The Sligo Masters: Michael Coleman, James Morrison, Paddy Killoran and James “Lad” O’Beirne

Honored posthumously, May 9, 2015 

This year, we are posthumously inducting four famous County Sligo-born fiddle greats into the Mid-Atlantic Comhaltas Hall of Fame. Michael Coleman, James Morrison, Paddy Killoran and James “Lad” O’Beirne all came to New York from the same musically rich district of south Sligo. As recording artists, bandleaders, composers and musical mentors, these men had an unparalleled impact on Irish traditional music on both sides of the Atlantic. Their playing, widely heard on 78 rpm discs, helped make the Sligo fiddle style as played in New York the de facto Irish national standard of musical virtuosity. At a time when emigration and modern trends threatened the very existence of traditional music at home, the recordings of the Sligo fiddle champions helped reinvigorate the tradition and continue to inspire admiration and emulation decades later. 

Michael Coleman was born in Knockgrania in the parish of Killavil on January 31, 1891, the youngest of seven children of flute player James Coleman and his wife Beatrice (née Gorman). As a youngster, he was noted both for his step dancing and fiddling. Early musical influences included the traveling piper Johnny Gorman and local fiddle masters Philip O’Beirne, John O’Dowd, Richard Brennan and Kipeen Scanlon. In a region full of fine fiddlers, Coleman did not stand out at the time as preeminent – he finished third at the Sligo Feis Ceoil in 1909 and 1910. Many of those who knew him regarded his brother Jim, who stayed home in Ireland, as the better player. 

Coleman would make his name abroad. He left home in 1914 for Manchester, England but stayed only briefly. He made a more permanent emigration to America later that year and never returned to his native country. He married in 1917 to Monaghan-born immigrant Marie Fanning and soon found well-paid work as a dancing stage fiddler on the Keith circuit – the gold standard of “big time” vaudeville. It was not the stage, however, but the recording studio that was the making of Coleman’s enduring reputation. 

From 1921 to 1936, Coleman recorded nearly 80 discs for a variety of labels, large and small, including Vocalion, Columbia, Okeh, New Republic, Brunswick, Shannon, O’Beirne-DeWitt and Pathé. He also made a few private disc recordings and put down ten tracks for Decca in 1944 that were never officially released. It is these recordings that established Coleman as the greatest of Irish fiddlers. He played with danceable, swinging rhythm, a wealth of bowed and fingered ornamentation, extensive melodic variation and great depth of feeling. To this day, Irish traditional musicians pay homage to Coleman by playing the tune settings he made famous, often stringing together the same sets of reels, jigs and other tunes that the master grouped together on his recordings. 

Coleman passed away in 1945 and was interred in St. Raymond’s cemetery in the Bronx. In 1974, the Coleman Traditional Society erected a monument in his honor at Mt. Irwin, near his birthplace. The inscription reads simply: “To the memory of Michael Coleman, master of the fiddle, saviour of Irish traditional music.” 

James Morrison was born on May 3, 1893 in Drumfin near the town of Collooney, the second youngest of eleven children of Frank and Margaret (née Dolan) Morrison. The Dolans were a musical family and young Jim took dancing lessons from his uncle Charlie Dolan, in classes that also included Michael Coleman. As with Coleman, Morrison was much influenced by Johnny Gorman – “Jack the Piper” – and the many fine local flute and fiddle players. 

On leaving school, Morrison established himself as a dancing master and worked as a traveling teacher of Irish language and dance for the Gaelic League. In 1915, he won the fiddle competition at the Sligo feis. The ten-shilling prize helped swell the savings that bought him a £5 liner ticket to America later that year. He first lived with relatives in Boston but in 1918 moved to Brooklyn to link up with his fiancée Teresa Flynn. That same year he introduced himself to the local Irish music community by winning the New York Feis Ceoil. 

Like Michael Coleman, Morrison soon found himself in demand for the burgeoning Irish recording industry. He cut his first disc in 1921 for New Republic and went on to make over eighty sides for Gennett, Okeh, Columbia and other labels. Morrison was highly regarded for his drivingly rhythmic style and flawless technique, even in higher positions and challenging keys. 

Unlike Michael Coleman, who was a soloist par excellence, Morrison frequently played dance gigs and recorded with other musicians. His partners included pipers Tom Ennis and Michael Carney, flute player John McKenna and button accordionists Tom Carmody and P.J. Conlon. He never recorded with Michael Coleman, but the two fiddlers were “great friends” according to Coleman’s daughter Mary Hannan and frequently played together. 

In his later years, occasional performances were supplemented with music teaching. “Professor” Morrison, as he was known, instructed hundreds of children on the fiddle, banjo, flute and button accordion. He died in 1947 and was buried only a few yards away from his great contemporary Michael Coleman. 

Paddy Killoran was born in 1904 in Emlaghgissan, Ballymote. He fought with the North Roscommon Flying Column during the Irish War of Independence before emigrating in 1925 to New York, where James Morrison gave the newcomer some musical instruction. Killoran, however, soon developed his own distinctive interpretation of the Sligo fiddle style and was not long in launching his own career on record and on the bandstand. Killoran’s 1930’s 78-rpm sides with Paddy Sweeney, another esteemed Sligo fiddler, are among the finest Irish fiddle duets on record. His dance band, variously called Paddy Killoran’s Irish Orchestra or the Pride of Erin Orchestra (after a dance hall of that name) was in constant demand, with lineups that included saxophone, clarinet, tenor banjo, button accordion and piano as well as the more traditional fiddle and flute. 

Killoran’s career continued into the LP era, when he recorded some outstanding duets with Sligo flute player Mike Flynn, one of the many younger musicians who formed the “Paddy Killoran Music Club” in New York in 1955. A successful musical businessman and Bronx bar owner, Killoran made several return visits to Ireland, including a three-month tour with his band. He passed away in New York in 1965 and was interred in St. Raymond’s cemetery. 

James “Lad” O’Beirne, born in 1911 in Bellanalack (a townland adjoining Killavil), was a son of fiddler Philip O’Beirne, one of Michael Coleman’s chief influences. His style, accordingly, was closer to Coleman’s than that of any of the other Sligo fiddle greats. Lad arrived in New York in 1928 and soon became a close friend of Coleman’s, a connection later cemented when he married the older fiddler’s niece Mary. Arriving on the eve of the Depression, Lad missed out on the Golden Age of Irish music recording and never made a solo commercial disc of his own. He did cut a handful of 78-rpm sides, including one fantastic hornpipe duet, with a band led by Armagh-born fiddler Louis Quinn, and also made private recordings on home-made disc-cutting machines. But Lad’s reputation as one of the greatest of Sligo fiddlers is largely based on the impression he made on fellow musicians at house parties, private sessions and on trips back to Ireland. Paddy Reynolds, Andy McGann, Vincent Harrison, Louis Quinn, Ed Reavy and Sligo brothers Séamus and Manus McGuire are among the many musical associates who attested to Lad’s genius as fiddler and composer. Several of Lad’s unnamed compositions are now in general circulation among traditional players the world over. When he passed away in 1980, Lad, like Coleman, Morrison and Killoran, was laid to rest in St. Raymond’s cemetery in the Bronx.