Admired by the many people who stopped to listen to him
at fairs and sporting events in the 1930s and '40s, the travelling
piper Johnny Doran played an influential role in the revival of the
uilleann pipes in Ireland from the 1950s onwards. He played with
imagination and flair and his music continues to inspire pipers and
Born in 1907, he grew up in the village of Rathnew, near Wicklow town.
His father John was a piper and his great-grandfather was John Cash,
the celebrated Wexford travelling piper. Johnny over-shadowed his
brother, Felix, who was also an accomplished piper.
By his early twenties Johnny was travelling Ireland, setting off from
Dublin each spring with his family in his horse-drawn caravan, playing
at fairs, races and other sporting events.
John Kelly was a
fiddler and concertina player originally from south Clare. He first
heard the piper at the races in Kilkee in September 1932. He remembered
the crowd ringing around Doran as he played - "a small wiry man with
his foot on a box and his knee up to stop the bottom of the chanter."
Ten shilling notes, half crowns and shillings were placed at the feet
of the piper who, that day, according to Kelly, played a good deal of
Michael Coleman's music.
Willie Clancy was
in his late teens when he first heard Doran playing at the local races.
He was captivated. Two years later he bought a half set with the aid of
Johnny's brother, Felix.
Piper Michael Falsey remembers first seeing him
around 1942 at the races on the sand at Spanish Point, near Miltown
Malbay in Co Clare. An account he wrote later was published in
An Piobaire: "His wife was with him, a stocky
dark-complexioned woman with a light scarf tied at the back of her
head. He opened the case near a marquee and put the pipes together. He
stood the case on the grass and put his leg on it to balance the
"I didn't see much of the races that day as I was near the piper
whenever he played and when his wife moved around with Johnny's peaked
cap we gladly threw our few coppers into it."
He saw him on other occasions riding an old bicycle with the case on
his back going to some fair or sporting event, or going by with his
wife and young children with a pony and flat cart." Another account
from west Clare describes him as "a quiet and shy retiring figure not
given to too much conversation."
Falsey again" "The country house dances were in full swing those times
and the Dorans were always in demand for the set dances although there
were many local musicians around the area, the Dorans were a big boost
to the events. A collection would be made at the door and a pound given
to the piper."
Meanwhile John Kelly had migrated to Dublin where he had a shop on
Capel Street. Johnny Doran was a regular visitor, enjoying Mrs Kelly's
tea and homemade bread. During one such visit on a Monday in 1947,
Johnny kept putting his hand to his chest as though suffering some pain
"I was suddenly struck by a premonition of some disaster," John Kelly
said later. He left the room to phone Kevin Danagher
of the Folklore Commission. Despite the late hour, they decided there
and then to record the piper. John Kelly and Andy and
Mick Conroy accompanied Doran across the city to Stephen's
Green, and so were made they only known recordings of the famous piper.
As Breandan Breathnach wrote later: "He played
away, running from one tune into another, all the while staring at the
He played a concert pitch set of Leo Rowsome uilleann pipes. His
playing in that session was recorded onto nine acetate discs. They are
now in the sound archive of the Department of Irish Folklore at
University College, Dublin. They have since been issued on tape, The
Bunch of Keys, which is available from Claddagh Records in
Dublin. (If not in stock, persist and you'll get a copy). There are 19
tunes and airs on the tape: Rakish Paddy is
recorded twice because Johnny wasn't happy with his first attempt. John
Kelly accompanied him on fiddle on The Fermoy Lasses.
So pleased was he with his recording experience that he told John Kelly
he would play any time for that man (Kevin Danaher was a folklore
collector and writer), whereupon a further session was agreed.
Alas fate was to determine otherwise. On January 30, 1948, Johnny
Doran's caravan was parked on waste ground near Back Lane in
Cornmarket, when a wall collapsed, smashing through the roof. Johnny
Doran was paralysed from the waist down and sustained other injuries
which were to prove fatal.
He died in St Vincent's Hospital, Athy, Co Kildare, on January 9, 1950
and is buried in Rathnew cemetery, Co Wicklow. © Ronan
The Bunch of Keys, Johnny Doran. Comhairle