Joe 'Lacky' Gallagher:‘The Leitrim Cake’

Music Bright and Undiminished

The photos tell a story: a man of devilment and fun, eager for life and living it to the full. Upstanding on horseback, laughing and relaxed, hard-working, constantly on the move. The music tells its own story and conveys something of the heart of the player: honesty, clarity, sweet sureness, a small hint of melancholy at the knotted core of the dance and gaiety. Joe Lacky Gallagher was one of the great musicians, a natural-born player. He came out of a great landscape of music and added to it. To listen to those remarkable recordings is to travel in time and place. Back to Cloonamurgal, the townland near Drumkeeran where he was born in 1918. Back to the old way of naming, where a son was given his father’s or his grandfather’s (or maybe grandmother’s) first name as a kind of distinguishing mark: in a landscape of many Gallagher families Joe became Joe Lacky, the ‘Lacky’ derived from a shortened form of his father Malachy’s name. But even that had an older root: Joe’s great-grandfather had also been Malachy or Lacky – “Auld Lacky”. So Joe became ‘Joe Lacky’ to distinguish him from other Gallaghers around, from his cousins and extended kin.


Listen to the playing and imagine the early days of radio and a crowd gathering on the street in Drumkeeran, outside Master Séamus Duignan’s house on the main street to listen to this local man playing live from Dublin through the new, mysterious box-machine. His father is there in the crowd with Joe’s young wife, Beatrice. The crowd may be a bit loud, the radio a little low. So his father speaks up “A little louder boy,” he says, and someone inside turns up the volume and Malachy Gallagher is happy and proud. And has every right to be so.

Where does music come from - the gift of music? No telling, sometimes no remembering. It seems the music came down through both sides to Joe, through his mother’s family, the Bartons and the Gallaghers. We know that Joe bought his first fiddle in Tommy McGivney’s shop near Wynne’s in Drumkeeran. Beatrice reckons he started playing at about the age of 15 and he’s likely to have learned some of the music and style of playing from Jimmy Horan from Creevelea, father of the late Séamus Horan, another master of music. Dan Phildy McGowan was another teacher and he was also influenced by the playing of Dan Murphy of Lisacoghil, brother of Denis Murphy. We know that he learned to read music, taking lessons from Mrs Wamsley, the wife of a Protestant Minister in Bundoran in 1948 or ’49. The first tune he mastered by sight was The Coolin. He loved playing, drew music and musicians in around him and travelled out to make his mark. There’s a telling detail of him driving to Arigna to pick up a load of coal, delivering it to Mullagh in Cavan, leaving it with a local man to deliver, hitching to Dublin to record with 2RN in the GPO, hitching back to Cavan and driving home by nightfall or a little after. All in a day. Another story – maybe true, maybe not, but telling in its real or imagined insight: Joe sitting on a trailer load of coal in Drumshanbo, playing with coal-blackened hands, the music bright and sparkling for the tape recorder.

His friends in music were many. John James Doherty, Hugh Daly, Michael O’Brien, Séamus Horan, Paddy and Dan Phildy McGowan, The Carroll brothers - Michael Patrick and John, Michael Shanley, Tom Mulligan, Richie Fitzgerald, Hugh Scanlon, Dan McNiffe, Dan Murphy, Packie Duignan, Tommy Guihen, Mary Gallagher, Carmel O’Grady, Joe Clancy, the Clare fiddler Séamus Connolly, Joe Burke, the Leddy brothers. Tommy Gilmartin, Michael John Mc Tiernan, Kevin Mc Tiernan, Kevin O’Brien, Tommy Gallagher, Tommy Guihen, Vincent Harrison, Pat Sweeney, John Hamilton and Mary Gilhooley. Joe Harrison and Larry O’Dowd played with him in life and at his funeral.

There were several bands over the years: The Black Diamond Céilí Band, The Joe Gallagher Céilí Band, the Leitrim Céilí Band, The Belhavel Céilí Group. Trips to Kanturk in Co. Cork, five musicians travelling the six hours from Drumkeeran in a Ford Prefect, playing from 10pm at night till 3am in the morning, then home again. A wonderful story of a soda cake commandeered on a hungry trip home from Galway, a half crown left on the table by way of recompense and a tune composed, The Galway Cake. The mystery tune played once on radio, never heard of before or since.

Like so many men of his generation and place Joe worked hard and varied. With the help of Beatrice he ran the farm, worked for years as a carpenter in the construction of the ESB power station in Ballyshannon, learned some of the craft of blacksmith from Jim Flynn (“Jim the Gabh,” from the Irish “Jim the Smith or Blacksmith”), started a quarry business with his son Pádraig, drawing stones for road construction work with Leitrim County Council, delivered coal around Drumkeeran and Tarmon and to creameries in Co. Cavan. He reconstructed the old family house and there you might find a lorry engine out for repair on the kitchen floor or a session of music in full swing on a winter’s evening. Called upon to play at concerts in Kelly’s Hall, Crown’s Hall, Creevelea Hall; before and during the interval at plays like Sive or The Year of the Hiker. Playing in Flynn’s of Arigna and McRann’s of Mount Allen; with local musicians in Leddy’s loft, known locally as “The Dancing Mecca of Killargue”. In the early days his young wife Beatrice danced a four-hand reel to his music in Kelly’s Hall in Drumkeeran. “He was a treasure,” she says now, “I never knew what it was to want for a penny.”

The fiddle was his instrument but he tried his hand at a few others. The banjo for a while and in that fine Leitrim tradition that saw Mick and Shane Woods mix traditional music and jazz, he gave the saxophone a whirl. He’d sometimes sing The Rocks of Bawn. Michael Coleman was his favourite. He brought Felix Doran to play at the old ironworks in Creevelea, that moment captured in a fine photograph.

In the quiet of night, alone, he’d rehearse his music. Playing when all the family, Beatrice, Pádraig, Patsy and Marian were asleep (or at least in bed, hearing the low drift of fiddle from the room). Sometimes he’d wake up whistling a tune.

Joe’s wit, good humour and hospitality are evoked still. At a local cattle mart, admonished for buying a cow with bad feet, he says, “It’s for milkin I bought her, not for dancing.” But many a dancer he propelled, including a young Michael Flatley, long before the days of Riverdance, in Higgins’ pub in Coolfada. A young Irish-American rehearsing the future to the best of old music made new.

And he died too young. In a cold winter, February 1979. Only sixty years old. He should have lived longer - but how fully he lived and what a gift of music and life he left to us. So much music is lost, so much story and memory. We are so fortunate that Joe Gallagher’s music was recorded. By Séamus Ennis, Ciarán Mac Máthúna, and Mick Daly from Arigna, the man who became Tory Mayor of Worthing but who had the foresight to recognise and value the musical heritage of his home place. Joe was at the first meeting of committee to form the John McKenna Society in 1979; now his own music is honoured and made available through the work of that fine group. The vision of people like Master Duignan, who brought Séamus Ennis to Cloonamurgal is matched today by those bring us these recordings. “Music carries us on,” as Peter Flanagan in Ballymenone, Fermanagh said to Henry Glassie. In this music, Joe Lacky Gallagher and the spirit of a place and people are carried on, bright and undiminished. His grand daughters, Emer and Alma Colwell play his fiddles. Damien O’Brien plays the grace notes. The music lives.

Vincent Woods, June 2010.


The Recordings - Raidió Éireann

The Raidió Éireann recordings of Joe Lacky Gallagher included here were made in February and March of 1948. This was at the start of new era in Irish broadcasting and for the first time it was now possible for musicians to be recorded where they were most comfortable - in their own towns, villages and homes. Before this, traditional players had to make the journey from the places where they lived to the RÉ studios in Henry St. in Dublin and this could sometimes mean that they were not always fully at their ease when performing on air.

Recordings in all parts of Ireland were made possible by an innovation known as the Raidió Éireann Mobile Recording Unit (MRU) which first appeared in 1947. It was important at that time also that one of those who was travelling and working with the MRU was Séamus Ennis. He was himself a superb uilleann piper and he felt a strong empathy with his fellow traditional musicians and singers. He saw and respected their worth and they in turn liked him and made a point of giving him their best performances in a recording session.

In the course of his work around the country, Séamus recognised talented and valuable traditional players and singers and always endeavoured to record a wide selection of music from them. When he was visiting Co. Leitrim with the MRU in 1948, he clearly felt that Joe Gallagher was one such player and for this reason it is fortunate that we can now enjoy over an hour of his fiddle music played in a beautiful and fascinating style which has much to offer to listeners, learners and lovers of traditional Irish music. The original MRU recordings were made on acetate discs which were quite fragile and only intended for a limited amount of use in the Raidió Éireann programme making of that era. We can be grateful that these discs were preserved for over 60 years and that the sound has now been restored to the high quality we can hear on this set of recordings.

Peter Browne (rté), June 2010

Festival 2016

Music Classes

Music Shop

2016 sees the holding of the 21th annual John McKenna festival which will take place in Drumkeeran from June 10th – 12th 2016 incl The programme of events will include competitions, concert, workshops and much more.
Our music classes continue on Thursday nights. 

Information: info@johnmckenna.ie or 086 8569900
The Music and Life of John McKenna: 'The Buck from the Mountain' and Joe 'Lacky' Gallagher: The Leitrim Cake are exclusively available now.