Joe Cooley (1924-73)
THE great Irish novelist John McGahern once said that he expected his
characters were waiting for him to die off before taking on lives of
their own. The accordeon music of Joe Cooley has taken on a life of his
own since his death in 1973.
Joe Cooley was born into a musical family in Peterswell, near Gort, in
south County Galway, in 1924. Both his father and mother played the
melodeon and most of his brothers played music. He began to play around
ten years of age.
In his late teens he worked in the Midlands before moving to Dublin in
1945 where he played with The Galway Rovers Ceili Band. In Dublin he
met box player Sonny Brogan, later with Ceoltoiri
Cualann, and Johnny Doran.
But as the famous piper travelled a lot in counties Galway and Clare,
Cooley in his youth would most likely have heard Doran or his brother Felix
playing at local fairs and sports events.
He was one of the earliest members of the Tulla Ceili
Band when, as the St Patrick's Amateur Band, Tulla, they won the ceili
band competition at Féili Luimní in 1946. He
played with the Tulla on their first broadcast for Radio Eireann in
1948. At the end of that year he left the band to work on the buildings
in London. His place was taken by Paddy O'Brien,
the innovative accordeonist from Portroe, Co Tipperary.
Joe Cooley rejoined the band when he returned from England towards the
end of 1950. One wonders at the spectacle of Paddy O'Brien and Joe
Cooley playing together on the same platform. In 1953 both men competed
in the All Ireland competition in Athlone. After a recall by the
judges, Paddy O'Brien was placed first and Joe Cooley second.
He often played with Galway fiddle player Joe Leary,
travelling, as accordeon player Tony MacMahon
described it, "on dusty, icy or rainy roads on a motorcycle, the fiddle
slung over Cooley's back, the accordeon tied to the fuel tank."
Tony MacMahon who was a pupil of Cooley's, recalled the times he
visited their family home: "The New Custom House,"
he wrote at the album's sleeve notes, "brings me back to my schooldays,
when first Joe came to our house in the Turnpike in Ennis to play. He
charmed my parents, family and neighbours with tunes like this one,
which he played with great taste and discernment."
In 1954, first Joe Cooley and then Paddy O'Brien left for the US.
Before he left, the other musicians presented Joe with an accordeon as
a farewell gift. Joe's brother, Seamus, played
banjo with the Tulla, went on a US and made a recording with them. He
left the band in 1958 while on tour and stayed in the US.
While in New York he was involved in the Joe Cooley Ceili Band and the
Joe Cooley Instrumental Group. He moved from New York to Chicago and
finally to San Francisco. He told one interviewer that he met the
Cronins in Boston. In America he married Nancy McMahon from Killenana,
The Kerry accordeonist and writer, Maidhc Dainín O
Sé*, worked in Chicago in the 1950s. In his
biography, A Thig ná Tit Orm, he
mentions one Sunday afternoon visit with his brother Sean to Hanley's
pub in Chicago. There he met Joe and Seamus Cooley and a host of
musicians. [My translation]:
"Joe Cooley was there and a cigarette between his lips, his fingers
weaving through every tune. His head was thrown back and his heart and
mind were lost in the music. Among the musicians there was a man called
Mike Neary. A middle-aged
man with a sweet, gentle style on the fiddle. His sister Eleanor
was there and her name was given as the piano player. I was listening
to Sean naming them and trying my best to take in the music at the same
time. On drums was Billy Soden, another man who
came over with a ceili band.
"Then another man sat in their company. Sean said it was Kevin
Keegan who had been playing in the Aughrim Slopes Ceili Band
until recently. When he was in the form, he'd knock sparks out of most
musicians. There were two brothers from south Galway, Bertie
and Tommy McMahon, one on the banjo and the other
on the fiddle. If I could number all the musicians, I'd say there were
at least 25 musicians in the pub that afternoon. Every one of them
would have a place in a band back in Ireland, they were such good
musicians." He added that they would play four or five tunes, one after
another, for about half an hour.
Joe Cooley made several trips home. On one visit Ciaran Mac
Mathuna recorded him in the Dublin home of Bridie
Lafferty. She played the piano with the Castle Ceili Band.
Also on that recording he is reunited with fiddle player Joe Leary.
He returned finally to Ireland in the summer of 1973. He played various
pubs around counties Galway and Clare. Banjo player Kieran
Hanrahan in his pre-Stockton's Wing days remembers going to
hear Cooley play in the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis. "He'd be doing
little flicks on the buttons and we'd be elbowing one another." He had
a wicked sense of humour, according to Kieran. Apparently one time he
and his wife were about to board a plane in San Francisco. As his wife
kept fretting about how the plane might crash, Joe commented: "Well,
thank God it's not ours."
Tony MacMahon, knowing that Cooley was dying from cancer, arranged that
famous recording session in Lahiffe's Bar in Peterswell on November 29,
1973, which so enlivens the Cooley album.
Accompanying Cooley was his brother Jack on bodhran
and banjo player Des Mulkere from Crusheen in Co
Clare. Joe Cooley died a month later, in St Luke's Hospital, Dublin, on
December 20, 1973. He is buried in Kilthomas Cemetary, Peterswell.
Tony MacMahon recalls Cooley's last session, in Luke Kelly's Bar in
Gort: "A small number of people had gathered on a Sunday midday to hear
Joe. Des Mulkere and myself helped him to flake out the ould mountain
reels, and as the two o'clock closing hour drew on, a number of
musicians made their way in from Galway where they had given a concert
the night before - there was Tríona Ní
Dhomhnaill, a traditional singer of twenty-one, Paddy
Glackin, a young fiddle player, and others ... if you should
by any chance ever meet them you might detect a lonesome, strong note
in their playing: Cooley touched them that day."
Much has been written about the soul and spirit of Cooley's music,
words that have different meanings across cultures and Continents. Joe
Cooley was an intuitive musician. He was influenced by the rhythmic
melodeon dance music of his parents. (See Irish
Melodeons for info on west coast melodeon players). He chose
to stay with the more rhythmic, old push-and-draw style of the C#D box,
now back in vogue. He strove for excellence: he grew up in an area
stretching from Loughrea to Tulla which was home to the Ballinakill
musicians, to Joe Burke,
Kevin Keegan, Paddy Kelly, Paddy
Fahy, Vincent Broderick, Paddy Carty, PJ and
and Paddy Canny.
As for his music taking on a life of its own, since his death:
An album of his music, Cooley, has been released
Frankie Gavin and
Paul Brock recorded the tribute album, Omós
do Joe Cooley.
A new generation of musicians, including Jackie Daly,
Dermott Byrne and Sharon
Shannon, have moved from the B/C style advanced by Paddy
O'Brien and perfected by Joe Burke, to the C#D style of playing. Sharon
Shannon plays both C#D and B/C boxes.
Belfast author, poet and musician Ciaran Carson
has written Last Night's Fun, an acclaimed book
about Irish traditional music: the title was inspired by Cooley's
playing of the same tune.
Charlie Piggott is completing a book about Joe
Cooley and His Times.
The Joe Cooley and Kieran Collins Weekend in Gort, held on the
Hallow'een Bank Holiday Weekend, is now an established part of the
Irish music festival calendar. (Kieran Collins was a
fine whistle player from Gort).
The final word goes to Tony MacMahon's sleeve notes: "Listen for his
strong lonely sound, for it is the heartbeat of the past." ©Ronan
*A Thig ná Tit Orm, by Maidhc
Dainín O Sé. CJ Fallon. 1995.
Tony MacMahon's sleeve notes