:

‘What’s this caper about, John? Do you know anything about it?”

“I don’t know anything about it,” sez I. “Tis some people that we’re goin’ to do something for some advertising group.”

Well, our whole day was gone anyway and we didn’t know what ’twas all about, but we had played in half a dozen spots in Glencree and beautiful … near the waterfalls and there was another group of dancers there and we played like hell, but sure our music wasn’t taken at all but our photos was taken very often.

So we got back home to the hotel that night. We went back in to the Gresham Hotel. Oh, they put up a big feed and when we had every­thing et, man, we thought we had the greatest day in our lives! So a man came up with a big sheet of paper. ‘Twas a big (contract). Oh there was plenty of small print on it. That time, of course, we didn’t read it.

“Sign that,” sez he to us.

And the two eejits signed it. We never read it, of course.

“What would ye be expectin’?” sez he to me.

I looked over at Dan looked over at me as much as to says “What could we expect after we were treated?”

“Yerra,” sez I, “a fiver a man will do us anyway.”

And he gave me the ten pound and I walked over to Dan and I gave him five. “Ah, John, you’ve the man robbed,” sez he.

Well, our pictures appeared from Bombay to California, all round the world. They were in every window that I looked in to for the last twenty years and they’re there yet. Even one of ’em was taken by the

Gallowglass (Ceili Band) and they put our pictures in front of the sleeve of their record and the record sold on the head of it. And they never came and asked us our permission, or said “Twould be nice if ye agreed.” I know that we can’t do (anything) because we had signed away our rights, you see. So that’s one story anyway. So Dan and me decided that .we’d make a record one time in lieu of that but it never turned out. So that’s the end of that story anyways you can caption it “the day Dan and me was taken me was taken for a ride!”

Credit: John Kelly Junior interview 1979.


Musicians in Dublin: George Rowley, Ned Stapleton, Bill Harte, Sonny Brogan, Tom Mulligan.

“Just a few words by the way of ‘Waifs and Strays’ like O’Neill put in his book when he was writing ‘Waifs and Strays’. I would like to mention a pair of musicians that I used to visit in the old days; George Rowley and Ned Stapleton. Ned is dead now but he was a very versatile man, like, he played a few instruments and he was fairly good on the flute. And he was a great man to compose. A lover of music. I think he was born in Wicklow. He spent some time in England. But he and George Rowley used to play together and we had great nights there with Bill Harte and Sonny – Sonny Brogan – and Tom Mulligan and a few others. At that time Sonny used to take a drink and the half a dozen stout would be ‘brought in, maybe. There was an old man up there in Nicholas Street by the name of Pat Sheilds and we used to meet there on a Sunday night and we’d have a great night’s music. And very few listeners, we played just for the pure love of it, but it was great to get away from the environment of the old (the other?) music.”

Credit: John Kelly Juniors interview. 

Life in Dublin Musical Context

Music in Dublin in the 20th century