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Catherine Brennan-Grant, 1915–1979

Catherinebrennan
Jack Coen, flute ; Andy McGann, fiddle ; Catherine Brennan-Grant, fiddle ; Joe Burke, accordion / Unidentified photographer. New York, 1965. Image courtesy Ann Conroy Burke

The young fiddle star of James Hayden’s Advocate Players was Catherine Brennan, later Catherine Brennan-Grant (1915-1979). Born in New York, she got classical violin instruction studying in a Limerick convent school but embraced traditional music when she arrived back in New York in 1927. She became a regular performer on radio and onstage, both as a soloist, a vaudeville trouper and a member of ''The Maids of Erin,'' an all-girl group managed by her cousin Bessie O’Neill. Catherine was a good friend of Michael Coleman and a teacher to Andy McGann, making her an important link between the pre-World War II New York Irish musicians and the generation who would carry on in the 1950s and after. For more information on Catherine Brennan Grant see below.

Now playing: Farewell to Ireland, reel / Catherine Brennan-Grant, fiddle
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  1. Farewell to Ireland, reel / Catherine Brennan-Grant, fiddle

    Farewell to Ireland, reel / Catherine Brennan-Grant, fiddle

  2. The rambling pitchfork, jig / Catherine Brennan-Grant, fiddle ; Tommy Mulvihill, piano

    The rambling pitchfork, jig / Catherine Brennan-Grant, fiddle ; Tommy Mulvihill, piano

  3. The silver spire, reel / Catherine Brennan-Grant, fiddle ; Tommy Mulvihill, piano

    The silver spire, reel / Catherine Brennan-Grant, fiddle ; Tommy Mulvihill, piano

  4. The wheels of the world, reel / Catherine Brennan-Grant, fiddle ; Tommy Mulvihill, piano

    The wheels of the world, reel / Catherine Brennan-Grant, fiddle ; Tommy Mulvihill, piano

  5. Bill the weaver's, slide ; The frost is all over, jig / Catherine Brennan-Grant, fiddle ; Tommy Mulvihill, piano

    Bill the weaver's, slide ; The frost is all over, jig / Catherine Brennan-Grant, fiddle ; Tommy Mulvihill, piano

  6. Farewell to Ireland, reel / Catherine Brennan-Grant, fiddle ; Tommy Mulvihill, piano

    Farewell to Ireland, reel / Catherine Brennan-Grant, fiddle ; Tommy Mulvihill, piano

James Hayden's Advocate Players [Back row, standing: Jim Savage, banjo ; Joe Daly, singer ; Rose Wall, dancer ; Dorothy Plunkett, dancer, James Hayden, flute. Second row, standing: Bessie Dunne, singer ; Eileen McNulty, dancer, singer ; Ann McNulty, accordion ; Peter McNulty, dancer, singer ; Tommy Hill, dancer. Third row, seated: Catherine Brennan, fiddle ; Jack Dunne, fiddle ; Eddie Dunne Snr, melodeon ; Eddie Dunne Jnr, banjo ; Helen Savage, pianist, dancer. Front row, on floor: Dorothy Hayden ; Ann Hayden ; Dorothy Hill, Rita Hill] / The Advocate newspaper. New York, 26 November 1932. Image courtesy Marion Casey, Archives of Irish America, New York University

Catherine “Kit” Brennan, according to Ancestry.com records, was born in New York City on July 18, 1915. In 1960, Raidió Éireann broadcaster Ciarán Mac Mathúna visited New York and Philadelphia, where he recorded Larry Redican, Andy McGann, John Vesey and other leading Irish traditional musicians, including Catherine. At that time, she told Mac Mathúna that her father was originally from Dundalk in County Louth and her mother, whose maiden name was Ryan, was from Pallasgreen, County Limerick. As a young girl, she went to live with an aunt in Pallasgreen for eight years, returning at the age of 12 to New York, where she lived with her parents in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx. While in Limerick, she took an interest in Irish music, but received purely classical violin instruction at a Presentation nuns convent school. In New York, she took instruction in Irish music from Anna V. Daly.

In New York, she was drawn into the musical circle of Kilkenny native James Hayden, who wrote the weekly “In Irish Circles”column in the Advocate (one of the city’s Irish weeklies), produced a weekly radio program on station WARD (later on WEVD) and managed the Advocate Players, who performed for live audiences in theatres and parish halls. Catherine was one of his regular players and was also for a time a leading member of the “Maids of Erin,” an all-female orchestra led by her cousin Bessie O’Neill, who had her own “Tattler Talks”gossip column in the Advocate.

Hayden’s column, as well as Advocate advertisements, chronicled Catherine Brennan’s performances and music teaching from 1933 until 1937. For a while, she was featured on the weekly Friday-night “Irish Soldier of Fortune” radio program on station WOV as well as on Hayden’s show. She was an active participant in the informal musical life of the south Bronx Irish and became a friend and music associate of Sligo fiddle great Michael Coleman. In 1933, Catherine left New York for a time to tour with Moore’s Irish Minstrels, a vaudeville troupe. She also played with Coleman in 1933 at an Advocate-sponsored concert and at a star-studded Sligo musicians festival and dance. She advertised Irish music lessons at her home in the Bronx, and later rented a studio in Manhattan for this purpose. A young Andy McGann was one of her star pupils.

After 1937, Hayden’s column was discontinued, and Catherine Brennan vanished from the Advocate’s pages. She married Donegal man Michael Grant on 9th September, 1952, and moved to Central Islip on Long Island, where Grant’s family ran a funeral home in Brentwood. She gave up Irish music for years but was drawn back to it after meeting Bill McEvoy, a Laois-born fiddler who brought her to sessions at the Paddy Killoran Irish Music Club in Manhattan and at accordionist Gene Kelly’s apartment on Crescent Avenue in Astoria, Queens.

When MacMathúna recorded her in 1960, she played a very classical-style rendition of the slow air “Driotháirín-ó Mo Chroí” (“Little Brother of My Heart,” also known as “Jimmy, Mo Mhíle Stór”) as well as a reel from Coleman’s repertoire played very much in his style and a jig composed by fiddler Paddy Fahy, which she played in Fahy’s very different east Galway musical accent. Sligo button accordionist Dáithí Gormley relates that the late accordion great Joe Burke told him that Catherine had been given a tape of Fahy’s fiddle playing and became enamored of his compositions and style.

Catherine was mentioned in a couple of 1960s Advocate columns devoted to the activities of the Traditional Irish Musicians Association, a group with several New York-area branches that would later merge with Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. She passed away in 1979. Thirty years later, Bill McEvoy, by then the leader of CCÉ in North America, wrote an appreciative article about her (“Catherine Brennan-Grant – 1913 [sic.]-1979”) published in Treoir (vol. 41, no. 1, 2009, p. 32-34)