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Patrick James “Packie” Dolan was born on 25 January 1904 in Aghadowry, a townland in the parish of Killoe, County Longford near the town of Ballinamuck. He was the eldest of nine children born to John and Catherine Dolan. John was a fiddler himself and gave Packie his first instruction on the instrument. Longford may not have the reputation of Sligo as a hotbed of traditional music, but there was a wealth of singers, fiddlers, flute players and other instrumentalists in the area to inspire the youngster’s musical interests. In December 1919, at the age of 15, Packie and his 13-year-old sister Veronica were sent to live in Brooklyn with an aunt, and he completed his schooling in New York. He married another Longford immigrant, Briggetta Gaffney, but she died of pneumonia less than a year later in 1926. Packie found work as a plumber’s helper and picked up additional income playing the fiddle in the evenings. His talent attracted the attention of Michael Coleman, then at the height of his popularity, and the Sligo fiddle master recruited Packie to record two duets with backing from keyboard ace Ed Geoghegan for the Brunswick label in the Spring of 1927. A solo recording, and additional duets with Coleman, for Columbia soon followed.

Packie was now in his prime as a performer and recording artist. He formed his own group, “The Melody Boys,” in which he not only played the fiddle but sang. The group’s lineup included second fiddler Hugh Gillespie (another Coleman protegé), banjo player Richard Curran (a veteran of James Morrison’s band) and Neal Smith on bodhrán and bones. The Melody Boys’ Victor recordings in 1928 and early 1929 featuring fiddle, tin whistle and bodhrán or bones were unique in their day and foreshadowed some of the ensemble stylings of Sean Ó Riada’s Ceoltóirí Chualann in the 1960s.

In the summer of 1929, Packie made a return visit home when he was hired along with Ed Geoghegan to perform on a Clannna Gael excursion to Ireland on the liner Thuringia. After a long visit full of musical evenings in Longford, he returned to New York just in time for the stock market crash and Great Depression. Packie was still able to find work as a plumber and in 1930 married again, to Roscommon emigrant Marguerite Finneran, with whom he had a daughter, Marjorie, born in 1932.

The family were planning to return to Ireland but in September 1932, Packie was one of 68 men killed when a boiler explosion sank a ferry transporting construction workers to the new Riker’s Island prison in the East River. One of the brightest talents in Irish music in America was cruelly extinguished at the age of only 28.

  • Mullin's fancy, reel / Packie Dolan, fiddle ; unidentified, piano

  • The ships are sailing, reel / Packie Dolan and his boys [Orchestra]: Packie Dolan, fiddle ; unidentified, tin whistle

Packie Dolan, fiddle / Unidentified photographer. New York, 1920s.