Johnny Doran grew up in Rathnew, Co. Wicklow, son of John Doran a piper. John Doran was the grandson of the famous travelling piper and horse trader John Cash. John Cash was also known as Cash the piper, and his wife, Polly Connors, was famous for her stepdancing. John Cash died in 1909 when Johnny Doran was only two years old. Cash's son, James Cash, 1853-1890, was also considered a fine piper and his sister, Margaret, was Johnny's grandmother. I received the following information from Anna Bale at the Dept. of Irish Folklore, Dublin.Johnny taught his younger brother Felix to play also. In his early twenties Johnny embarked on the life of a Travelling piper, setting out from Dublin each spring in his horse-drawn caravan. He was married and had a rake of kids. After his accident in 1948 he was crippled from the waist down. Even still, Johnny resumed his life as a Traveller for a time after leaving hospital and went with his wife southward through Co Kildare. He was re-addmitted to hospital on Oct 27 1949 however, and died there on Jan 19th 1950. He is buried in Rathnew cemetery in Co Wicklow. The only recordings of Johnny's music in existence are 9 acetate discs made by the Irish Folklore Commission in 1947. These have been remastered and are now commercially available ["The Bunch of Keys", the complete recordings of Johnny Doran, published by Comhairle Bhealoideas Eireann, 1989?] I've taken the above info. from the very full notes that accompany the "Bunch of Keys" There was also a 2-part radio programme made about him by Jackie Small and Harry Bradshaw called "Johnny Doran: A famous piper". This was part of the series of "The Long Note" programmes on RTE Radio 1, March/April 1988. He played a concert pitch set of uilleann pipes made by Leo Rowsome. Don't know who has them now.!
Anna Bale also mentions that the famous fiddle and concertina player, John Kelly , knew Johnny Doran well, and played with him. Ken McLeod said that Kelly was responsible for Doran being recorded. Kelly also visited him on his death-bed. John Kelly was from Rehy West, Cross, County Clare. He moved to Dublin in the 1940's. It is possible that Kelly and Doran did record together for RTE, but Anna Bale doubted that such recordings still existed as the Dept. of Irish Folklore is supposed to have the only known recordings of Johnny Doran. John Kelly died some years ago but both his sons, John and James are famous fiddle players. James Kelly is currently residing in Miami, Florida. A daughter of Doran's could live in Wicklow.
"John Kelly often told the story of visiting Johnny on hospital, if I remember right he was together with Sean Reid when Johnny got propped up in the bed and played for them - probably the last time he did play. The stories are really too numerous. I take it that you know that only for John Kelly there would not be any recordings of Johnny".
"There is a man called Jimmy Looney (spelt correctly) who owned a pub - on the road to Killrush from Miltown Malbay - He used to have Johnny parked at the river by the pub every year when he was on his travels. He could tell you many first hand accounts about him. Willie Clancy knew him well and some of the stories Willie told have been recorded.
"There are heaps of stories about Johnny Doran. Doran did travel round playing at local fairs etc. Articles about him appeared on several occasions in "An Piacute;obaire" the newsletter of Na Píobaire Uilleann. Several older players, mostly in Clare, remember the Dorans. They used to stay with Martin Rochford often and also a lot near Quilty and Miltown Malbay. Michael Falsey of Quilty has plenty of stories. A lot of Felix Doran's relatives have settled in North England where I have met his son Paddy, and Johnny Doran's son Paddy, and some other relatives at one time".
"One story I got from an old piper called Rourke (forgot his first name I'm afraid) now living in North England. He told me how he got his first set when living in Armagh when he was young. There had been a horse fair and the Travellers were passing through the village. Anyway, he was sitting there, a young piper proud of his new pipes when in comes these two young Travellers, they sit in for a while listening. After a while one of them said: "My brother here plays a bit on the pipes would you let him have a go at your set? Well ok fine so the young fellow straps on the pipes and takes playing like mad, all over the regulators, really amazing. He plays a couple of tunes and gives back the pipes, says "Great set lad. Keep going", and goes. Leaving the young piper completely baffled with disbelief. Anyway the man who told this story, said that years later he was listening to a radio program on Felix Doran and in this program Felix told the story of the trick he and his brother once played on a young piper. The now old piper at last understood what had happened when he was young". Peter wrote to me the following about one of Johnny Doran's sets of pipes. "- Concerning Johnny Doran's pipes: I have heard of a set that has been to both Alan Ginsberg and Dave Williams but unfortunately the present owner's name escapes me. Another set owned by Johnny is now played by Pat Broderick of Co. Galway. He told the story during a tionol in the Ceol na Mhara hotel, Spiddal, Co. Galway some years ago. This is how I remember it: - The father, Vincent, knew Johnny Doran well. Doran once was up at the house and tried out the Broderick's set. It turned out better than his own which was more or less in bits. It was decided that he'd take the Broderick's pipes for the time being and leave his own set with them until he'd pick it up again. Which he never did. That's how Pat now has Johnny Doran's pipes".
Early this year, 1995, Dave Williams informed me that he'd met Johnny Doran's daughter, and she told him the circumstances of the tragic accident she was witness to as a child. Johnny's wagon was parked near Christchurch in Dublin by a factory wall. She and the other family members were inside the canvas covered wagon, at the time. Johnny was ouside sitting on a stool, and in the process of tying his shoe laces. A strong gust of wind blew down a high brick wall upon Johnny. He was covered in bricks and debris. Unfortunately during the rescue process, when people tried to extract Johnny from the rubble, his spine was seriously injured leaving him crippled. With the help of cushions and an air matress propping him up, Johnny was still able to play the pipes before his health seriously deteriorated. He was only forty two years of age when he passed away on the 19th of January, 1950. Johnny's daughter also told Dave that the set Johnny was using, up till the time his health took a turn for the worse, possibly a Leo Rowsome set, was divided up amongst some of his children.
"In 1988 I was travelling in Ireland and passing through Wicklow . I thought I would visit Rathnew Cemetery. I found the grave of Felix Doran quite easily and having heard that Johnny's was not that far away started to look around me at the gravestones. It was a weekday during the middle of the day and there were only two other people in the cemetery - a man and a "wild" looking woman who must have been in their mid forties or so. Anyhow, it ended up that they had been standing at the grave of Johnny all the time I was looking for his 'stone. When I approached them we said hello and got to talking. The woman claimed to be one of Johnnys children and explained that she and her husband visited the grave when they were over from England. The husband was English. He recounted that he had often heard Felix play the pipes so they may well have lived in Birmingham or near there. At any rate, this lady did not know too much about the pipes (perhaps not suprisingly) and she had no knowledge of what happened to Johnnys set - but interestingly she was interested to learn of Na Píobairi Uilleann as she expressed an interest in her own son possibly learning to play in the future".
Thanks to Patrick D'Arcy for bringing to attention a photograph on Paddy Keenan's web site of whistle player Johnny Connors who married Johnny Doran's sister. This is the second photograph. Johnny Connors is holding an LP record.
At Miltown Malbay 1998 I attended a Willie Week piping class with Pat Mitchell as teacher. One afternoon at the piping workshop I talked with Waterford piper Tommy Kearney. Tommy told me how as a child he heard Johnny Doran playing on the street. His mother gave him some coins to give to Johnny. Tommy said Johnny was a kind gentle man with a great way of putting children at ease. At Miltown in 1999 I met Tommy once again at the piping workshop and besides giving me some piping advice, Tommy mentioned that you could see Johnny's wagon coming 15 miles away. Johnny had a big square wagon pulled by sometimes one and sometimes two horses. The same year I met Donal Moroney from Kerry, in a cafe in Miltown. Donal was involved in arranging a workshop for young Travellers down Kerry way. Whilst talking, I noticed Michael Falsey enter. A conversation about the Dorans started, and Michael told of Felix turning up when he was playing in a celidh band and joining in. Michael also mentioned a piper called Loughlin who lived in Miltown. Loughlin had just received a new chanter reed, sent to him by Leo Rowsome. He was so glad to get the reed, and knowing that Johnny Doran was parked up at the square?, he hurried up there to show Johnny his new reed. Johnny took the reed and was admiring it, holding it between his thumb and forefinger. Unfortunately Johnny pressed too hard and the reed broke. Loughlin was dismayed, but Johnny without futher ado made a new reed straight away for him. Michael said that he used to stand at the side of Johnny when Johnny played at the Spanish Point horse races. Michael told us that one of his proudest moments was winning the Johnny Doran cup for piping. I had to move on to Tubbercurry , Sligo, but Donal and Michael arranged to meet the next day at the Central Hotel, where Michael played every Sunday. I hope to hear from Donal as Michael was going to show him some material he had.
The cassette liner notes from "The bunch of keys", and the book ,"Notes from the Heart: a celebration of traditional Irish music" by P. J. Curtis (published by Torc in 1994, ISBN: 1 898142 0 76) (obs.: recently reprinted) also contain life stories of Johnny Doran. In PJ's book there is the photograph of Johnny Doran, Pat Cash and his son Michael Cash standing in front of a hoop wagon. Both Pat Cash and Johnny Doran are standing with their pipes. Johnny Doran's pipes in this photograph look to me like a Rowsome set. This photograph is owned by Na Píobaire Uilleann and was taken at the "Green Lanes, Walkinsontown, Dublin in the early 1940's". Nóirin Ni Laodhóg and David Collins write how passers by had seen Johnny making regulator keys out of old silver spoons, using a metal rimmed wagon wheel as an anvil. It seems that Johnny usually played the pipes standing up. Kevin Popejoy wrote to say that Paddy Keenan explained to him that Johnny had a flange, a bit of a brass shelf covered with a leather patch, screwed to the side of his stocks. This was positioned so he could stop the chanter while standing. P.J. Curtis wrote to me, saying, "My own father saw Johnny play many times at horse and cattle markets in north Clare and used to say it was the most amazing, magical music he had ever heard in his life. He said that Johnny used to make as much as 30 shillings a day busking at the fairs at a time when a labourer earned 2 shillings a week"On the 15th of July, 2000 I met up with piper Tom Dwyer, now in his late eighties. Tom asked me if it was pipes I had in the small wooden box I carried. We got to talking and Tom told me how he remembered hearing Johnny Doran play two days in a row in 1941. Johnny was parked on what used to be the old football field on the other side of the road across from St. Brigit's Hall in Tubbercurry, Sligo. The first day Tom heard Johnny playing at the market in nearby Gurteen, which is only 16 kilometres from Tubbercurry. The next day was on the football field at Tubbercurry. Tom told how Johnny had his wagon pulled only by one pony. Tom also remembered that Johnny had a little yellow tent besides the wagon and how Johnny shouted to the pony "Giddy up there" when he was leaving. Tom said that at the time there was another piper called Piper Gorman. Tom said how an "informant" told him how Johnny had asked him "Who do you think is the better piper, me or Gorman" and the informant answered, "Well, to tell the truth he thought Gorman to be the better piper of the two". Tom said he didn't know if that was the truth or a myth. Tom owns a Crowley set, but said that it's been years since he played them. When the children came along he was not able to play the pipes at home because of the "noise". Nowadays Tom said he doesn't have the energy to play the pipes.
Caoimhin O'Raghallaigh, a fiddler and piper currently living in Clare and working with pipemaker Geoff Wooff, kindly sent me this transcription of an interview Séamus Mac Mathuna did with fiddler Patrick Kelly:
Séamus: And, of course, you met Doran too, sure, didn't you?
Patrick: Oh I did, I met the two Dorans, oh yes.
I went to Kilrush one day to extract a tooth in mighty fine weather, and the blueshirts were after being derailed and there was a court case in Kilrush.
I went in to Mrs. Crotty's before going back to Mrs. Daly, and I wasn't inside the door, of course until she made the announcement:
"There's a piper in town - sit down!"
"I, I can't"
"I must pull my tooth anyway, whatever about the piper"
"Won't you have time enough!"
Alright I sat down, of course, and it weren't long until she landed the small handy little man, with his small case and he very pleasant. And he didn't appear to be a person that was anxious for drink. He got a drink or two - she stood him a drink, of course, which was no bother to him - she gave him a drink. But he had no anxiety to my mind for drink. He went out in any case and he started playing - he hadn't many. But the people involved in the derailing of the train were fra people - great people taking good traditional music and song all the days of their lives - twas very much in that side of the country. Well as soon as the courtcase was over the square started to fill. They came from nowhere - you never saw such a crowd! Everyone shoving in to see where was the music coming out of, and good he was getting.
Séamus: Did he go out on the street?
Patrick: He went out, he did, he did - she asked him to play inside, I do distinctly remember that, and he said
"I'll play outside, on the kerb"
and he left his box up on the kerb and his foot up on it, and there's where he played.
Séamus: Did he put his back to the wall?
Patrick: No he did not, no, no.
Séamus: He stood on the side of the street?
Patrick: He stood on the street with his foot on the box up on the kerb. But the finish of Johnny and my tooth was that I forgot about my tooth, and I came home without ever having it removed.
Séamus: Would he play a long blast of music or what would he play?
Patrick: Oh he would, oh yes.
Séamus: Three or four reels together, or maybe more?
Patrick: Well I would say that he did, but it strikes me that he played the reels single, that he didn't double, if my memory serves me right. A reel was never played double in here with the old fiddlers at all, it was only played single - the parts were only played single, they were never played double.
Séamus: And Doran did the same?
Patrick: I think he did.
This short account of the personal recollections of one man can be no substitue for proper biographies of both Felix ans his brother Johnny which should now be compiled as a matter of urgency. They were the last of a great and illustrious line of travelling pipers, and the end of an era; it is unlikely that we shall ever see their likes again. Felix was a great-grandson of John Cash of Wexford (b. 1832) who maintained the standard of piping in south Leinster and the Midlands for over 50 years in the latter half if the nineteenth century. I lived in Dublin for a year in 1934-35 and followed Felix around Moore Street enchanted by his piping. I recall him vividly as he was then - a handsome, well built young fellow of 18 or 20 in a blue, double-breasted suit, very clean and tidy and wearing in his coat lapel the badge of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association. I was living in Ennis, County Clare when in the course of his journeyings around Ireland he turned up there in 1938. I had now a pipes of my own and Felix was a frequent and welcome visitor at my home. Living in a comfortable horse drawn caravan with his pretty young wife and a few small children he plied his business of horse-dealing and general trading while playing the pipes at fairs, markets and country dances all over the country. He was a pleasant-mannered, cheery young man who talked freely about himself and his life and adventures. He was gifted with a vivid imagination and never thought it any harm to improve a good story! I was able to supply him with a few good Rowsome chanter reeds from time to time.
He moved on again after a few months and the next time we met was at the Galway Races in 1944. He looked bronzed, relaxed and happy as, surrounded by an appreciative and generous audience, he filled sun-lit Eyre Square with the thrilling sound of his pipes.
He returned again to Clare for the last time in the late autumn of 1950 and this time he had a large, white Austin van and was collecting old car-batteries and also old feather matresses (ticks) which, he explained, were to be used in the manufacture of pound notes. He always had a good head for business and habitually kept a 50 pound note in his pocket. By this time he was coming up in the world and beginning to fill out and put on a little wieght while his handsome leonine head and face was becoming more and more reminiscent of his famous great-grandfather, John Cash. Unfortunately he had also become an alcoholic and was going on periodic bouts of heavy drinking which had an disastrous effect on his normally pleasant temperament. On one memorable occasion we (the Tulla Ceili Band, with Joe Cooley) brought him along to a dance at Kilkee where he brought the house down with "The fox chase". After a few weeks he moved on again. The next time I saw him he was in his coffin.
In 1963 he won first prize on the pipes at Fleadh Ceoil na hEirean in Mullingar. subsequently he settled down in Manchester where he became a wealthy haulage contracter with a great fleet of lorries. He engaged a skilled German mechanic to fashion him an all-silver pipes, a marvel of craftsmanship that must have cost a small fortune. In the middle 60's he was recorded and broadcast repeatedly on television and radio.
He died in 1972 in Manchester ( Felix actually passed away in Grimsby, see Brian Kernan's notes below) after a long illness and his funeral cortege from Dublin to Wicklow was the largest I ever saw, with the possible exception of Leo Rowsome's and Willie Clancy's. He was buried in Rathnew graveyard, sone distance from Johnny. Two pipers, one of them his son, Michael, the other Nial Mulligan, played at his graveside. I estimated the pile of wreaths as being 9 feet long, 6 feet wide and four feet high. He was present at the last Fleadh Ceoil na hEireann before his death.
If tributes count for anything then Felix died the uncrowned king of the travelling people. during his too short lifetime he gave a tremendous lift ot Irish music, and especially to the uilleann pipes. He had something unique to contribute and is assured of a permanent and honourable place in the annals of Irish minstrels and musicians. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam (May his soul be at God's right hand).
For six months in 2002, LARRY DORAN, a son of Felix Doran, kept "The Jolly Miller", a public house, in Conduit Street, Leicester and I became very friendly with him and with his wife, Margaret. Larry put his father's LP "The Last of the Travelling Pipers" on the pub juke box, and had various framed photographs of Felix on the walls of the pub. He had a strong loyalty to his father and, to a lesser extent, to his uncle Johnny Doran.
Larry had a great store of stories about Felix both when he was a traveller in Ireland and after he had settled down in Manchester as a road haulage contractor. He pointed out an error in the sleeve notes to "The Last of the Travelling Pipers": Felix did not die in Manchester as Sean Read states, he died in Grimsby. England with Larry at his bedside.
Most Sundays I would visit Larry and Margaret and I would have a meal with them, it never varied: boiled bacon, cabbage and a huge pot of potatoes. One Sunday morning, Larry phoned me to say that his younger brother Michael was visiting and had brought his pipes with him and if I wanted to hear Irish piping at its best I should come straight round.to the pub. When I arrived, I found not only Michael Doran with his pipes but John Rooney as well.
They played together and separately for most of the day and it was a memorable experience. Both of them had their sons with them, boys aged about 11 or 12, and they, too, played the pipes. The boys struggled at times with some of the fast reels but, considering their ages, I thought they did very well. It was not the attitude taken by their fathers however! The lads faced a barrage of criticism from both Michael Doran and John Rooney. Obviously, the training of an Irish piper involves the absolute minimum of praise!
The girl in the photographs of Felix Doran with his son Michael, is Eileen Doran, one of Felix's daughters. According to Larry she was a prize-winning step dancer. She married an English traveller and lives in England. I met her and her husband when they visited Larry. Another son of Felix, Paddy Doran - is a prosperous scrap metal merchant living in Swindon, England.
I once asked Larry if Felix had ever attempted to teach him the pipes. He said that Felix had tried on more than one occasion, but each time young Larry ran away across the fields like a little colt.
After 6 months in the pub, Larry's urge to travel reasserted itself. He sold the tenancy of the pub and spent some time in Ireland. We have kept in touch from time to time. The last time I heard from him, he was back in England and was selling kitchen furniture, crockery, cutlery and electrical goods from a warehouse in Derby.
The original Rowsome "silver" regulators and stock from Felix's pipes can be seen by clicking on Felix Doran's Rowsome set at: http://www.uilleann.nl/homepages/neillidhMulligan/ . Together with the interesting story of how the full set was assembled.
"I think the person you are talking about must be John Rooney, who lives some of his nomadic life in Leicestershire. I lived in Leicester for four years, and played quite a number of times with John, who as you say plays a magnificant set of Williams pipes, with beautiful silver trimmings, and a wonderful sweet tone".
"John is married to Felix's daughter Mary. His wife is also his first cousin, John being a nephew of Felix. He is - I am not exaggerating - the best piper I have ever heard. He plays in the same complicated and highly ornamented way as the older Dorans Johnny and Felix, using his regulators all the time, and sounds just like the old recordings. His repertoire is not huge, as he only seems to play the tunes he learned from his family - you get the feeling that the oral tradition is still alive and kicking in this man".
"Being such a virtuoso, he's quite hard to play along with, as every piece he plays is a total masterpiece. He likes a drink (especially lager), and the best playing I ever heard him do was after about nine pints, when he played the Bucks of Oranmore as I've never heard it before, with the most incredibly inventive - but still tasteful - variations. I know that John travels a lot, and I've also met up with him at sessions in Manchester. He spends a lot of time in Ireland and in the States as well. Has anyone else met him? If anyone sees him say hello from me".
"I heard a tape of John Rooney when I was visiting Martin Rochford in East Clare last summer. Martin made the tape himself while John was playing in his kitchen, the same kitchen, it should be said, where both Johnny and Felix, and most of the Uilleann pipers playing in this century, sat and played. John's playing was in the old style, full of every conceivable piping technique, fast as hell, regulators blazing. Oddly enough for an East Clare man, it was also Martin's favourite style".
To finish an anecdote from Pat O'Reilly of Manchester concerning a session where John Rooney was present. (This was in reply to my query about Felix Doran's son-in-law's last name, of which I was unsure of at the time).
"I think the man's name is John Murphy/Molloney (I did know it anyway). They came through Manchester about three years ago (1992) and Johnny came down to the sessions. He is a very big guy, plays fast and in a very robust style if you understand what I mean. For a few weeks the sessions were lively if bizarre as all the travellers descended on the session - all nice people and mad for the music. But I've never seen so many moblie phones gathered in one place and every song ruined by the bleep bleep of the wretched things."
"On the first night we were all peeved that Johnny kept tuning his pipes loudly when he wasn't playing, but usually when someone else was playing or starting off a set of tunes. The tension in the session grew tighter and tighter, and when he went to get himself a drink or take a phone call, I said "We'll have to have a word", to which everyone agreed. So at the end of the night, I went over to say how much I enjoyed his music, which I did, and said"But you know you're an awful bollix for tuning those pipes during the tunes". When I looked round for support, every other musician had vanished into thin air and I thought "now how to get out of this one". To his credit and my relief the man just said"Sorry, I am an awful bollix for that", and we chatted some more. In subsequent sessions, still not happy with his tuning he disappeared to the toilets every five minutes to adjust the pipes - far more accomodating than we'd ever ask him to be." I've seen him once or twice since and I've a lot of time for him and his music especially because he didn't flatten me for being so blunt. His style and approach are in the Finbar Fury vein".
A couple of years ago the father of Colm & John Doyle, the Solas guitarist, sent a video to Sweden which gave me a hair raising experience. It included John Rooney playing some tunes on an RTE TV program. To my ears it was just like hearing Johnny Doran play. Quite unnerving to say the least. On request I sent a copy of this tape to John via Dave Williams. In 1982 I was at Dave William's workshop at Newark, Notts and saw the replica of Felix Doran's pipes, that Dave was making for John Rooney, lying about the workshop. Dave had just got them back from a silversmith. The stock was enclosed in a finely engraved silver Celtic pattern I remember. At Willie Week 1996 the leather bag on my Williams set showed itself to be leaking through the pores. In desperation, I ordered a new bag from pipemaker Andreas Rogge who was present at the piping workshop in Milltown. I received a fine leather bag. In August 1997 I visited Dave Williams at his workshop to order a baritone regulator for my pipes. I mentioned my dilemma with the leaking bag. Dave said that John Rooney had visited him with the same problem with the intention of purchasing a new bag, but Dave said that as long as the bag hasn't been treated with anything it is easily fixed by heating up vaseline in a saucepan and then pouring it into the removed bag and massaging it around. This will seal the bag making it airtight once more. Well I still have the original Williams bag as a spare at least.
Thanks to Anna Bale, Ken McLeod, Dave Williams, Hammy Hamilton, Peter Laban, Malcom Sims, Beverley Whelan, Patrick Sky and Patrick O'Reilly for sharing.
The above, apart from a few small changes here and there, appeared as an article under the title: "Regarding Johnny Doran", in the Seattle piper's newsletter: Iris na bPiobairi=The Pipers' Review, summer 1995.
A son of Johnny Doran's, Paddy Doran, lives in the north of England and, according to Nóirin Ni Laodhóg and David Collins, is proficient on the pipes. A daughter of Johnny's married an Englishman and also lives in the north of England. A grandson of Johnny Doran's, Johnny Purcell, plays a set made by Dave Williams. He is believed to be based in Wales, when not travelling. He is an able piper I've been told. Felix Doran's son Michael Doran used to play the pipes, he played at Felix's funeral in 1972. The set pictured on the 1976, Topic LP, entitled "The last of the travelling pipers", Topic: 12T288, recorded in Keale 1965 and London 1966-67, is the silver set made for Felix by Leo Rowsome. The regulators and stock from this set were sold to Tom Mulligan.
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