Felix Dolan

Last Friday on a cold rainy and windy day, one of New York’s most popular Irish musicians, Felix Dolan, was laid to rest in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Valhalla as family and friends shared a final prayer and a couple of tunes.

That bone-chilling last ritual followed a truly extraordinary Mass further south in Westchester at the Church of Our Lady of Fatima Church, the parish church of Felix and Joan Dolan, his widow and wife of 53 years.  

For a cold as the spring day in April was outside, it was filled with warmth inside the simple church at the corner of Stratmore Road brought about by the confluence of people who came to celebrate the life of Dolan, who died on Tuesday, April 9 at the age of 76 after a short battle with pancreatic cancer.

Christians readily accept that the dearly departed are now rewarded with the promise of life everlasting in heaven if they have lived the virtuous life in service of the Lord, and anyone who knew Felix Dolan knew he was overqualified on that front.  

The sadness of the news of his passing and the two days of wakes greeting family and friends who shared this wonderful man became the grim reality up to the time of the church service.   But there was hope and healing to be found there last Friday at Our Lady of Fatima, and music and mirth would help provide that for one all.

In one corner was a phalanx of young, old and middle age Irish traditional musicians (over 50 gathered to the left hand side of the church with many more in the pews) playing their hearts out with spirited Irish reels and jigs.

In the other corner was the parish choir who just lost one of their members -- which was unbeknownst to most of us who spent time with Felix over the years -- but carried on valiantly with the beautiful hymns selected for the liturgy.  The musical tribute from both corners was amazing and uplifting.

As the liturgy turned to a close, Phelim Dolan, the eldest of four children (Siobhan, Brendan and Deirdre followed) rose and told us of the many sides of the his dad, including computer programmer, musician, fly-fisherman, grandpa and the IBM man who could even capture a chicken for his school project before heading off to work.  

From Ireland came one of Ireland’s finest flute players, Catherine McEvoy, who recorded with Felix, her long-time friend who always put her at her ease. They fashioned a close family friendship on both sides of the Atlantic.

She ended her comments by saying that “Felix may be dead, but a legend lives forever.”

Musicians turn out for the Mass for Felix Dolan.

McEvoy performed a solo flute salute to her departed friend just after son Brendan shared a favorite slow air for his dad as he recalled that some of their best moments were in the kitchen sharing tunes on the flutes after a night of music playing the piano elsewhere at concerts or festivals.

Another long-time friend was one of the con-celebrants of the Mass, Monsignor Charles Coen, who upon hearing that Felix was in the choir said that was one of his best-kept secrets.

Coen also remembered him from one of their earliest meetings when he was asked to fill in as a musician in the New York Ceili Band back around 1960 or so when Felix greeted him and made him so welcome as a young musician amid so many more experienced musicians.  

Robert Frost wrote a poem about “The Road Not Taken” which could apply to an early choice Felix made as a young man.   Educated by DeLaSalle Christian Brothers at Sacred Heart Grammar School in Highbridge in the Bronx, Felix went away as a teen to their Formation House in Barrytown, New York ready to dedicate his life as a teaching brother in the order.  

He took on the name Brother Conan Patrick as a novice but left before vows were taken to seek another path in life.   In hindsight, he clearly made the right choice given all that he achieved, starting with his own marriage and family and his other accomplishments.  The fraternal values of service were always close to his heart and his religion.

The composite picture painted of Felix Dolan in the church that day was of a very contented man who chose the right path for the talents that God gave him, and it was why everyone gathered in the congregation (or around the world) could conjure up the same smiling image that so characterized Felix Dolan.

Felix was a consummate gentleman and perhaps one of the finest Irish American musicians this country will ever produce, and the gold standard on piano accompaniment for sure. Most of all he was everyone’s friend, and he will be sorely missed.

Our deepest condolences to his wife Joan, his children Phelim, Siobhan, Brendan and Deirdre and their own families and his sister Mary McAleer.

(Next week we will profile Felix Dolan, the musical legend).