By Daniel Neely
On July 22, Irish music lost one of its greats. Joe Derrane was born in Boston on March 16, 1930. The product of a musical household, he took an early interest in music. When his undeniable talent began to emerge more fully, the young musician was sent to the great accordionist Jerry O’Brien and flourished under his tuition. Derrane’s reputation grew in the mid 1940s, attracting the attention of Justus O’Byrne DeWitt, who released the accordionist’s first recordings on the Copley record label.
In the late 1940s and early-to-mid ‘50s, Derrane was popular in Boston’s Irish immigrant community and he became one of the most important musicians in the vaunted dance halls on Dudley Street in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. But as that scene quieted in the late 1950s and ‘60s, Derrane took a job with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and although still a working musician, traditional music occupied a small part of his repertory.
Then in 1994, under the guidance of former Irish Echo columnist Early Hitchner, Derrane embarked on the most remarkable of comebacks that began with a memorable performance at the Wolf Trap festival in Virginia. Between 1995 and 2010, Derrane made seven critically-acclaimed recordings, was a 1998 inductee into Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann’s Northeast Regional Hall of Fame, and in 2004 received the National Endowment for the Arts’ prestigious National Heritage Fellowship, the highest honor given to traditional artists in the United States. Extraordinary stuff, indeed.
Derrane – the musician and the man – was considered a genius who made an indelible imprint on many in the Irish music community. Widely known as one of the kindest, most gracious men Irish music has ever known, his passing is a reminder of life’s ephemerality. He will be sorely missed by all who knew him.