PACKIE DOLAN "The Forgotten Fiddler"

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Having long been a great admirer of the legendary Michael Coleman's recordings, I was quite pleased to recently discover the work of his duet partner and contemporary, Packie Dolan. The only substantial information I was able to find about him is the following account from the now defunct Irish music site "The Knotted Chord":

Musicians of Longford: (The Knotted Chord Archive, 2002).

Packie Dolan (1904-1932) Fiddle, singer, dancer.

Patrick James or Packie Dolan was born in Ballinamuck, Co.Longford, the eldest of 9 children. His father John, a small farmer, played fiddle and taught Packie.
The area in which he was reared was well known for it's music. Fiddles and flutes were most common but uilleann pipes, tin whistle, accordion and concertina were popular also as well as singing. Frank Quinn and John Clarke before Packie and Paddy Reynolds after were famous New York based fiddlers and all came from this area.
With the depressed years during and after the first world war John and his wife Catherine decided to send their eldest children to the U.S.(Seven of the 9 would eventually emigrate to the U.S.). Packie, then aged 15 and his 13 year old sister Veronica Rose sailed from Liverpool to New York in December 1919, stayed with an Aunt and completed their education.
1920's New York was a very exciting place to be with opportunities aplenty. Packie married Briggetta Gaffney, also from Longford, in 1925 but tragically she died the following year of pneumonia. Packie was a plumber by trade and had steady employment and played music by night. His popularity with audiences, his jovial personality, good looks, and most of all musical ability on the fiddle made him a target of the many recording companies signing Irish artists at that time. He began recording in 1927, a duet with Michael Coleman initially, with Brunswick. His first solo was released by Colombia, followed by another duet with Coleman, also with Colombia.
In 1928 he got a job as a chauffeur and started his own band, "Packie Dolan and the Melody Boys" for the Ballroom circuit. The Victor label recorded them in May 1928. Hughie Gillespie, the fiddler from Donegal, was among the members. Their style and instrument combination of fiddle, whistle, and bones/bodhran, was unique and later formed the backbone of Sean O'Riada's Ceoltoiri Chualann and in turn the Chieftains.
In all, Packie recorded 24 sides in 6 sessions over 22 months which is the total output remaining. He was heavily influenced by the Sligo fiddle style, especially Coleman, but also James Morrisson. He also recorded some vaudeville style songs but not in the stage Irish form then popular. On "Mother Malone" he sings, dances, mentions himself in the lyric and plays fiddle.
In 1929 he made a visit home to Ireland for two months, a most unusual event in those days, which came about through a booking for his group as ships entertainment on a special excursion. The Wall Street crash in October 1929 meant the collapse of record sales but Packie was able to go back to plumbing. He became an American citizen in 1930 and married, in 1931, Marguerite Finneran from Roscommon. They were due to return permanently to Ireland in late 1932, awaiting the birth of their daughter Marjorie, when tragedy struck once more. A ferryboat was taking workmen to a building site on Rikers Island when on the third run that morning the boiler exploded and the ship went down with 125 men on board. Sixty eight men died including Packie Dolan, age just 28, an inestimable loss to future generations. His music was released by Harry Bradshaw on his VivaVoce label in 1994, titled "the forgotten fiddle player of the 1920's"(HB).

I find both his recordings and the account of his tragic life compelling. Listening to these tracks I'm struck by how much of his influence I can retroactively hear in the music that followed later in various traditions. His fiddling seems smoother and more rolling than Coleman's; perhaps this appeals to my Ontarian ears as I find his playing more accessible. I'm also taken with his impish vocal delivery, he was clearly as great an entertainer as he was a musician. Both "Mother Malone" and "Erin's Green Shore" turn up in the repertoire of the late million-selling Newfoundlander Harry Hibbs in versions that were clearly derived from Nolan's records, either directly or a few times removed. I'm sure more such lineage's could be traced, but I'll let the recordings speak for themselves.

Included in the download are the 22 tracks from the 1994 collection plus one additional track I found online and added.


1. (Reels) McFadden's (The Ewe Reel, McFadden's Favourite)
2. (Hornpipe) The Grove Hornpipe (The Liverpool Hornpipe)
3. (Song) Mother Malone
4. (Highland Flings) Miss Ramsey (Stirling Castle, Lady Mary Ramsey's Strathspey)
5. (Reel) Fitzmaurice's Flight (The Heather Breeze)
6. (Jig) The Fair at Drumlish (Saddle the Pony, Rakes of Kildare)
7. (Reel) The Windy Gap (Ah Surely)
8. (Song) A Drink in the Morn
9. (Reels) The Lady of the House (The Woman of the House, Ballinasloe Fair)
10. (Reels) The Duke of Leinster (The Duke of Leinster, The Lady's Pantalettes)
11. (Song) Erin's Green Shore
12. (Reels) The Steampacket (The Steampacket, The Flogging Reel)
13. (Jigs) The Cavan Lassies (The Humours of Ennistymon, Delaney's Drummers)
14. (Reel) Mullin's Fancy (The Boys of Ballinahinch)
15. (Highland Fling) Lasses of Donnibrook (The Keel Row, Love Will You Marry Me)
16. (Reels) The Blackhaired Lass (The Blackhaired Lass, The Dublin Reel)
17. (Song) One, Two, Three
18. (Jig) Royal Charlie (Behind the Bush in the Garden)
19. (Hornpipes) The Royal Stack of Barley (The Stack of Barley, Bantry Bay)
20. (Schottische) The Killarney Wonder
21. (Hornpipe) The First of May
22. (Reel) The Kilkenny Reel (The Reel of Mullinavat)
23. (Reels) The Irish Girl (The Irish Girl, The Blue Breeches)

*download here*


themusicgatherer said...

Thanks for this - wonderful stuff.

Anonymous said...

Packie is my father's (Thomas F. Dolan) Great Uncle . The family still has recordings of his music as well as "memorabilia" from his years in NYC as well as back in Longford. Cousins watch over the land and property back in Ireland . It's nice to see interest in his music lives on after all these years . I'm sure he would have been very happy. The family is still very proud of him and the music he left us. Thank you Lisa A. Dolan

Unknown said...

This is a truly wonderful post. Thanks for sharing. I have added it to my Facebook page Irish Music and Musicians Past and Present.

Mike said...

For work reasons, I haven't visited your sites in a while, and am sorry to see that your links are down. Have you transferred anything to a new site?

Thanks for your past sharing and hope that your health is well.
Happy Holidays.