Honored posthumously, February 17, 2007
Dermot Grogan spent only five years in New York before returning to his native Mayo, where he passed away far too soon at the age of 48 on February 4, 2006. In those few years, however, his talent as a flute player and button accordionist, as well as his marvelous human qualities, made Dermot one of the most respected and best liked Irish traditional musicians in North America.
Dermot was born and raised in the townland of Derrytavrane, Kilkelly. This part of northeast Mayo, like the “Coleman Country” of south Sligo just over the nearby county border, has always been a very musical area. It is also very poor farming country, however, and the main export crop has always been the local youth. So, like many a Mayo lad before him, Dermot took the emigrant boat to Holyhead at a young age.
He spent long years toiling on building sites in Manchester, Hartlepool and other English cities, finishing up his working career in Britain as one of London’s “tunnel tigers” digging shafts deep beneath the Thames. The tunnel men are renowned for their toughness and hard-drinking ways and Dermot, despite his relatively small stature, could hold his own with any of them. He was anything but a “hard man,” however, and was always ready with a joke and a smile for friend or stranger.
Dermot returned home to Ireland frequently, but it was his music that sustained him throughout his exile years in England. While working in Manchester or London he played with the best local musicians, including fiddlers Brian Rooney and Dezi Donnelly, button accordionist Peter Carberry and banjo/fiddle virtuoso John Carty. Together with fiddle legend Bobby Casey, concertina great Noel Hill, flute player Gregory Daly and button accordionist Jim Philbin, he performed for a wedding scene in the film I Could Read the Sky, an Irish emigrant story released in 1999.
Dermot’s flute playing was extraordinary. Sligo and Chicago flute great Kevin Henry rated him “the best flute player I know” and he was frequently mentioned in the same breath as Seamus Tansey as a master of the highly ornamented north Connacht style. Perhaps no other flute player was as adept as Dermot at transferring awkward fiddle and accordion tunes to his instrument. He was also a superb button accordionist, one who played with understated good taste and was always a perfect partner for an unamplified fiddler.
Unlike some elite musicians, Dermot never turned up his nose at a tune with lesser talents. He never made the full-length solo recording he surely should have. But he did freely share his enormous repertoire with many other musicians, some of whom recorded the various tunes now known to the world only as “Dermot Grogan’s.”
In 1999, Dermot moved with his long-time partner Sheila Waldron to New York, where he soon made a great impression on the local Irish musicians. Older players immediately recognized his musical quality, while younger ones sought him out as a source of new tunes and as a touchstone of true traditional style. While in New York, Dermot led hundreds of pub sessions and performed at concerts and festivals that included an all-star flute concert during New York University’s 2003 “West Along the Road” program and a marvelous duet performance at the Blarney Star that same year with Mayo fiddler/composer Brendan Tonra. Dermot can also be heard with guitarist Dónal Clancy on a beautiful hornpipe selection on the compilation Wooden Flute Obsession, vol. 2.
In the summer of 2004 Dermot began to suffer the symptoms of what turned out to be pancreatic cancer. He bravely underwent surgery and repeated bouts of chemotherapy, which allowed him to return home in 2005 to Mayo, where he continued to live on his own and to play music with friends until just before his untimely death. He was buried in the new cemetery at Urlaur next to his father Darby, after which musicians from far and wide gathered in Charlestown to play music in his memory long into the night. He is survived by Sheila, as well as by his mother Bridget, sister Bridie Finan and brothers Michael and John.
– Don Meade