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John Kelly (1912-1989)
by Barry Taylor

In the history of traditional dance music, both in west Clare and Ireland, the larger than life figure of John Kelly of Kilballyowen deserves a special place. John was an exceptional fiddle and concertina player, with an impeccable musical heritage and an outstanding knowledge of all aspects of Irish dance music. He was also a man of great humour who could spin a yarn with the best.

After moving to Dublin in 1945, he was one of the few who kept the interest in Irish music alive in the capital, during a period when it was abandoned by many in the face of apathy and, in some cases, extreme hostility.

This was the environment in which John Kelly and his musical friends survived for decades. Fortunately, the formation of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in the early 1950s, the work of Seán Ó Riada in the early 1960s and the ‘ballad boom’ during that decade gradually propelled traditional music into the spotlight. In each of these movements, John Kelly was actively involved.

John was born in 1912 in the townland of Kilballyowen, close to Rehy Hill and not far from the village of Cross. He got his early music from his mother, Elizabeth and his Uncle Tom Keane from nearby Kilclogher, who were both concertina players. One of his grandfathers was Johnny Keane and John heard from his father that he was connected with Frank Keane, from whom George Petrie collected music, including a double-jig, in the early part of the nineteenth century.

At the age of nine years, John started to play the concertina - as John said, ‘on a cheap half-crown instrument bought in draper’s shop’ - probably in either Kilrush or Kilkee, gaining early experience from listening to his mother and his Uncle Tom. He recalled that the old concertinas were often of very poor quality and would not last for more than a few days.

A little farther afield, not far from a fiddle player called Patsy Geary, who will loom large later in John’s story, lived Tim Griffin, who John described ‘as fine [a concertina player] as you’d wish to hear’. Later in life, it seems, he took up the fiddle and made a competent job of it.

John was deeply affected by one of his earliest memories, which was of a visit from a travelling dancing master, by the name of Hennessy, who originally hailed from Cork – John speculated on Clonakilty. Some years before John was born, probably in the last decade of the nineteenth century, Hennessy had held dancing classes in and around Cross and Rehy. Like Pat Barron and George Whelan, Hennessy had crossed the Shannon in search of work.

John had a strong family connection with the music of Kerry and West Limerick through his mother’s mother, who lived with the family until she died at the age of 87. She was born Mary Brennan on Scattery Island (Inis Cathaigh), which lies in the River Shannon, a mile or so off the town of Kilrush and a couple of miles from the Kerry shore. When he was eighteen years of age, John made his first visit to Scattery Island. He had not brought his fiddle but it wasn’t long until someone went into Kilrush and acquired a fiddle. He remembered playing ‘day and night’ for dancing and gained the impression that, in comparison with the main land, life on the island was all play. But, of course, it wasn’t, as he found out when he got to know a little more about the life of the people of Inis Cathaigh. However, he remembers the Scattery of the late 1920s and early 1930s as a fairly comfortable place to live.

His grandmother had a lot of tunes that weren’t common in Clare; John learned quite a lot of these tunes, many of which had come over from Kerry.

John recalled that, in his immediate locality, fiddle players were quite scarce in his youth. One local player was Micheál McMahon and, when he was quite young, John remem¬bered the thrill of hearing the sound of the fiddle - an experience that stayed with him for all of his life.

In John’s youth, musical instruments were not plentiful and it took him some time to acquire a fiddle, which was made for him by a blacksmith who lived in Doonaha and, as he got older, went out of his way to meet musicians. Of all the fiddle players from his youth, it was Patsy Geary from Ross, who was to make the biggest impact on the John. Little is known about Patsy but John thought that, originally, he came from Co. Tipperary. Although John did not define Geary’s fiddling style in great detail, he described it as a ‘grand open style of playing, with long bow¬ing’ and that ‘he played with great spirit’. John recalls hearing a recording of Michael Coleman for the first time in 1933 and was immediately struck by the similarity between his and Patsy Geary’s playing.

Gradually, John began to master the fiddle and to acquire tunes, including some from the newly arriving 78 rpm gramophone records. In later years, John teamed up with Patsy and, together, they played at many local house dances before Patsy died in 1936.

John was a member of the Castle Céilí Band, which formed in 1963. The Band also included Mick O’Connor and Michael Tubridy (flutes), Seán Keane and Joe Ryan (fiddles), Paddy O’Brien (button accordion), Bridie Lafferty (piano) and Benny Carey (drums). The Band won the All-Ireland Championship in Thurles in 1965 and was four times Oireachtas Champions. They recorded their LP ‘Castle Céilí Band’ in 1974.

Although John’s life was to take him far from his native Kilballyowen, he never forgot the tradition in which he was immersed from his earliest days and that was to guide his attitude to traditional music throughout the rest of his life. One of his great regrets was that restricted travel meant that he rarely met musicians from outside his immediate locality, until his later years.

One musician who made a great impression on John was the fiddle player Ellen Galvin, who was born Ellen McCarthy in Ahea (Lack West), a couple of miles west of Kilmihil, on March 1st, 1887. He spent many memorable nights in the Galvin house in Moyasta, as John recalls:

And the sets used be there. … And she used to play there every Sunday night and it was grand to hear it. She played in a very purring kind of a style with a full bow and all the strings. ‘Twas kind of double-stopping that she played, but she had great time and she was a beautiful sweet player. She was a great study to hear her playin’, you know. She wasn’t as brilliant as they play today but there was a lot more meaning in her music.’

Edited extract from Music in a Breeze of Wind: Traditional Dance Music in west Clare 1870-1970 by Barry Taylor. Danganella Press, 2013, pp 160-170.

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John Kelly c.1975. Photo: Michael John Glynne

John Kelly c.1975.
Photo: Michael John Glynne