Joe Cooley was born into a musical family in Peterswell near Gort, in South County Galway, in 1924. Both his father and mother played the melodeon and most of his brothers played music. He began to play around ten years of age. Growing up, the Cooley's house was a popular gathering place; dances were held there almost every evening with music provided by the family.
Joe played with The Galway Rovers Ceili Band when he went to work in Dublin in 1945. He played with the famous travelling piper Johnny Doran and his brother Felix at local fairs. The Doran's did season work on the farms in the area and camped locally. He was one of the earliest members of the Tulla Ceili Band when, as the St Patrick's Amateur Band, Tulla, they won the ceili band competition at Féili Luimní in 1946. He played with the Tulla on their first broadcast for Radio Eireann in 1948. When in 1948 he left the band to work in the buildings in London his place was taken by accordionist Paddy O'Brien from Nenagh Co Tipperary. Both men competed in the All Ireland Senior competition in Athlone in 1953 - after a recall by the judges, Paddy O'Brien was awarded first place and Joe Cooley second.
Joe often played with Galway fiddle player Joe Leary from Ardrahan; they travelled
on Leary's motorbike. They joined other musicians at dances to play the night
through. Tony MacMahon accordion player and pupil of Cooley's, recalled the
times he visited their family home when he worked as a labourer in Ennis: "There
was total unity of every part of Cooley's body with the instrument as he played.
Especially his face - his eyes, his mouth - his fingers always seemed to move
in slow motion over the keys. He was a person to whom music was something altogether
other than a series of notes"
Before he departed to in US in 1954, the other musicians presented him with a accordion which he dubbed "The Box" that subsequently became his trademark.
Joe's brother Seamus, who played the flute with the Tulla, joined him in the US, where they set up the Joe Cooley Ceili Band and the Joe Cooley Instrumental Group. While in America he married Nancy McMahon from Killenana, Co Clare.
Joe Cooley made several trips home to Ireland. On one visit Ciaran Mac Mathuna recorded him in the Dublin home of Bridie Lafferty. She played the piano with the Castle Ceili Band. Also on that recording he is reunited with fiddle player Joe Leary. He returned finally to Ireland in 1973. He played in various pubs around counties Galway and Clare. Tony MacMahon, knowing that Cooley was dying from cancer, arranged that famous recording session in Lahiffe's Bar in Peterswell on November 29 1973 - these recording were later released as The Cooley Album. Accompanying Cooley was his brother Jack on bodhran and banjo player Des Mulkere (son of Jack Mulkere, founder of the Aughrim Slopes Ceili Band) from Crusheen in Co. Clare now living in Derrybrein. Joe Cooley died a month later, in St Luke's Hospital, Dublin. He is buried in Kilthomas Cemetery, Peterswell. His brother Seamus, who had returned to Ireland in 1985, died in 1997.
The Cooley's grew up in an area that was home to the Ballinakill musicians
like Joe Burke, Kevin Keegan, Paddy Kelly, Paddy Fahy, Vincent Broderick, and
Paddy Carty. Joe played the old push-and draw style of the C#D box rather than
the B/C style played by Paddy O'Brien and Joe Burke.
Folklore has it that John McGrath taught 'The Tulla Reel' to the Cooleys however on the way home cycling and whistling the tune they couldn't remember the second part and they composed what is now known as Cooley's Reel. Here in South Galway the Cooley Set (The Wise Maid, The Skylark and Cooleys Reel) is a firm favourite at sessions.
The Joe Cooley and Kieran Collins Weekend in Gort (Kieran Collins was a whistle
player from Gort) is held on October Bank Holiday, is now in its 18th Year.
Competitions are held in both accordion and whistle with traditional music sessions
in the pubs and hotels.
Charlie Piggott music historian living in nearby Kinvara is completing a book about Joe Cooley and His Times.
Thanks to Martin J Howley who compiled the tribute Joe Cooley.