Font sizing



Fiddle player Michael Coleman, the most acclaimed of all the Irish traditional musicians of the 78 rpm era, was born on 31 January, 1891 in Knockgrania, Killavil, County Sligo. His father James, a flute player from nearby Banada in Roscommon, married Beatrice (“Beesie”) Gorman and moved to her townland, where the couple raised seven children. Michael was the youngest, a slight lad whose talent for step dancing and music was apparent from a very young age. His older brother Pat made a fiddle for him when he was six years old, and he was soon playing along with his father. Among the many other fine local musicians he heard growing up were fiddlers Philip O’Beirne, P.J. McDermott, John O’Dowd and Richard Brennan. Michael’s own brother James, who had learned from the renowned Kipeen Scanlon, was regarded by many local music enthusiasts as a better fiddler than his famous sibling. The travelling piper Johnny Gorman, a frequent visitor to the south Sligo area, also influenced Michael’s playing.

Michael’s schooling was finished in 1908 when he was 17. He frequented local house dances and P.J. McDermott’s musical pub, entered fiddle competitions in Sligo and Galway (not with great success) and worked for short while in 1914 in the kitchen at St. Nathy’s College in Ballaghaderreen. Later that year he was recruited to work on a farm in England, but agricultural labour had no appeal for Michael, who instead went to visit his brother Pat, a policeman in Manchester, and played the fiddle in a local pub. Fear of conscription into the British Army sent him home to Killavil and in October, with friend John Hunt, he boarded an emigrant ship and sailed away to the USA.

In an obituary of Coleman published in the New York Advocate of 20 January, 1945, Coleman’s friend and fellow fiddle player Joseph Maguire related how Coleman launched his musical career in America:

“Leaving his native Ireland in 1914, he played at a Concert aboard the transatlantic liner that brought him to the United States and had the good fortune to have among his audience a well-known theatrical producer and booking magnate. Coleman at that time was a polished artist and the good booking magnate lost no time signing him to a long term theatrical contract that was to take him eventually to many cities from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Bangor, Maine. While still at the zenith of his theatrical career, he came to New York where he met Mary E. Fanning of County Monaghan. They were married in September, 1917 at Resurrection Church. Michael settled in new York at that time and never (except for brief trips to Chicago, Boston, etc.) left the great city thereafter.”

The newly-wed couple resided at 269 West 152nd Street in Harlem. Their only child, Mary (later Mary Hannon), was born the following year. In Harry Bradshaw’s sleeve notes to his landmark double CD set of reissued Coleman recordings, Mary Hannon was quoted as saying that her father “worked as an elevator operator for a while, and he had odd jobs that he would do in the early 1920s, but other than that it was mostly music.” There was no lack of dance halls, pubs and private parties, and Coleman was content to scratch out a living as a freelance musician. Unlike his famous contemporaries James Morrison and Paddy Killoran, he never led his own band or attempted to run a musical pub. He did launch a music teaching partnership with fellow fiddler Tommy Cawley in 1937, but his irregular habits prevented him from making a success of this line of work. His was not a lifestyle conducive to a happy marriage, and for most of his later years Coleman lived apart from his family.

In his early years in New York, Coleman performed frequently with melodeon player Rose “Redie” McLaughlin Johnston and other members of the Irish musical fraternity based around Columbus Circle on Manhattan’s west side, a group that included Redie’s father Myles and his fellow piper Tom Ennis. Coleman in the early 1920s was a member of The Irish Music Club, a group that included Jack and Ed Crowley, Michael and Peter Gallagher, and the flute player and Advocate columnist James Hayden.

Coleman won lasting fame through his recordings, mostly made as a soloist but including a few duets with flute players Michael Walsh and Tom Morrison, piccolo player Paddy Finlay and fiddlers Tom Gannon and Packie Dolan. His first disc, recorded around 1920 for Tom Ennis’ short-lived Shannon label, included an unusual setting of the jig “The Frost is All Over” and a side of reels titled “Reidy Johnson’s” after his melodeon-playing friend. Dozens of sessions followed for the Vocalion, Columbia, Okeh, New Republic, Pathé, O’Beirne DeWitt, Victor and Brunswick labels. Coleman recorded his last commercial discs in 1935 and 1936 for Decca in sessions marred by some truly atrocious piano accompaniment. Unfortunately, those Decca tracks, reissued in LP format, were the only Coleman recordings easily available until the traditional music revival of the 1970s prompted renewed interest in his music and resulted in the release of more comprehensive reissue LPs and CDs by collector John Maguire, Shanachie Records and Harry Bradshaw’s Viva Voce label.

The 78 rpm discs recorded in New York in the 1920s and ‘30s had a tremendous impact on musicians and music lovers back in Ireland. Coleman’s records were the most influential of all. Harry Bradshaw ably described what made him stand out:

“Coleman’s fiddle playing expressed a range of emotion far beyond the normal requirements of tunefulness and rhythm associated with Irish dance music. The depth of feeling in his music, and in particular the air of pathos and poignant sadness which underlies many of his recorded performances, is unique and sets apart his music from his contemporaries and those who imitate his playing.”

On 31 January, 1936, Coleman’s friend, the Advocate columnist James Hayden, organized a “monster radio concert and testimonial” at the Roscommon-Tuxedo Ballrooms at 59th Street and Madison Avenue, advertising “Proceeds for Michael Coleman, Sligo’s Greatest Musician.” Hayden’s appeal to the public was written as if the master’s career was already to be spoken of in the past tense:

“Michael has been the victim of unfortunate circumstances and no matter whether through his own fault or not he deserves the help of his friends and those who know him as an artist on the violin, playing Irish music—there was no better Irish violinist.”

Coleman did, however, continue to play, though not so much in public anymore. He recorded a few privately made discs and made his last trip to the studio in 1944, a session that yielded ten sides for Decca’s World Broadcasting Company. Unfortunately, those recordings have yet to be released commercially, though bootleg copies have circulated for years.

Coleman, who suffered from ulcers and stomach problems in his final years, died on 4 January, 1945 and was interred in St. Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. His music is still celebrated wherever Irish traditional music is played. The Coleman Irish Music Centre in Gurteen, County Sligo is dedicated to his memory and a monument in nearby Mount Irwin, near his birthplace, is engraved:

“To the memory of Michael Coleman, master of the fiddle, saviour of Irish traditional music.”

  • Tobin's Fancy [jigs] / Michael Coleman, fiddle ; unidentified, piano

  • The grey goose, jig / Michael Coleman, fiddle ; Ed Geoghegan, piano

  • The Shaskeen, reel ; The bag of potatoes, reel / Michael Coleman, fiddle

  • O'Dowd's favourite [reel medley] / Michael Coleman, fiddle ; unidentified, piano

  • Miss Kenny's, waltz ; The men of the west, waltz / Michael Coleman, fiddle ; Michael Andrews, guitar

  • Farewell to Ireland [Irish reel medley] / Michael Coleman, fiddle

  • Medley of jigs / Michael Coleman, fiddle ; Michael Andrews, guitar

  • Humours of Ennistymon [jig medley] / Michael Coleman, fiddle ; J Muller, piano

  • The Liffey banks ; The Shaskeen, reel / Michael Coleman, fiddle ; Kathleen Andrews, piano

  • Wellington's reels / Michael Coleman, fiddle

  • Paddy Clancy's jig; Trip to the cottage, jig / Michael Coleman, fiddle ; Kathleen Andrews, piano

  • Tom Ward's downfall, reel ; The reel of Mullinavat / Michael Coleman, fiddle

  • Trim the velvet, reel / Michael Coleman, fiddle ; unidentified, piano