MICHAEL COLEMAN was born in the townland of Knockgrania, Killavil, Co. Sligo on 31st January, 1891. His father, a small farmer, was James Coleman from Banada in Co. Roscommon, close to the Sligo border. He married Beatrice (Beesey) Gorman, a local woman from Knockgrania where they established their home. James was a well-respected flute player and made the family home a focal point for the abundant musical talent in the locality. So great was the musical activity around the Coleman home that it was often called “Jamesy Coleman’s Music Hall”. Killavil was an area famed for its fiddle tradition, highly developed even in Coleman’s very early years.
Michael, the seventh of their children and the survivor of twins, developed a keen interest as a boy, both in step dancing and fiddle playing which was performed almost exclusively at the numerous country house dances in the locality. Surrounded by fiddle players of great skill, musicians who influenced him include Philip O’Beirne, P.J. McDermott and later John O’Dowd. His older brother Jim, must have been a source of influence, for although he was never recorded, he was regarded locally as a master fiddler. Keen to absorb all the musical variation and style in the area, Michael attended as many house dances as possible and had particular interest in the music of the uileann pipes. One of the pipers he came in contact with was travelling piper Johnny Gorman, from Derrylahan in Co. Mayo. Coleman incorporated some of Gorman’s piping techniques into his fiddle playing.
Michael left school in 1908 at the age of 17 years and continued to pursue his love of music. He competed at theSligo Feis Ceoil in 1909 and again in 1910, and was placed joint third on both occasions. In 1914 Michael went to Manchester to his older brother, Pat but returned home afterseveral months. Then, in October 1914, when he was 23 years of age, he set sail for America with his friend John Hunt, where he was to spend the rest of his life. After arriving in New York he began work as a performer with Keith Theatres, a travelling vaudeville with venues in many of the major U.S. cities. After a few years he settled in New York, and in 1917, he married Marie Fanning from Co. Monaghan. They had one child Mary (Mary Hannon R.I.P.) In 1921 he began his recording career with his first record on the Shannon label and later that year he recorded for the Vocalion label. During the 1920’s and 1930’s Michael made approx. 80 commercial recordings with major recording companies, the last being in 1936. In 1944 a number of recordings were made but these have not been released to date. In 1991 the collection “Michael Coleman 1891 - 1945” was published. This definitive collection of his classic recordings by Harry Bradshaw gave a new lease of life to Coleman’s music and was accompanied by a comprehensive biography of his life. In 2004 the Coleman Heritage Centre in Gurteen Co. Sligo released Michael Coleman “The Enduring Magic”. This CD features 20 remastered tunes by Michael Coleman. It is available on line in our store. The Enduring Magic” is the only widely available work by the legend that is Michael Coleman.
Coleman’s records were to have a major impact on musicians back in Ireland, and were to exercise an influence on traditional music which was to long outlast his own lifetime. He was certainly the most influential traditional musician of the twentieth century, his legacy extending far beyond his native South Sligo and indeed the country as a whole. Although he has had many imitators, Coleman’s combination of superb technical ability and deeply expressive playing has had few, if any, equals.
On the 4th January 1945 Michael died in Knickerbocker Hospital, Manhattan aged 54 years. He was buried in St. Raymond’s Cemetery, The Bronx, New York.