John Kelly (1912-89)
Fiddle and concertina player John Kelly was a central figure in Irish
traditional music in the middle decades of the past century. Without
him we would very probably have had no recording of the piping of
Johnny Doran. In fact he is the only musician known to have recorded
Born in 1912 in Rehy, Cross, Kilballyowen in south Clare, he was one of
eight children of Michael and Eliza Kelly. His interest in Irish music
stemmed from an early age as both his mother and uncle Tom were
concertina players. Some of his earliest memories were of weddings and
house dances in the Cross area which was Irish-speaking up until the
Another area to influence the young Kelly was the island of Scattery
near the mouth of the Shannon. His grandmother was born on the island
and he had cousins there. His first evening on the island at age 18 was
an excuse for a house dance. His music made him extra welcome among his
relatives and he spent most of the remaining week there playing the
The island had a strong maritime connection and some Continental styles
and waltzes found their way there. But more significantly the island
provided a link to north Kerry music and it was through this connection
that John learned about polkas, slides and single jigs.
Back home Mary Holohan in Kilballyowen gave John concertina lessons.
Another important influence around this time was Nell Galvin, a fiddle
player from near Kilkee. A close friend of the great Clare piper Garret
Barry, she gave John Kelly five tunes that she herself had gotten from
Barry, including his version of The Ace and Deuce of Piping.
But the person from whom he got most of his tunes was a neighbour,
In September 1932 he met the travelling piper Johnny Doran at Kilkee
races and they struck up a friendship which lasted until the piper's
death in 1950.
John Kelly moved from west Clare to Dublin in 1945 when he married
Frances Hilliard from County Wicklow and settled down in Capel Street.
Doran was a regular visitor to his music instrument shop there, The
Horse Shoe. It was in November 1946 that Kelly arranged for the
well-known folk collector, Kevin Danaher, then with the Irish Folklore
Commission, to tape the playing of Johnny Doran. About 20 tunes were
recorded and it was planned to record more. But in January 1947 Johnny
Doran suffered a broken back when a wall fell on his caravan in
Dublin's High Street. He died in hospital in 1950. The tapes are now in
the UCD Folklore Department and copies are on limited sale at Claddagh
Following the decline of the country house dances due to the Dance Hall
Act of 1935, Irish music reached a low ebb in the Ireland of the
Forties, particularly so in Dublin. But John Kelly's Capel Street
premises was to become an important stopping off point for visiting
musicians such as Willie Clancy,
Bobby Casey and Joe
Ryan from Clare and Niall O'Boyle from Donegal. John joined the Pipers
Club then in Thomas Street and met up with other musicians like Leo
Rowsome, Tommy Reck, Tom Mulligan, Sean Seery, Sonny Brogan and Tommy
Potts. Another favourite gathering place was the home of Tommy Reck in
Hyde Street where younger musicians would pick up tune settings and
playing techniques. In this meliu was born Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann,
na fleadhanna and the gradual revival in Irish traditional and folk
Next John Kelly was to meet Sean O
Riada. In 1959 O Riada was getting a group together to
provide background music for a Bryan McMahon play The Song of
the Anvil, which was being staged at the Abbey. Kelly was
persuaded to join the group and having done their nightly stage duties
the musicians would stay around to exchange tunes and ideas. This led
later in the same year to the forming of the seminal group in Irish
music, Ceoltoiri Cualann, made up of Sean O Riada, Paddy Moloney,
uileann pipes and whistle, Michael Tubridy, flute, Martin Fay, John
Kelly, fiddles, Sonny Brogan, Eamon de Buitlear, accordions, and Ronnie
McShane, bodhran and bones. McShane was to be replaced by Peadar
Mercier and O Riada recruited singer Sean O Se.
O Riada had already made a huge impact on the public imagination with
his musical score for the film Mise Eire, released
in 1960. Through his connections they got a regular slot on Radio
Eireann, Reacaireacht an Riadaigh. This combined
with a number of public concerts by the group caught the mood of the
Irish people and Ceoltoiri's arrangements and innovations sparked a
renewal of interest in Irish music which, in timely fashion, coincided
with the folk revival in America and Britain. By the time Ceoltoiri
Cualann had developed into the Chieftains, several members had drifted
into other fields.
O Riada had been working on what was to be a remarkable series of radio
programmes on Irish music called The Musical Heritage.
Among other things the series detailed the regional styles of Donegal,
Sligo, Clare and so on. In this O Riada was greatly aided by John Kelly
who had built up a store of knowledge about the regional styles through
his contact with musicians, particularly since he migrated to Dublin.
After the break-up of Ceoltoiri Cualann John Kelly joined Eamon de
Buitlear in Ceoltoiri Laigheann which included Mary
Bergin. Like the Chieftains, Ceoltoiri Laigheann was to carry
forward O Riada's innovations.
He also played in the Castle Ceili Band with Sean Keane, Bridie
Lafferty and Michael Tubridy.
At Willie Clancy's funeral he played a lament on the fiddle and was an
enthusiastic supporter of the Summer School in Miltown Malbay as well
as teaching there. After his death, Eamon McGivney wrote in Dal
gCais: "Together with his lifelong friends, Bobby Casey and Joe Ryan, he
conducted a class that was of immense value to people who were
interested in the west Clare style of fiddle playing."
John Kelly died at
the age of 77 in March, 1989. His two sons are highly regarded fiddle
players, John in Dublin and James in the United States.