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. “He wasn’t a very big man – about 5′ 8″,” according to banjo player Des Mulkere, “and he had a very deep bass voice.”
Tom McNamara remembers him playing minor hurling (under 18s) in the early 1940s for Crusheen, on the Galway-Clare border.
In his late teens he worked in the Midlands before going to England and then 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 continued playing hurling with a club in Dublin and then worked for a year and a half with Duffys Circus.
“He was chiefly a journeyman ,” recalls Tomas McNamara, “because he would go from town to town to work or to play. Go back maybe a hundred years and he would have been a travelling piper.”
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 Feili Luimni 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 Dublin 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 accordion player Tony MacMahon described it, “on dusty, icy or rainy roads on a motorcycle, the fiddle slung over Cooley’s back, the accordion 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.”
MacMahon remembers Cooley as “a young, blocky, low-set man wearing a grey two-piece suit and a white shirt with an undone collar and a rakish red tie and a head of fair hair and the most glorious smile.”*
In 1954, first Joe Cooley and then Paddy O’Brien left for the US. Before he left, the other musicians presented Joe with an accordion as a farewell gift. Joe’s brother, Seamus, played banjo with the Tulla, went on a US tour and made a recording with them. He left the band in 1958 while on tour and stayed in the US.
While in New York formed 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, Co Clare.
The Kerry accordeonist and writer, Maidhc Dainín O Se**, worked in Chicago in the 1950s. In his biography, A Thig na 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 was already through his first bout of illness when harmonica player Rick Epping met him in San Francisco in 1970: “He was one of those musicians I met where it takes only a moment of hearing him play, to last a lifetime.”
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.”
Accordion repairer and player Charlie Harris said Cooley played an original Paolo Soprani. “The sound holes were bigger on that box – it seemed to give it a different timbre from the later ones.”
Tony MacMahon, knowing that Cooley was dying from cancer, arranged that famous recording session in Lahiff’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 (video above), in Lahiff’s Bar: “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 Irish 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 in order to stand out: 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, PJoe Hayes and Martin Hayes 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 by Gael-linn.
. 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 including 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.
. 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 Nolan. 2000 – 2011.
*Quoted from Blooming Meadows, by Fintan Vallely and Charlie Piggott. Town House. 1998.
**A Thig na Tit Orm, by Maidhc Dainín O Se. CJ Fallon. 1995.
http://www.joecooleytapes.org/index.html This site contains numerous field recordings made in the early 1970s of the music of Joe Cooley when he lived in the San Francisco bay area. The recordings were made by Jeremy Kammerer and Cathie Whitesides.