Citizens Report American Irish Culture

The Legend of an Irish Button Accordion Player

Jimmy Cloonan learned to play the box at his father’s knee.

by James Cloonan

When my father, Patrick Cloonan, read Josephine Colman’s article, in the Irish American News, about her father-in-law’s travels , it brought back many memories for 89 year old Patrick. Patrick, at only 16 years of age, left Lettermullan Connemara and headed over to England with his older brother Colman to fill the void for a much needed work force. These young Irish lads were basically rebuilding what the German luftwaffe destroyed. Post WW2 England was an interesting atmosphere for a young Irish kid who only spoke Gaelic. Being young, smart and a fast learner, Patrick picked up the English language rather quickly. On the construction sites, Patrick would soon become the interpreter for the Irishmen who only spoke Gaelic.

One of Patrick’s favorite tunes is Mcalpine’s Fusiliers. When we are out playing Irish music, my father will almost always ask the singer to have a go at the song. As it turns out, Patrick, worked for Mcalpines; it was a very rough construction company to work for. Many an Irishman lost their lives in construction accidents in post WW 2 England. In the third verse of the song Mcalpine’s Fusiliers, it says” I remember the day that Bear O’Shea fell into the concrete stairs, what Horse face said when he saw him dead well it wasn’t what the rich call prayers”. The Horse-face was the Foreman and his reaction in the verse gives you an idea of the conditions the Irish lads endured.

In addition to being a pretty good worker for his age, Patrick was also an Irish button accordion player and from what my friends in the Irish music world say he’s a “Great Irish button accordion player”. Patrick saved his money and purchased a nice little gray Irish button accordion. Playing in the dance halls on the weekends in England, was a nice release from the rough working conditions; Great “Craic” as the Irish like to say. Patrick eventually made his way playing tunes in dance halls in London, Camden town and Crickelwood. Tough times hit Patrick, so he had to pawn the little gray Irish button accordion in order to pay his rent. My dad always talks about that little gray accordion he had to pawn. His wandering soul soon took him to northern England where he worked for the English farmers.

My father Patrick came from a military family. His father and his father’s seven brothers served in the British Navy and the American Army during WW1. Four boys serving in the British Navy and Four boys serving in the US Army. Patrick decided England’s military wasn’t for him , so he headed back to Ireland and joined the Irish Army. After time served in the Irish Army, Patrick headed over to Boston.

While working in Boston, he was soon able to purchase another Irish button accordion. It was here in Boston, playing Irish music, where he met the great Irish musicians “The Cooley’s” Joe and Shamus. The three Irish lads played Irish music every weekend in the dance halls and pubs in Boston. A collective decision was soon made and the three lads decided it was time to move on, so the three musicians came to Chicago.

As far as Irish music goes, Chicago is ranked at the very top. Some people might disagree with me, but I think musically we’re second to none. While living in Chicago, Patrick was playing music with some of the greats: Doctor Murphy and his sons John and Robert, Frank and Jimmy Thornton,Kevin Keegan, Paddy Welsh, Una Mcgrew, Johny McGreevy, Pat Burke, Albert Nary and John Nary, Kevin Henry, Malachy Towey and Phil Durkin. A very young Michael Flatley, Liz Carroll, Patrick Finnegan and Francis Campbell . Patrick and many of the Irish musicians in Chicago performed at various Catholic charity events and benefit dances over the years.

Jimmy Keane and John Williams, the great box players, have mentioned many times that my father was one of their main influences in Irish music and accordion playing. When the Dennehy dancers went to Ireland in the early 70’s to compete in the all Ireland, they took a group of Irish musicians with them, my father Patrick was one of the musicians. A young Michael Flatley specifically asked for my father to play for him when he went on to be the first Irish American to win the all Ireland. My father has played with so many great musicians, too many to recall. My father has a certain style on the accordion that comes from his upbringing in Connemara.

When I was learning how to play Irish music, he would say you have to play steady and tough; its kind of a cool sound if I had to describe his playing. We have a musician friend who stops by to play tunes with us on occasion, his name is Marty Sammon. Marty happens to be Buddy Guy’s piano player. Marty’s grandmother was Nora Kileen, an Irish button accordion player from Ennistymon, County Clare. Marty likes to jam with The Cloonan boys because he said it reminds him of his grandmother. Marty has played with Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood and Ronny Wood from the Rolling Stones. It’s kinda cool when he stops by to jam with me, my father Patrick and my son Jack Cloonan. Jack is a rock and roll, bluegrass and Irish musician living in Colorado, carrying on the music tradition. He just recorded a CD that features Marty Sammon on some of his tunes.

Patrick will be 90 years old this March and he is still playing the tunes.

4 Responses to The Legend of an Irish Button Accordion Player

  1. Fascinating story. Well told Jimmy! I can hear through your words the pride you have of being his son. God bless Patrick for telling the Irish story through his music.

  2. Happy St. Pat’s from the McLaughlins. Mom’s birthday is today and still remembers some of the past sessions at our homes, all greatly appreciated. Hope your father and family is doing well.

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