How could Michael Coleman help but become a great musician? His childhood home in Knockgrania, County Sligo was often referred to as “Jamsey Coleman’s Music Hall” because his father James, a respected flute player, welcomed musicians from near and far into the home on a regular basis. This area of Sligo was (and still is) known for its traditional music – the Coleman’s neighbors included the likes of fiddle players Mattie Kiloran, John O’Dowd, and P.J. McDermott, each of whom would influence Michael Coleman’s playing.
Michael was born in 1891, the youngest child of James and Beatrice Coleman. Michael was a twin, but his older brother died at birth. It is accepted that Michael learned to play fiddle at an early age, but who was his teacher? Some say his father taught him to play,while the local story is that on the way home from a house dance one night Michael came upon an ancient ring fort and fell asleep. When he awoke he could play – naturally it was the faeries that taught him!
Father or faerie, they did a good job teaching young Michael. He developed into a fine fiddle player. Michael also became an accomplished step dancer. After trying his hand at several jobs and a brief stint in Manchester, England, Michael knew he had to leave Sligo. There was no chance to earn a living playing the fiddle in Sligo, but in America…
In 1914, Michael arrived in America. He stayed with an aunt in Lowell, Massachusetts briefly before traveling across the United States as part of the Keith Circuit, the largest and most successful vaudeville operation of the time. In 1917, Michael settled in New York City, married, and started his own orchestra.
At this time, there was a growing interest in “real” ethnic music in New York. Previously, the Irish music distributed by the record companies had been recorded by “imitation Irish” musicians. A record shop owner in New York City named Ellen O’Byrne was certain that if talented, real Irish musicians recorded Irish music, those recordings would fly off the shelves. She encouraged Michael to make recordings of his music.
In 1921 Michael’s first recording was released on the Shannon label. Over eighty recordings would follow before Michael’s death in 1945. Ellen O’Byrne was not surprised by the popularity of the recordings in the United States. What no one expected was for the recordings to become popular in Ireland. Shortly after the first recording was issued in 1921, Irish Americans shared them with family and friends, sending the 78 rpm records back home in Ireland.
American record companies caught up to this trend and began marketing the recordings directly to Ireland, which only cemented Michael’s popularity and influence. In 1974, on the road from Tubbercurry to Gurteen in his home county of Sligo, a memorial to Michael Coleman was erected by the Coleman Traditional Society:
To the memory of Michael Coleman, master of the fiddle, saviour of Irish traditional music. Born near this spot in 1891. Died in exile 1945. To the traditional musicians of an older generation who, in this area, inspired his genius – To those of a later generation who, after his passing, fostered and preserved the tradition for posterity.
That says it all. If you find yourself in South Sligo, be sure to visit the Coleman Irish Music Centre in Gurteen (exhibit, gift shop, replica of the Coleman Cottage – “Jamesy Coleman’s Music Hall”, music archive, theater and more!) And if you’re lucky, you will hear the sweet sounds of the Sligo-style fiddle wafting from the local pubs.
Thanks to J. Michael Finn for his article on Michael Coleman – especially for the story of the faeries!