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Cavan "raids" were basis of Joe Dolan"s band

Story by Tom Kelly

Wednesday, 10th December, 2008 12:00pm

Two daring "raids" in the Cavan towns of Cootehill and Swanlinbar have been revealed as key cornerstones in the career trajectory of the legendary Joe Dolan (pictured right) from the ballrooms of Ireland to arenas all over the world.

A new biography on the late singer has revealed that Joe was the brains behind two "raids" for musicians in the Cavan towns when he was assembling his original backing band, The Drifters, in the early 1960s.

In 1961 he made his first "raid", when he and his brother Ben and manager Seamus Casey came to Cootehill to hear a young musical prodigy called Tommy Swarbrigg play.

Aged just 16 at the time, Tommy was training to become an electrician, but as he admits in the book, the reason he chose that career was because he could listen to free records in the electrical shop where he undertook his training! On hearing the youngster play, he was hired straight away.

Tommy was playing trumpet in a band called The Jordanaires when he first came to Joe"s attention. He had been playing with them since the age of 14, and word of his musical talent had reached Joe"s hometown of Mullingar soon after.

On joining The Drifters, Tommy became the principal songwriter and arranger, and he is credited with developing the trademark sound that distinguished the Drifters from the rest of the showband pack in the 1960s.

What separated them further was Tommy"s extraordinary talents as a songwriter. With the country in the grip of the showband movement, most bands were content to perform nothing but cover versions, but Joe Dolan was different. He wanted to play original material, and Tommy Swarbrigg was the man to pen most of it for him.

Another Cavan raid occurred in 1962, when Joe came to Swanlinbar to check out another talented musician. Joey Gilheaney was the youngster"s name, and like Tommy Swarbrigg before him, he was hired almost immediately.

A multi-instrumentalist from a formidable musical background, Joey, or The Gill as he is affectionately known, joined the band on trombone and went on to play with Joe for many years. Like Tommy, he settled in Mullingar, and continued to live there even after the shock split of the Drifters in 1968.

That split is recalled in vivid detail in the book. After it, Tommy Swarbrigg formed The Times, and joining him in the band was Joey Gilheaney and other members of The Drifters.

They went on to achieve extraordinary success in their own right before Tommy left to form The Swarbriggs with his brother Jimmy. They went on to achieve even greater levels of success, representing Ireland at two Eurovision song contests.

Several other events centred on Cavan feature throughout Joe Dolan: The Official Biography, which was written by journalist Ronan Casey, a son of Joe"s lifelong manager Seamus Joe had started working on the book with Ronan in the year before his passing, but sadly Joe was taken before he could finish it, but his family and friends have co-operated with Ronan in completing it.

Already a best-seller the book, which was recently published by Penguin Ireland, charts the colourful life, times and career of the singer, from his upbringing on a local authority housing scheme in Mullingar to throwing in a good job as a printer in a local newspaper to achieving international fame and glory throughout the world to his later re-emergence for a new generation of fans as the iconic Man in the White Suit.

In a hit-filled career at home, Joe Dolan became the only Irish artist to enjoy major hits across five decades - the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. Abroad, he was a superstar, capable of filling arenas everywhere from Cape Town to Moscow. He was the first Irish artist to appear on Top of the Pops in the UK, and songs such as Make Me an Island, Lady in Blue and Hush Hush Maria saw him become one of the first ever Irish artists to sell a million copies in countries such as France, Argentine, Brazil, Spain, Germany and South Africa.

The book details how Joe"s extraordinary devotion to his Irish fans saw him effectively turn his back on his successful international career in the 1980s to concentrate instead on his Irish audience.

Mullingar honoured Joe with the unveiling of a life-size bronze statue, the centrepiece of a weekend-long celebration of his life throughout his home town Some 6,000 people turned up for the event and it received extensive coverage in the national media.

For information on the book, contact Cliona Lewis, Penguin Ireland, 01-6617695 or

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