SONNY BROGAN, MUSICIAN, (1906—1965)

by ehistoryadmin on January 30, 2014

SONNY BROGAN, MUSICIAN, (1906—1965) 

By Sean Byrne

It has become fashionable in recent years to record and pay tribute to the many “hidden treasures” that exist and remain unrecorded in many locations throughout Ireland. No such “treasure” is more important to the Timahoe/Donadea/Staplestown area than the connection the area has with one of Ireland’s most popular traditional musicians, the late Sonny (Patrick Joseph) Brogan. He was regarded and is still regarded by those who knew him and heard him play as one of Ireland’s greatest accordion players.

Sonny was born in Dublin on the 4th July 1906, the eldest of three children born to Andrew Brogan and Alicia Brown. In the 1911 census return Patrick Joseph Brogan is shown aged 4 years of age. At that time he had one brother, James Francis, aged one. Their parents were Andrew aged 40 and Alicia aged 24 who were married six years and they had two children. Andrew’s occupation was given as a chef and the family was living at 5 St. Patrick’s Terrace, Mountjoy, Dublin. While Patrick Joseph’s place of birth was given as the City of Dublin his parents and brother are stated as having been born in County Kildare.

The 1901 census shows Alicia living with her family at Dunmurraghill, Donadea. Her parent’s names were James and Margaret and she had six brothers and one sister. In the Clane parish records Margaret’s maiden name was registered as Cleary.

In the 1901 census returns for Dublin an Andrew Brogan is shown living and obviously working in Belvedere College. He is stated to be aged 24 not married and employed as a cook. His place of birth is given as County Kildare.

The original Griffiths Valuation shows four Brogan families registered as owning property in the Timahoe area; these were named Andrew, Thomas, John and Patrick. Parish records for Clane parish show a number of references to Brogans in the area throughout the 19th century from about 1826. The addresses given were Staplestown, Derryvarroge, Derrycrib, Derry, Timahoe, Donadea and Painstown.

It has been suggested that Sonny first developed an awareness of Irish music as a young boy while he was on holidays in Kildare and heard his uncle Thomas Cleary playing the accordion. He taught himself to play the accordion and as a young man attended piano lessons for a while. During the 1930’s and 1940’s along with Bill Harte, Sarah Hobbs and James Cawley he played with the Lough Gill Quartet. Sonny had his own ceili dance band in the 1940’s and they played regularly in Barry’s Hotel and the Teacher’s Club in Parnell Sq, Dublin.

The following is an extract from a “memoir in progress”, by musician Tony MacMahon, where he remembers “moments of inspiration, captivation – and terror”, published in The Journal of Music on the 1st January 2009.

If ever you stroll down Capel Street with you’re ar.. to the Liffey and your belly to Bolton Street, you will come to the smallest shop in Dublin, the last but one on your left. The Horse Shoe at number 85 is a Polish bread shop today, the facade in buttercup yellow and the inside awash with the smell of freshly baked bread. But from 1946 until 1989 it was where the late John Kelly from west Clare ran a small business, reared a family and held court to three generations of traditional musicians.

At Oireachtas time in early October, when the first Claremen arrived, Sonny Brogan was sure to turn up and suggest, politely, to Mr. Kelly – as the locals called him – that it was time to close the shop. Sonny arrived most days; neat and tidy in a dark blue suit, a white shirt and a grey, cloth cap. The cap was always perfectly level. He did an occasional bit of painting and decorating, but his speciality was discussing the intricacies of a tune, as customers came and went, looking for mousetraps, hot-water bottles or six-inch nails. Music took precedence over business in that little shop and customers were often made to feel like strangers interrupting a private gathering.

Sonny was one of the original musicians selected by Sean O’Riada in 1960 to perform music for the play The Song of the Anvil by Bryan MacMahon and subsequently became one of the original members of Ceoltoiri Chualann. The members of the group along with Sonny and Sean O’Riada were Martin Fay, John Kelly, Michael Tubridy, Eamonn de Buitlear, Paddy Moloney, Sean Potts, Ronnie McShane and Sean O’Shea with Sean Keane and Peader Mercier joining later. Ceoltoiri Chualann continued with various members to play up until 1969. Most of the original members left in 1963 to form the Chieftains I have no knowledge of Sonny ever playing with the Chieftains, but he would appear to have remained friendly with many of the original members of Ceoltoiri Chuallan.

In May 1964 Senator Edward Kennedy made a visit to Ireland. The Irish Independent of May 30th reports that he made

…. an unexpected call on one of Dublin’s “singing pubs” last night and stayed for half an hour listening to Irish ballads including several about the Kennedy ancestral county of Wexford.

He was returning from a reception when the cavalcade drew up outside the licensed premises of Mr. Paddy O’Donoghue, Merrion Row. Like his brother, the late President Kennedy, the Senator is also a ballad enthusiast and seemed delighted at this golden opportunity to hear them sung with Irish voices.

The crowd was gay in the pub, with lively ballads from the Ludlow Trio of Margaret O’Brien, Sean Loughran and Paddy Roche, and from Dublin’s own Ronnie Drew, Barney McKenna and Ciaran Bourke, with Sonny Brogan joining in on the accordion.

The burial records of Staplestown Cemetery state that Sonny died on the 1st January 1965 and that he was buried the following day. The record states that his last place of residence at the time of his death was 5 St. Patrick’s Terrace, Dublin.

Many tributes poured in for Sonny after his death and among these were a tribute by Sean O’Riada. This tribute included the following:

Sonny’s qualities as a musician were rare. He had an astounding memory, so much so that I was inclined to regard him, with John Kelly, as our living reference library. He could recall three or four different versions of a tune going back through three or four layers of time and often through three or four changes of title. He had a passion for the pure, simple essence of tunes, uncluttered by mistaken ornamentation. He was also, of course, an outstanding accordion player, one of the very few who could make it sound suitable for playing Irish music.

As a person, Sonny was – well, he was contentious, convivial, argumentative, loyal, dogmatic, witty, utterly reliable, a tiger when his temper was roused (which was rare), and at the same time curiously gentle and courteous. He was a good friend. I shall miss him.

On the 19th March Eamonn de Buitlear presented a special programme on Radio Eireann devoted to Sonny. Ciaran Mac Mathuna regularly included some of Sonny’s recordings on his radio programmes.

This article is written as a very short tribute to one of Ireland’s greatest traditional musicians with the hope of developing a greater awareness of him. The life, times and music of Sonny Brogan warrants extensive research and the publication of this research.

Acknowledgements

Nicholas Carolan and Joan McDermot from the Irish Traditional Music Archive.

Mario Corrigan, Karel Kiely and James Durney from the Local History Section, Kildare County Library.

 

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