The Flanagan Brothers - Early Irish American Dance Hall Music

The Flanagan Brothers was a New York City Irish dance hall band that consisted of brothers Michael, Joseph, and Louis Flanagan.

Their choice of instruments and related skill gave them a unique sound, which led them to become one of the leading attractions in New York City’s Irish dance halls during the 1920s and 1930s. Subsequently, their phonograph records extended their popularity and fame to Ireland proper and into the homes of Irish emigrants throughout the world. They became a household name among Irish entertainers and were on par with the other great music ambassadors of the time, Michael Coleman and John McCormack.

A set of reels - dancehall music New York City 1930s

The Flanagan Brothers were part of the large community of immigrant Irish musicians playing in New York City at that time. Inevitably, entrepreneurs recognized the potential market for this music as recording material for the increasingly popular 78 RPM discs. The major record companies were at first unconvinced and it fell to small, independent labels to prove the market existed. The Flanagans’ first disc - featuring the horn pipe An Carrowath – was released by the M&C New Republic Irish Record Company in December, 1921. An Carrowath was later recorded as a song, The Little Beggarman.

The Little Beggerman was also the name given to the group’s recording of The Stack of Wheat. Thus begun a highly successful recording career which produced 168 records for numerous labels over the following decade. 

An Carrowath "The Stack Of Wheat" (Red Haired Boy)

New York buzzed with music sessions in bars, on radio, and in private homes. Mike recalled playing alongside fiddlers Michael Coleman, James Morrison, and other musicians whose fame would be established during this era.

For special occasions in the Irish calendar, the Flanagans joined forces with piper Tom Ennis to play as a quartet. Sadly, no recording of this combination is known to survive. Ennis was the owner of a music shop near Columbus Circle and Mike worked there at one time as a record salesman.

Following the release of their first disc, the brothers’ career continue to progress as they recorded for labels like Emerald, Gennett, and Vocalion, but they moved into the big league when they join Columbia in 1923. Columbia’s partnership with EMI in England meant that the Flanagans’ records could also be manufactured under license in England, and their discs were soon sold throughout Ireland.  

The final elements in the commercial success of the Flanagans’ records were added in 1926 when they recorded Fun at Hogan’s, the first of many comics sketches adapted from standard Vaudevillian gags of the day. That same year their first song was recorded and Victor (later RCA Victor), Columbia’s great rival, also recorded the group. Recurring ill health made Lou’s role in the trio uncertain from this time, but Joe and Mike continued their act as a duo and added musicians for dance hall and studio work, as required.        

The Flanagan‘s music was diverse and they recorded a wide variety of material. Their instrumental sound was unmistakable, even when they recorded under pseudonyms like The Irish Big Four, The Donovan Trio, or The County Cork Trio.

After their recording career peaked and the popularity of the dance halls in New York City began to wane, the brothers became focused on their respective families and moved on from playing together.

Joe, who had married in 1923, remained in Queens and signed on as a regular player with an orchestra. Joe passed away in 1940.

Lou, who had continued to suffer from ill health, died at an early age in the mid 1930s.

Mike, who married his first wife in 1924, had moved back to Albany, New York by 1941 with his family. Mike began working for his brother-in-law, who had a successful wholesale produce business, but also remained an active musician. He would regularly play at the popular resorts and clubs in the “Irish Alps” – the area in and around the town of East Durham in New York’s Catskill Mountains, where the center of Irish culture in the northeast had shifted. Mike had been joined by a new accordion player, Noel Rosenthal, and the duo, known as Mike & Ike, played the Catskill resorts and the local Albany scene well into the 1980s. Mike died in 1990.

In 1981, Celtic supergroup De Dannan recorded a cover of "My Irish Molly-O", a tune which the Flanagan Brothers popularized and first recorded in 1928. The De Dannan version of the song became a top-ten hit for the group, which led to a resurgence of interest in the Flanagan Brothers contributions.

"My Irish Molly-O" (De Dannan with Maura O'Connell)

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