Joe Cooley (1924 -1973) An accordionist from Peterswell, Co Galway, a builder by trade, Joe was a profoundly charismatic figure in traditional music, whether at home in Clare or in exile in Britain or the USA.
Both his parents played the melodeon and most of his older brothers were musicians. Growing up, the Cooley house was a popular gathering place. Dances were held there almost every evening and the music was provided by the family. His playing was deceptively simple and straightforward but with a remarkable ‘lonesome’ quality which infatuated followers, inspired dancers and created a legend of the player in his own time.
Always on the move he worked in Clare, then London and emigrated to the USA in 1954 where he was on to live in New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. He played with Paddy O’Brien of Nenagh in the Tulla Céílí Band, later with him in New York and most of his music-making over the years was with his brother Séamus.
Dancers were particularly drawn to Joe Cooleys music. Charlie Piggott recounting in the book The Blooming Meadows, how when the leather and steel-clad shoes were worn, the dancers might loosen the toe piece to create a buzzing sound which could be manipulated in the ‘slide’ motion to articulate grace notes and decoration in the tune being played. Joe Cooley returned to Ireland in 1972. Such was his power that many of his admirers would travel from all over the country to hear him in the years prior to is death.
The definitive (and only) collection of his music, Cooley which contains a track with his brother Séamus was produced by Gael-Linn in 1975. Some tracks were recorded with brother Jack on bodhrán and Des Mulkere on banjo just 3 weeks before his death. Tony McMahon, deeply touched by Joe Cooley’s playing, recalls in the sleeve notes the accordionists travels: The two Joes (Cooley and fiddler Joe Leary) had played all over Clare and Galway in the early 1950s traveling dusty, icy rainy roads on a motorcycle, the fiddler slung over Cooleys back, the accordion tied to the fuel-tank. Joe Cooley arrived in San Franciso in 1965 having spent much of the previous decade in Chicago. He played and taught until 1972, giving a valuable filip to music in the area. Thirty years later his pupils Patricia Kennelly, Milosa Lundy and John Lavel still sustain his East Galway style.
His music associates were accordionist Keein Keegan (Eyrecourt, Co. Galway) fluet and fiddle player Joe Murtagh (Miltown Malbay, Clare), harmonica player Larry Fitzgerald (Enniscorthy, Wexford) and accordionist Maureen Costello (Tubber, Clare).Cooley, Keegan and Murtagh played at dances fairs an festivals as the Gráinneog Céilí Band. Cooley appealed to a wide cross-section of music enthusiasts , many of them had no connection with Ireland or Irish-America. His relaxed and uncluttered personality had enormous appeal to freedom-seeking hippies who formed part of California cultural mosaic in the late 1960s. His death left a permanent void in San Francisco Irish Music Community (GOH).