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 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.