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 with Doran.
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 mid1930s.
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 fiddle.
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, Patsy Geary.
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 Records.
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 music.
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.