I first came to Manchester in 1944 to work on the docks. The docks at that time employed 3000 men, well over half were Irish, young men from every corner of Ireland. Indeed several of the superintendents and foremen were Irish born or of Irish decent, and a very strong Catholic influence because the local church St. Joseph’s was called the docks church. The Manchester & Salford Hospitals at that time were staffed by 50% Irish nurses.
There were several Irish pubs; the main ones were The Shakespeare or Nellie Kelly’s on Stretford Road. The Frascali and Wine Bar on Oxford Road. The Clarence in Rusholme, and the best known of them all, Aunties Bar at All Saints or known as the Irish Labour Exchange, any Irishman arriving in Manchester went to Aunties and he was sure to be fixed up with a job. Later there was the Red Bull and Exile of Erin in Ancoats. The Grapes and Bundle of Sticks at All Saints and the Salutation on Stretford Road. Bulls Head, Hyde Road.
There was always a great tradition of music and dancing due mainly to the work of the Gaelic League which was established in Manchester around 1900. The dance teachers that I remember were Mrs Kelly regarded as the mother of all dancers, Mother Reilly with the hairnet, Betty Kelly, Mary Walsh, Margaret O’Neal, and the Grainger sisters, later of course Eileen Lally, these are legends.
Many of those musicians that I remember from those days were, Felix Doran, Jimmy Taylor, Paddy Gorman, Eddie Lenaghan, Aidan Hyland, Michael Fleming, Annie Broderick, Jimmy and Mick Reid, Martin Reid, Martin Noone, Pat McCormick, Paddy Mangan, Pierce Coogan, Con and Mike Mahoney, Billy Campbell, Billy McDermott, Billy Gillespie, Mattie Coyne (who as I write is the Mayo County Chairman of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireanne ), but there were many more.
The Gaelic League was very active with music song and ceile dancing, they often had open air ceili’s, they even performed on more than one occasion in Piccadilly Gardens, but the main highlight of their work was the St. Patrick’s night concert in the Free Trade Hall always a sell out, with many leading artists from Ireland plus the Gaelic League dancers and always opened by either the MacSwiney or Kerry Pipers bands. At that time there were other Pipe bands in Manchester and later down the great Fianna Padraig led by the late Terry Dowling. The Gaelic League and the dancing schools always had a great input into the Whit Friday Walks which were in many ways a great expression of our Irishness.
The Catholic Churches at that time were always packed, the five largest were the Holy Name, (on Oxford Road), St. Patrick’s, St. Wilfrid’s, St. Chad’s and St. Thomas of Canterbury, I remember going to Sunday evening devotions in the Holy Name and I had to stand on the doorstep outside.
The Irish dance halls that I remember were Rumford Street, the old Adelphia in All Saints, sadly rather rough places – and Jackson Street off Stretford Road, the hall with the four large pillars, some said you could have a fight or a kiss or a cuddle behind the pillars, this hall opened in 1947 and was burned down in 1949, the entrance fee was 1/6 and 2/- at holiday time. There was another Irish dance hall over Burtons, (The Killarney) 32a Stretford Road, All Saints, but it didn’t last very long. By 1950 the Gaelic League was in decline, I could never understand why such organised music and ceili dancing was weakened, although there was still music in the pubs and Fr. O’Flynn a curate in Irlam formed a ceili band in 1940 and kept going for several years. They were short of a piano player and someone suggested Kathleen Houlsdworth from the Gaelic League, he said a woman’s place is in the home not out playing with a ceili band. Fr. O’Flynn was many years parish priest in the Sacred Heart in Rochdale where he ran a ceili in his school for years where Michael Kierans was Head Teacher. We went there once a month. Many years after Fr. O’Flynn was at a ceili in St. Brendan’s and Kathleen Houldsworth was playing the piano with the Four Provinces Ceili Band, and Kathleen reminded him of how he didn’t approve of woman.
In October 1948 Pierce Coogan leased the Astoria Ballroom in Plymouth Grove and opened it as an Irish Dance Hall, this was the first great Irish dance hall in the city, because it was huge and beautifully decorated with every amenity. I became a doorman (or bouncer) and spent 14 years there until it closed in 1963. The first doormen were myself, John Keane, Johnnie Coen, Johnnie Coogan (R.I.P.), Mick Kelly (R.I.P.), and big Tom McGagh (R.I.P.).
On St. Patrick’s Night 1950 we had a crowd of 1700 and not a spot of bother. We used to have coach loads from Leeds, Burnley, Huddersfield, Crewe, Stoke, on the night Joseph Locke came we had a crowd of 1750. That was the time of the great showband era in Ireland, and all the following bands played in the Astoria; Johnnie Butler – Dublin, Maurice Mulcahy – Cork, Melody Aces – Tyrone, Rythym Boys – Kerry, Johnnie Flynn – Galway, Jack Ruane – Mayo and perhaps the greatest of them all, The Clipper Carlton from Tyrone. When they came we always had to close the doors; around about 1958 Sharrocks in Brunswick Street opened as an Irish dance hall and was also very successful.
Before my time there was an Irish dance hall in All Saints called the Shamrock and at Christmas 1940 Manchester was warned to expect a heavy air raid, on the Saturday night Jimmy and Mike Reid and Billy Campbell who were part of the ceili band found the door of the hall closed with a notice, “No dance tonight heavy air raid expected” – so they decided to walk down to Aunties Bar for a pint and it was closed, with a similar notice on the door, so they came up to All saints Square and Jimmy Reid said, “Well air raid or no air raid we will have a tune it might be our last together”, so they put down their music cases, Jimmy took off his hat and they started to play, where a police sergeant came with his bike and shouted, “If you don’t get off the street I will lock you up”, and Jimmy Reid said, “I’m not going until I finish playing “The Plains of Boyle”, a well known reel. Suddenly a land mine dropped on St. Augustine’s Church killing the parish priest, the blast blew the policeman’s bike to bits also the music cases and Jimmy Reid’s hat. Billy Campbell often told me he ran one way, Mike Reid another and he saw Jimmy running down Stretford Road with his fiddle in one hand and the bow in the other and the police sergeant in hot pursuit.
In 1948 there was an organisation formed called the “Unity of Ireland Anti Partition League” – the idea was to bring about the unification of Ireland by peaceful means. There were many prominent people involved throughout Britain. The Manchester officers were Alf Havekin, R.I.P.; the Anglican Bishop of Manchester R.I.P.; Hugh Delorgy, MP for Blackley, R.I.P.; John Lyons, R.I.P.; (landlord of the Clarence for many years). Tull Cousadine and Sean Hogan both R.I.P. Both these men were members of Dan Breens flying columns in the war against the Black and Tans. They were both captured and sentenced to death but were reprieved when the treaty was signed. I was a member but held no office. They staged a mass rally in the old Kings Hall, Belle-Vue in 1948 attended by 5000 people, and Margaret and myself with many others walked from Belle-Vue to Moston cemetery where Eamonn De Valera gave the oration at the Martyrs Monument. The Mac Swiney Pipe Band led the march.
In 1962 the first branch of Comhaltas in Manchester was formed in the Bulls Head in Hyde Road. Johnny Hussey from Galway was the landlord. The first committee was, Sean Gilroy – Mayo (as I write still alive and living in Sydney). PJ Kilroy – Sligo (living in Warrington); Paddy & Mary Malone – Mayo (living in Blackley); Chris Walsh, Manchester, R.I.P.; Fr. O’Keefe – Cork, R.I.P.; Fr. Whary – Offaly, R.I.P.; Felix Doran – Clare, R.I.P. and Betty Kelly – Monaghan, R.I.P. The branch folded up in 1964.
Later that year another branch was formed in the Shakespeare, Stretford Road. The committee was Mick Leavy, JJ McTiernan (later Reverend Father), Chris Walsh, Felix Doran, Des Donnelly, Mick Couroy, Joe & Betty McLauglin, (all R.I.P.), and Mike Goodwin the piper, alive and well and still playing. I see him often.
They ran a Fleadh Cheoil in the Holy Name Club in 1966, the first in Manchester, and attended the first All Britain Fleadh in Glasgow in 1967 where the late Des Donnelly won the Senior Fiddle. This branch folded up in 1968.
By that time St. Brendan’s, City Road, Old Traffford was in full swing. It was run by the legion of Mary and the Pioneers, (non alcohol drinkers), with no bar just tea and scones. Margaret my wife with Kitty Treacy and Nora Madden did a lot of work there in the kitchen.
In 1970 Fr. Joe Feely who was parish priest said he would like to form a branch of Comhaltas, so a committee was formed. Fr. Feely – Westmeath; JJ McTiernan – Leitrim; Pat Sweeney – Donegal; Margaret Sweeney – Mayo; John O’Bride – Meath; Jimmy McCormick – Westmeath; Charlie Gallagher – Donegal and Hughie Coyle – Donegal. Our first teacher was Marion Egan (Haunesey) who did wonderful work and still comes back to visit us. As well as music lessons we decided to revive Ceile dancing and we ran a ceile every Friday night for five years with crowds of 200/300 people, and the monthly sessions of ‘Round the Fire’ were packed.
After five years a new branch was formed in St. Wilfrid’s and O’Caralon’s moved to the Holy Name Club where they still ran the Friday night ceile. The great young musicians who learned there were Michael Goldrick, Dezi Donnelly, the Dinan family, Brendan Dempsey and many more. The older musicians who attended the sessions were Joe Farragher, Noel Owens, Pat Dyer, Maurice Green, Kathleen Houldsworth from the Four Provinces Ceile Band. Tony Howley, Conor Maloney, Joe O’Toole, Jimmy Bracken, Johnnie Buchannon, Marion Egan (Flannery), Chris Culkin, Lady McDermott, Frank Featherstone, Jim Naughton, Mrs Buckley, Pat McCormick and many more whose names I have forgotten.
A great feature of the work at that time was the plays or scoriachts – these were produced by Margaret Sweeney and played to full houses, the most notable were “A Day in the Meadow”, “The Immigrant Returns” and “The Day odf the Matchmaking”, we took these shows to Coventry, Leeds, Rochdale, Glasgow, and Motherwell. Also the great concerts in St. Brendan’s and other venues again produced by Margaret.
In 1980 the first council of Irish Counties was formed in Manchester. I was the first Chairman and it was from the council that a decision was taken to start the Irish World Heritage Centre. Danny O’Donoghue and Peggy Haverty were both fine musicians who were very much involved and are still playing.
I came through the ranks of Comhaltas until in 2000 I was elected World President, the first outside Ireland in fifty years. I felt it was a great honour for myself and my family but also for all the great people both young and old that I met and worked with and also a great honour for this great city always a great Irish city.