John Whelan

Preferred Name
John Whelan

Artist Biography by 

Celtic Fire

Celtic master John Whelan and his red, two-row button accordion have been inseparable since the first day he picked up the instrument at age 11 in Dunstable, England. Whelan's Irish father, who hails from County Wexford, and his Irish mother, who comes from Ballingary in County Tipperary, both instilled in their son a love for traditional Irish music. His father played the melodeon, the single-row button accordion, and Whelan took up the two-row button accordion, eventually winning six All-Britain championships and seven All-Ireland titles. Whelan has five albums as a leader, including Celtic Fire in 2001, which brought him together with young American musicians ranging in age from 16 to 29 to play traditional Irish music. Percussionist Paddy League, uileann pipes player Eliot Grasso, fiddlers Patrick Managan and Jim Eagan, flutist Aran Olwell, and guitarist Flynn Cohen joined Whelan on Celtic Fire. Whelan first gathered critical notice at age 14 on his first solo album, The Pride of Wexford, so named in honor of his father, who strictly listened to traditional Irish music and didn't allow his son much opportunity to hear other music. Musicians of all stripes though, even trumpeters and drummers, visited the Whelan household to play music in Whelan's youth. Whelan gained an appreciation for the culture, feeling, and history of traditional Irish music from his father, who had an in-depth understanding of the feeling and culture behind Irish music, but lacked technical expertise. Whelan learned the technical side of the accordion from Brendan Mulkare, originally from County Clare, Ireland, who lived in London. When Whelan entered his twenties he began to learn about other types of music. In the late '70s punk music caught his ear. He listened to the Motown soul that came out of America. After he moved to America in 1980, he first became exposed to Cajun and zydeco music, bluegrass and country music, and New England contradance music. With these influences in hand, Whelan branched out into other musical realms. He collaborated with country musician Kathy Mattea on Celtic Crossroads. He expanded the boundaries of Celtic music on Flirting With the Edge by performing world music with guests Bernadette Peters, Latin guitarist Oscar Lopez, Ugandan musician Samite as well as Irish legends Seamus Egan, Pat Kilbride, and Jerry O'Sullivan. Whelan has also performed in the original production of Riverdance on Broadway in New York City. Yoko Ono featured Whelan's music in her film Somewhere in the City in 1997. In 1998, he appeared in a documentary about the Irish in America called The Long Journey Home. That same year, he was the subject of a special show on Connecticut Public Television. His music was also featured on Connecticut Public Television's documentary about the Civil War called Ashoken's Farewell. He played accordion in a wedding band scene in Ang Lee's 1999 film Ride With the Devil. And he produced the Celtic rock band Black Thorn in 2001.

John Whelan taught button accoridon to apprentices in the Southern New England Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Program, Year 16, 2013-2014

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