John Doonan

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John Doonan

This elder statesman of Irish music was known in the folk world as the ‘Time Lord’ and in the Tyneside shipyards as the ‘Whistling Welder’ where it is rumoured he could fire red hot rivets from his piccolo.  A godfather of Irish music he was sought out by musicians far and wide for his amazing mental library of dance tunes and slow airs.

John’s father and grandfather were both fiddlers and as a child John had access to a large range of instruments, which he taught himself to play but finally settled for the flute.  In 1946 he formed a ceilidh band which consisted of 4 fiddlers (one his own father), 2 accordions, a piano (occasionally played by his daughter, who at the age of 11 could barely reach the pedals), drums and 4 flutes.  During this time John gravitated towards playing the piccolo – PA systems not being what they are today and having only one microphone for the band – the piccolo gave out greater volume than the flute.
When Irish dancing was introduced to Tyneside John was there at the beginning to accompany the dancers.  His ability to play to the strict tempo demanded by this very disciplined art form meant he was very much in demand and played for Feisanna (competitions) for many years all over the United Kingdom, often accompanying his daughter and granddaughters when they tread the boards.  Irish dancers and teachers everywhere were delighted when John produced ‘Flute for the Feis’ on Rubber Records.


Click here to hear John playing



John was very proud when two of his sons, Michael and Kevin took up instruments and carried on the tradition of producing great Irish music.  Michael with vocals, the piccolo, flute, whistle and uillean pipes and Kevin on the fiddle.  Together with friends of the family (Stu Luckley on guitar and Phil Murray on bass guitar, both established musicians in their own right) they formed the Doonan Family Band (DFB) and produced two discs – Fenwick’s Window and Manna from Hebburn.  John’s two granddaughters, Frances and Sarah provide the dancing and much needed glamour to the band!  Frances has been able to fill the void left by her grandfather by her contributions not just through dance but by playing the flute!

John became World Champion Piccolo Player which he regarded as the zenith of his musical career but his greatest consolation when he passed away in 2002 must have been the satisfaction of seeing his family continue, through their talents, the tradition of Irish music and dance as they entertain audiences both at home and abroad.