The two Kerrymen shared the same name and devotion for traditional music but could hardly be more different in personalities, though both made their mark in the annals of Irish music in the Big Apple.
When the name Johnny Cronin was mentioned in any connection to the times they had in New York City, you had to distinguish between the older fiddle player from Gneeveguilla and the younger accordion player from Killarney, though the stories and frame of reference were often quite different and their tenures overlapped briefly in New York City.
Fiddler Cronin was the more boisterous and colorful character for whom stories abound about his exploits around the music scene as much as the Sliabh Luachra music he brought to the attention of the wider New York audience before he passed away in 1991.
Box player Cronin was a quieter man who let his accordion speak for him very often, and such was his prowess that people were very much drawn to his music whenever he played.
It is the latter Cronin we remember now as his New York friends and fellow musicians have organized a day to mark his passing last November 22, 2008 when Johnny left us all sad and broken-hearted.
This coming Sunday at the Kerry Hall in Yonkers, a mighty gathering is planned to share the sense of loss with Johnny’s widow Aileen and their three daughters Roisin, 18, Hannah, 14, and Orlaith, 11, and to celebrate the time we had with him in New York.
In the true spirit of community and healing, it is an opportunity for Johnny’s family to experience the kind of open embrace that New York gave to him when he landed on these shores, and the fondness for the city and country where he obtained citizenship after a number of years over here.
Before returning to his homeplace in Aghadoe outside of Killarney in 1995, he relished his time in New York. He met and married Aileen, the daughter of Dan O’Connell, the owner of the famous Knocknagree pub so storied in set-dancing circles.
That Johnny would marry into set-dancing “royalty” would be no surprise to those of you familiar with the robust connection between the music of Sliabh Luachra and the fast and lively country sets associated with the region bordering Kerry, Cork and West Limerick.
In fact, Cronin’s time in New York would parallel the rise of set-dancing in New York City, particularly the ceilithe at the Cork Lounge which could have been a hall built with musicians like Johnny in mind given the excellent timber floor and proximity to the stage which allowed you to take in the music and musician as you wheeled and squared round the house.
Johnny’s gift to the set dancers was his vast command of the Kerry polkas and slides and the required tempo that brought out all their beauty and grace and helped distinguish them from the more prevalent reel sets of Clare and Galway whose musicians held a far more predominant sway in the Big Apple.
Cronin was well able to play the reels and jigs, though and he especially loved the opportunities to polish them with the older more seasoned Andy McGann and Jack Coen whenever he had the chance.
One of my fondest memories with Johnny was calling the “Ceili Wedding” of Mary and Regan Wick in 1995 with Johnny, Andy, Jack and the venerable Felix Dolan as the wedding band, where their music was sublime and perfect for the occasion.
But Johnny was able to play with any number of musicians like Joe Banjo Burke, Mike Flanagan, Denis O’Driscoll and so many others at dances and pubs. His accordion, like his personality, didn’t need to blow people away to make an impression.
The day to remember Johnny Cronin of Killarney and his family will begin appropriately enough with a Mass celebrated by Monsignor Charles Coen at 2 p.m. at the Kerry Hall, 305 McLean Avenue, followed by a marathon session of traditional Irish music and song provided by his many friends he left behind.
You can expect to see all the wonderful musicians who shared a tune with Johnny over the years at some point turning up to help the cause organized by Noel Cotter, Donie Carroll, Don Meade and others.
Donations for the Cronin family will be taken at the door, and you can expect raffles and prizes galore. For more information contact Noel Cotter at 212-988-1445 or Pat Buckley at 718-325-5335. Donations may also be sent to Noel Cotter at 215 East 84th Street, Apt. 3C, New York, New York 10028-2981 made payable to Noel Cotter for distribution to the Cronin family.