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Michael Downes (1918-2005)
by Barry Taylor

The single storied house that was the home of Michael Downes and his wife Bridie for many years stands in Cloonlaheen West near the shores of Doolough, in the gently sloping foothills of Sliabh Callan. Michael was born in 1918 in the once thatched cottage, situated a hundred yards away from his later home. . . Like Junior [Crehan], Michael was a farmer but, like many Irish small farmers, also had a full-time job, working as a road worker with Clare County Council.

Michael’s mother played the concertina and a little fiddle music but Michael was only ever interested in playing the fiddle. This was possibly due to the influence of his uncle Michael, who lived in the Downes’ household:

When he was very young he bought a fiddle and bow for thirty-seven pence – at that time it was seven shillings and sixpence. He would be about ten years old at the time. He went to a fiddle player by the name of Anthony Frawley [a fiddle player from Mullagh or Quilty] to teach him to play. For how long, I can’t tell you.

But he went to America, the U.S.A., sometime after, but he returned years later – about ten years I think he was in the U.S. He was able to read music then. I just remember him writing the tune in the kitchen wall with a pencil, and he would then play it. I was very small then. Anyway, he was not here long when he got a bad pain in his foot – he died of the pain at the age of 37 years . . .1

Like his uncle Michael before, the young Michael Downes’ first fiddle teacher was Anthony Frawley:

I went to this old man, Anthony Frawley, he was still playing, he did teach me some music, he was good to play but not as good as Junior or Bobby [Casey]. Then I went to Junior Crehan; Bobby was very young at the time. I thought when I heard Junior at that time, I would never see the day when I could play like him.

I always liked Junior’s style of playing and the Casey’s – I thought they were very traditional. They all have their own versions, I suppose they all believed in their own way of doing things. But west Clare, all round here, the coast, they have a very traditional, really traditional [style] … Junior Crehan got it from Scully Casey, he was a great player altogether...

I never cared to follow any other style because it’s foolish to be following to [sic] many styles of music, you know, you’re master of none of them...2

Although there are only ten years between the births of Junior and Michael, that decade was to prove significant in their development as musicians. Michael’s life spanned the second half of the period under discussion in this work and, although the country-house dance was still the popular rural recreation in his youth, it was in decline as he reached his adult years. Unlike his great mentor, Michael’s formative years coincided with the introduction of the gramophone and the radio, although, in truth, the latter was only a minor influence on rural musicians until the great rural electrification programme of the 1950s.3 In addition, communications improved enormously with the increased availability of the bicycle from the late 1920s. . . By the time that Michael Downes had reached his teens, he was able to avail of a bicycle, which greatly increased the scope of his travels. He recalled regularly cycling to Kilmihil, a journey involving around eight miles of hilly roads, where he met flute players Miko Dick Murphy, John Joe Russell and Paddy Murphy (Cahermurphy). Another flute player, Kilmaley’s Peadar O’Loughlin, recalls meeting Michael at a house dance in Shanaway , on the slopes of Sliabh Callan, a healthy half-dozen miles away from Cloonlaheen. Michael was also a regular visitor to house dances in Mullagh and Quilty – all journeys undertaken without the aid of motorised transport.

In later years, as the country-house dance declined in popularity, like many country musicians, Michael was to play in halls, lounge bars and in similar public locations, although he really did not like these occasions too much. Like Junior, he was able to access recordings of musicians from outside the local area, from the era of gramophone record [sic] in the 1930s, through to the vinyl long-playing records of the 1970s and on homemade tape recordings...

Interestingly, Michael himself rarely chose to play jigs (or hornpipes), as he considered that reels marked the high point of dance music playing. However, on occasions, and usually at the author’s request, he would play jigs and the author recorded several, including ‘Banish Misfortune’ and also the six-part ‘Geese in the Bog’, which originated in a setting devised by Michael Coleman.

In his later years, Michael and his wife Bridie moved from Cloonlaheen to a house on the Ennis Road, just outside Miltown, owned by his son, Michael Joe. His health gradually deteriorated and eventually, his playing was confined to the house, usually with visitors, including the many young people that he mentored over the years.

Michael Downes died on 11 April 2005 in St Joseph’s Hospital, Ennis.

1. Michael Downes to Barry Taylor; unpublished and undated letter, c. March 1977.
2. Michael Downes interview with Barry Taylor; at home of Downes; Cloonlaheen West, Doonogan, Mullagh; 11 July 1976.
3. Even if you possessed a radio, there was actually little regular traditional music on Radió Éireann until Ciarán Mac Mathúna’s programmes in the 1950s.

Extract from Music in a Breeze of Wind: Traditional Dance Music in west Clare 1870-1970 by Barry Taylor. Danganella Press, 2013, pp 155-160.

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Michael Downes, 1999.
Photo: Peter Laban