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De Dannan & The Golden Age of Irish Traditional Music

By Ed Ward, Featured Blogger

"Well that certainly isn't Irish music..." 

The 1970s in Ireland ushered in a golden age of Irish traditional music. Based on the groundbreaking blending of traditional and modern music techniques introduced by composer Sean O'Riada at the University College Cork in the 1960s, a number of new Irish bands emerged a decade later that revolutionized Irish traditional music. In 1972, Donal Lunny and Christy Moore formed Planxty along with Andy Irvine and Liam O'Flynn. In 1975, Donal Lunny, having left Planxty, formed another legendary group of traditional music talent and master musicianship - The Bothy Band. Many former members of both of these bands have performed at Milwaukee Irish Fest over the years. 

Another traditional musical ensemble, De Danann, was also influential and acclaimed for their musical style in the mid-1970s. Named after the legendary Irish tribe Tuatha De Danann, De Danannn started with musicians Frankie Gavin, Alec Finn, Johnny "Ringo" McDonagh, and Charlie Piggott playing sessions at Hughes Pub in Spideal in the County Galway. In 1975 they released their first album De Danann followed a year later with Selected Jigs, Reels & Songs. I first heard them when Chuck Judkins, a regular at Nash's Irish Castle, gave me a cassette of their music. I was hooked.

De Dannan at Milwaukee Irish Fest 1981  Frankie Gavin at Milwaukee Irish Fest 1981 

As De Danann's popularity grew, they started touring the U.S. The Shamrock Club invited them to play in Milwaukee; on October 7, 1979, De Danann played in concert at the Wauwatosa West High School Auditorium. I remember it well. Here's why. During the intermission, two elderly ladies were walking out and I heard one say to the other, "well that certainly isn't Irish music." It seemed clear to me that these ladies were probably raised on the music and songs of John McCormack, Bing Crosby, Morton Downey and popular Irish American singers of the day. When Frankie, Alec and I were conversing at an iHop, Frankie expressed his concern over the small market for trad music in Irish American communities. The Irish American ballad tradition was significant, and Irish Fest in its early years featured many of the wonderful artists who sang what we now call "the old ballads." Carmel Quinn, John Gary and Joe Feeney (of the Lawrence Welk Show) were with us in our first year. Dennis Day also appeared a number of times. These singers had large followings and were truly great entertainers, especially Carmel Quinn. But boy, how the market has since changed. 

John Gary at Milwaukee Irish Fest 1981  Carmel Quinn at Milwaukee Irish Fest 1981

When De Danann played in Wauwatosa in 1979 and at the first Milwaukee Irish Fest in 1981, they were an immediate hit and helped grow a whole new generation of Irish music lovers. By 1981, the band had added Jackie Daly, but their original vocalist Dolores Keane, who later appeared at Irish Fest with Kinvara, had left the band. Many who heard their early Irish Fest appearances remember the shows by the featured singers that accompanied the band. Maura O'Connell, Mary Black, Eleanor Shanley, and Tommy Fleming were all legitimate stars in their own right in Ireland. I love pulling out my old LPs of De Danann, The Mist Covered Mountain, Star Spangled Molly (which featured their first hit single, "Hey Jude"). It's great stuff. Ah! The good 'ol days. 

P.S. In 1987, the band changed the name to De Dannan.


Ed Ward
Ed Ward founded Milwaukee Irish Fest.  
He also founded the Irish Fest Foundation and the Ward Irish Music Archives.  

Ed served as a permanent member of the Irish Fest Board and served as the Chair of the Entertainment Committee.

View more blogs from Founder's Corner, here.



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