Unheard Michael Coleman Recordings

Michael Coleman (1891–1945) is regarded by many as the most influential Irish traditional musician of the 20thcentury. In New York in 1921, Coleman produced the first of over 40 commercial 78 rpm discs encompassing over 80 tracks of fiddle playing which have left an indelible mark on Irish traditional music. One hundred years after his first recording, Coleman’s influence on the tradition, in both a direct and an indirect way, can still be heard. 

Coleman’s commercial recordings, made in the first half of the 20th century, have directly influenced subsequent musicians across a diverse range of instruments and regional styles. Nowadays, most traditional musicians, even if they have never heard of Michael Coleman, understand that if someone starts playing  'The Tarbolton Reel' in a session, it is most likely to be followed by 'The Longford Collector' and 'The Sailor’s Bonnet', thus replicating the set recorded by the master fiddle player in 1934.

From an artistic point of view, it is the exceptional quality of his fiddle playing that sustains his reputation as one of the finest exponents of the traditional arts Ireland has ever produced.  

Coleman Blog Rex U275
Label: The Tarbolton reel ; The Longford Collector ; The Sailor's Bonnet / Michael Coleman, fiddle

In addition to the commercial releases made between 1921 and 1936 which feature piano and to a much lesser extent guitar accompaniment, Coleman recorded another four solo tracks at the Wurlitzer Studios in New York in 1940. It is easier to hear the subtleties of the solo artist at work on the unaccompanied tracks. In 1944, a year before his untimely death at the age of 54, an additional ten tracks were recorded for the World Broadcasting Company. These ten tracks remained inaccessible for many decades but are now in circulation. A great story for another day.

Now courtesy of a generous donation of two acetate discs by Joe Burke, ITMA is privileged to be able to share an additional four tracks that were made in the home of James Lad O’Beirne (1911–1980) in New York in the 1940s. A handwritten label on one of the discs suggests at least one track was recorded on 26 February 1942 (26/02/1942).

Itma Coleman Obeirne Acetate Disc 26 2 1942
Michael Coleman/James 'Lad' O'Beirne (Acetate Disc)
Unlike the commercial recordings, these domestic private recordings offer a more intimate listening experience. They were made in the home of Lad O’Beirne as opposed to a formal studio setting.
Liam O'Connor, 2021

Although there was a generational gap between them, Coleman and Lad were close friends.  They both received lessons during their childhood from Lad’s father Philip O’Beirne in Ballinalack, Killavil, Co. Sligo before emigrating to America in 1914 and 1928 respectively. Coleman is quoted as saying that everything he learned about the bowing of reels, he got from Philip O’Beirne. 

In 1940 Lad accompanied Coleman to play at a wedding at which he became reacquainted with his childhood classmate from Killavil, Mary Coleman, Michael’s niece. Mary and Lad were married on 31 October 1942. There are many more connections, but suffice to say, Coleman was certainly among family and close friends in the O’Beirne household when these recordings were made.

How did ITMA end up with these discs? 

During Scoil Samhraidh Willie Clancy 2019, before I began my role as Director of ITMA, Joe Burke mentioned to my father Mick O’Connor that he had recordings of Lad O’Beirne that he would be interested in sharing with me. Over the subsequent period and following several discussions with Joe in 2020/21, and against the backdrop of the emerging Covid-19 pandemic with its associated travel restrictions, we hatched a plan to digitise and preserve the rarest acetate discs he possessed.

In July 2020, wearing face-masks, gloves and with fingers dripping in hand-sanitiser, myself, Niamh McNeela and John Blake visited Joe Burke and Anne Conroy Burke’s home in Kilnadeema, Loughrea, Co. Galway, to assess the discs. We had hoped to digitise Joe's cassette transfer of the acetate recordings that day, but ideally from ITMA’s perspective we were hoping that he would entrust us to clean, restore, digitise and preserve the original acetates. Joe played the cassette that he made many decades ago but the music was not in concert pitch and the tempo was quite significantly slower than what Coleman would have originally played. 

Hearing the opening few bars of Crowley’s struck an emotional chord for me. Here was a listening ear into an intimate musical performance by perhaps the most extraordinary fiddle player of all time, playing for his peer, close-friend and fellow Sligo master, Lad O’Beirne. Our face-masks hid wide smiles and our clumsy plastic gloves were used to wipe away the odd tear of joy!
Liam O'Connor, 2021

Without doubt, these recordings of Coleman were new to my ears and I knew that they could bring great joy to so many people. When Joe unveiled the brittle discs from their protective sleeves, the sense of urgency to get them cleaned, preserved and digitised was deeply felt.

Crowley's reel ; The Bunch of Keys, reel / Michael Coleman, fiddle

On this solo track, listeners can get clarity on the minute, subtle and discreet aspects of performance in a way that the commercial recordings do not allow. The flourish and variation in the last part of the second reel is one of many highlights on this track.

Crowley's Reels medley / Michael Coleman, fiddle ; Eileen O'Shea, piano

Joe explained how he came to possess these discs. He is a lifelong advocate of the Sligo fiddle style and made an in-depth study of Coleman's playing. This is reflected in his own style of accordion playing and can be heard on his 1966 album with Andy McGann and Felix Dolan A Tribute to Michael Coleman

Coleman Blog Mc Gann Burke Dolan Tribute
Cover: A Tribute to Michael Coleman / Joe Burke, Andy McGann and Felix Doran

In 1965, Andy McGann brought Joe to visit Lad O’Beirne’s family home in Queens, New York. Towards the end of the night, Lad who it seems was almost generous to a fault, offered Joe his entire acetate collection. Being overwhelmed by the generous and spur-of-the-moment offer, Joe recalls feeling tempted but uncomfortable accepting. Diplomatically, given the circumstances, he instead suggested that he would take the two Coleman discs. He has protected them over the subsequent 60 years in a special leather brief case. Acetates are a very vulnerable medium and require urgent digital preservation if the music on them is to be saved for future generations. ITMA has a budget for preserving such "at risk" material and secured the services of the best restorer of acetates to work on these two discs without any view to commercialising the content. Joe was also adamant that the discs needed to be preserved so that the music on them would not be lost and that the best sound be obtained from them. 

Both Joe and I were extremely sensitive to the fact that Lad’s son, James ‘Jim’ O'Beirne needed to be consulted on any proposal to preserve the discs, not only as a courtesy, but also to welcome his thoughts, ideas, and feelings on the matter. Joe acknowledged that the exceptionally generous offer made by Lad came late into the night and that he effectively left the O’Beirne household with two of the rarest discs in Irish traditional music history.

I wrote to James O’Beirne to explain Joe’s proposed donation of the discs and outlined that ITMA’s priority was to preserve the acetates in line with international best practice so that the music on them would survive. After that, ITMA could offer support in whatever way was deemed most appropriate in terms of making the material accessible (or not) to the public and, if so, under what terms.

In subsequent correspondence with James O’Beirne, I was delighted to get his approval to proceed: 

I am delighted to support any and all efforts proposed by you and Joe Burke to preserve, restore, and propagate to the Irish traditional music community in Ireland and throughout the world my father's music and that of my great-uncle Michael Coleman. The sad fact is that time is not on our side, and whatever measures remain possible must not be delayed.
James O'Beirne

James O’Beirne also recalled that very same night mentioned above when Joe visited his family home in 1965:

I do remember quite well the night in 1965 that Andy McGann brought Joe Burke and one of the Collins brothers (Dave or Dan, I can't recall) to our home in Woodside, Queens, New York.  As my father had gotten older and was not as active in the NY music scene, he grew a bit reluctant to play in the company of those he did not know well.  I believe that it was a consequence of his self-awareness that he was no longer at the top of his form, although even then he was at a level that most would never hope to attain. It was obvious to me from the moment that Andy arrived with the others that his intent that night was for Joe to hear my father's playing.  
So after a good bit of conversation and storytelling, my father agreed to a few tunes with Andy. It has been 55 years but I remember that moment as if it were only five minutes ago. They played two reels, 'The Fair at Ballinasloe' and a second reel in the key of "C" that is often paired with the 'Fair'. Before they had completed the first part of the 'Fair', Joe almost came out of his chair with a look of astonishment on his face.  Turning to his Collins confrere, he blurted out, "Jesus, do you hear that?!"  Joe had become a true believer that evening.
There was one mischievous epilogue to that moment. When the two had finished, Joe asked my father the name of the second tune. Dad shrugged and said words to the effect, "Oh, I don't know. It just goes very well with the first."  Then, Joe said, "Well, do you know what we call it?" and Dad asked what that might be.  Joe then responded that he knew it as 'Andy McGann's Reel'. With that, my father said, "Is that so?" as he lowered his chin and looked over at Andy.  With a hint of a smile on his face, Dad asked Andy where he had gotten the reel. After a brief throat clearing, Andy gave full credit to my Dad as his source.

Bronx-born Andy McGann (1928–2004) had several lessons with Coleman during his formative years and became an important tradition bearer ensuring the continuity of the Sligo style of fiddle playing in New York to successive generations. On the following track we can hear Andy and Coleman play 'O’Dowd’s Favourite' accompanied by Lad O’Beirne on piano. 

O'Dowd's Favourite, reel / Michael Coleman, fiddle ; Andy McGann, fiddle ; James 'Lad' O'Beirne, piano

In 2011 Lad’s son James wrote a comprehensive piece A Centenary Remembrance of James Henry O’Beirne (1911–1980). I would like to quote from James’s depiction of Coleman and Lad’s first meeting as adults in New York in 1928 as it involves the accordion player Tim Fitzpatrick, who is to be heard on one of these tracks, in a mischievous role:

Shortly after our father’s arrival in New York in May of 1928, Tim Fitzpatrick, a friend who knew of their mutual musical lineage, brought him along to an event where Coleman was playing. As our father had been little more than a babe-in-arms when Coleman left Ireland, Fitzpatrick guessed that he would not recognize this 16-year old boy. Introducing him only as Jimmie, a newcomer from home who played the fiddle a bit, he asked Coleman if the boy might sit in for the next set. He graciously agreed. As soon as they began to play, onlookers later noted, there was a subtle but profound change on Coleman’s face. The boy’s bowing was a flawless match to his own. At the end of the first reel, as Coleman transitioned to a second, fully expecting the young man to hesitate at least a few bars before recognizing the next tune, he found that there was no hesitation. The boy had precisely anticipated the change. Evidently, Coleman then tried and failed a few more times in subsequent transitions before the end of the set to put momentary space between them. When they finished, Coleman was clearly discomfited. This unknown young “greenhorn” had just matched the musical doyen of Irish New York in both technique and repertory with little apparent effort. He could not see it as other than a subliminal professional challenge, which of course it was, but animated solely by the comic mischief for which our father was well known as a child. 
Coleman’s riposte was to suggest that the newcomer lead the next set, which he was delighted to do. Now, there was a Gannon family in Killavil, whose home place was not far from Ballinalack and from Coleman’s birthplace, Knockgrania at the crossroads. Tom Gannon had lived away in England for many years and had only returned to Ireland some time after Coleman had left for America. As a boy our father often visited Tom Gannon and learned from him several nice reels of his own composition. Guessing that Coleman would not know them, Daddy relied only upon Gannon’s tunes in the next set leaving the master fuming with his fiddle in his lap. 
The mischief having run its course, Fitzpatrick intervened and asked Coleman if he didn’t recognize the boy. Coleman brusquely said that he did not. Fitzpatrick pressed him saying “Mike, look at his face. Surely, you must know who he is.” Coleman declaimed a second time. And then, as a smile burst upon Daddy’s face, Fitzpatrick said, “Mike, he’s Phil O’Beirne’s son, ‘Lad’”. They say that there were tears of remembrance in Coleman’s eyes that night. What is certain is that the encounter marked the beginning of an intimate personal, musical, and, ultimately, family relationship that lasted for the next 17 years until Coleman’s untimely death in January 1945.

The next track features the aforementioned accordion player Tim Fitzpatrick playing 'The Duke of Leinster reel' with Michael Coleman on 26 February 1942.

The Duke of Leinster, reel / Michael Coleman, fiddle ; Tim Fitzpatrick, accordion

Once ITMA secured permission from Joe Burke and James O’Beirne to proceed, we lined up the services of Paul Turney of Sirensound Digital UK who specialises in the cleaning, restoration, and digitisation of acetate discs.

ITMA has over 400 acetate discs in need of digitisation and my colleague Alan Woods was tasked with arranging the digitisation of 220 of these before the end of 2020. This consignment would include Joe's two discs.

In October 2020, with Covid-19 restrictions becoming increasingly rigorous, I travelled with Alan Woods to Kilnadeema to collect the two discs from Joe and Anne. The discs were left outside in the passenger seat of their unlocked Mercedes-Benz car in advance of our arrival to avoid any health risks. We stood outside the house facing their living-room window and chatted to them over the phone before driving back to Dublin with the discs.

Coleman Acetate Project 2021
Liam O'Connor, Joe Burke & Anne Conroy Burke, October 2020

Once the two acetates were safely in 73 Merrion Square, they were added to the larger collection of discs going to the UK. Alan Woods took over the daunting task of organising, barcoding, creating excel sheets, labelling, packaging, and arranging the safe transport of the fragile recordings. He had the added complication of travel restrictions and Brexit to contend with when making the arrangements. RTÉ Archives kindly offered to lend ITMA several custom-made protective cases that they commissioned when transporting their entire acetate collection to Sirensound in the UK in recent years. We are extremely grateful to Bríd Dooley, Brian Rice and Miroslav Culjat of RTÉ Archives for their generous practical help. ITMA requested that the two acetates pertaining to Coleman and another batch relating to Lad O’Beirne, Martin Wynne and Louis Quinn, be prioritised and digitally transferred back to us as soon as possible.

Coleman Blog Rte Acetate Case
RTÉ Acetate transport cases used by ITMA

ITMA were delighted that Aoife Nic Cormaic of RTÉ Radio 1, was interested in showcasing highlights from these recordings on the Rolling Wave. Aoife, as a fiddle player also shares in our appreciation for the quality of the fiddling playing on these recordings. 

The Rolling Wave was delighted to have been invited by the Irish Traditional Music Archive to premiere these valuable newly discovered recordings on RTÉ Radio 1. The solo playing of Michael Coleman is a joy to hear and allows us to appreciate all of the fine detail in his playing, music which he recorded in the relaxed setting of his friend Lad O'Beirne's house. In addition, the later recordings again made in Lad O'Beirne's house in New York bring us closer to the music of a man who was reluctant to record commercially himself yet was a central figure in Irish music in America in the 20th century and also, as we can hear, an exceptional fiddle player. Huge thanks are due to ITMA and to Joe Burke, Mick O'Connor and others who looked after these precious acetates for over 60 years.
James Lad Obeirne Vincent Harrison
James 'Lad' O'Beirne, left, and Vincent Harrison

While ITMA staff were working with Joe Burke, other previously unheard recordings of Coleman emerged. We were delighted to learn that Beth Sweeney and our friends in the John J. Burns Library, Boston College had digitised some other amazing recordings from the Joe Lamont (1905–1972) Collection including domestic recordings of Michael Coleman. In recent months, Charlie Lennon, in his studio in Cuan, An Spidéal, Co. Galway, worked on the Boston College track of Coleman playing 'Paddy on the Turnpike (The Bunch of Keys)' which is a joy to listen to.  

Richie Piggott and Harry Bradshaw have been working on improving the sound of a rare private recording of Michael Coleman and Lad O'Beirne playing 'The Flowery Fields of Scotland' and 'The Lady on the Island'.

The final track from Joe Burke’s two discs features Coleman playing 'Jackson’s Reel'. He also recorded this reel on a commercial disc in 1925 which may be of interest to those of you who would like to compare the two recordings. 

Jackson's Reel / Michael Coleman, fiddle (Acetate Disc)

Jackson's Reel ; The Dublin Reel / Michael Coleman, fiddle ; [unidentified performer], piano

I hope you enjoy listening to these tracks as much as I have. Personally, I feel exceedingly privileged to have had an opportunity to play a small role in making them accessible. I believe that they will further cement Michael Coleman’s reputation as a fiddle player par-excellence and continue to inspire musicians for generations to come. John Blake has made some very minor EQ audio adjustments to the tracks, while the master-files from the acetates are being digitally preserved by ITMA. 

From an archival perspective, to have these vulnerable and delicate acetate discs now safely preserved, digitised, and made accessible to the public is very satisfying. The music on these discs forms part of an intangible cultural treasure of national and international significance. They offer an important insight into the broader story of the traditional arts in rural Ireland in the late 19th century while also demonstrating its survival and development in the USA following successive waves of mass-emigration in the 20th century. The recordings also highlight the enduring artistic excellence of exceptional performers like Michael Coleman, Lad O’Beirne and Andy McGann which serves to remind us of the deep cultural connectivity between Ireland and the USA.

ITMA is indebted to the generosity of spirit shown by so many people without whom we would not be able to share this wonderful music with all who cherish Irish traditional music. ITMA is a not-for-profit cultural charity and we try to abide by the philosophy of universal access free of charge. This work is made possible through our funders and donors, particularly the Arts Council of Ireland, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the OPW. It is with a degree of serendipity that many moving parts came together to save the music on these unique discs from irreversible decay. ITMA are privileged and honoured to have been entrusted with the task. 

I would like to make a special acknowledgement of the contributions of Joe Burke, Anne Conroy Burke, James ‘Jim’ O’Beirne, Mick O’Connor, RTÉ Archives, Alan Woods, Grace Toland, Aoife Nic Cormaic, Charlie Lennon, David Lennon, Séamus Connolly, Brian Conaty, Dan Neely, Jesse Smith, Aoife Ní Bhriain, Oisín Mac Diarmada, Joanie Madden, John Blake, Shane Meehan, Richie Piggott and the ITMA staff and Board. 

For more information on Michael Coleman, please see Harry Bradshaw’s seminal work published by Gael-Linn Michael Coleman 1891–1945 Ceolteóir mhórthionchar na hAoise (1991) and also Jesse Smith’s unpublished thesis Realising the music of Michael Coleman: analysis and visual and aural representation of the music of Irish music’s most influential stylist of the twentieth century (2008).

I will leave you with the words of the person who has gifted this important collection to the public:

It has been 45 years since I was standing in Lad O'Beirne's living room in New York, on a visit to him with Andy McGann. Lad gave me a gift of two acetates of his own recordings of Michael Coleman, Andy McGann, Lad O`Beirne himself and possibly Timmy Fitzpatrick playing the accordion. I have treasured these recordings all these years. The release of these highly rare recordings is a dream come true for me and I am very happy to be a part of it. Special thanks to Liam O`Connor and his team for their care and dedication in making this possible and a priority. Thanks also to Lad`s son James O'Beirne for his permission.
Joe Burke, 2021

This blog was published on 14 February 2021 and it is with great sadness we note that Joe Burke died on the 20 February 2021. 

Ár gcomhbhrón ar Anne agus ar mhuintir Joe Burke uilig

In the upcoming part two of this blog we will concentrate on the recently digitised acetate recordings donated to ITMA by Mick O’Connor who got them from Mrs Harrington (née Gardiner). They were also originally recorded in Lad O’Beirne’s house and feature Lad, Louis Quinn and Martin Wynne among others.

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