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Milwaukee’s Ward Irish Music Archives

A treasury of sound

Mar. 10, 2010
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With an impressive compilation of 40,000 recordings and music artifacts ranging from 78 rpm phonograph records, LPs and concert memorabilia to musical instruments, sheet music and songbooks, Ward Irish Music Archives (WIMA) has made Milwaukee home to the largest public collection of Irish music in America.

As the archive’s director, Barry Stapleton, tells the story, in 1992 Ed Ward, the founder of Irish Fest, was in the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin waiting to see the archive director when he happened across copies of his grandfather’s collection of music books. Finding this piece of his family’s heritage inspired Ward to research how Irish America’s musical history was being preserved. He found that no comprehensive collection existed. By that point, Milwaukee’s Irish Fest had in its possession 15 years’ worth of music and music-related items sent by musicians hoping to play the popular festival. It was a perfect base on which to grow the archives and initiate an effort to preserve Irish musical heritage in America.

When the Ward Irish Music Archives moved in 1998 with its parent company, Milwaukee Irish Fest, into its current digs, an old Masonic lodge, it was given the second floor of the building, a whole 2,500 square feet to accommodate the growing collection. That year, the Ward Irish Music Archives received a generous donation from Michael and Mary Comer: 5,000 reel-to-reel, CD, cassette, LP, 45 rpm and 78 rpm records on Irish labels from the 1940s through the 1980s, most of which would be very difficult to find today.

The most rare and valuable collection in the Ward Irish Music Archives was acquired against all odds. Francis O’Neill was an Irish-born American police officer who served as Chicago’s police chief from 1901 to 1905. An avid collector of Irish traditional music, he often recorded the major performers of the era, including Patrick Touhey, one of the best uilleann pipers of all time, on wax cylinders. Stapleton recounts that after O’Neill and his wife suffered the loss of all their sons, they decided to give their music collection away. It is believed that Michael Dunn, a musician and instrument maker, as well as the captain of the Milwaukee Fire Department, received some of O’Neill’s field recordings and manuscripts.

“The story goes that sometime between the time Dunn died in 1935 and World War II, his daughter was told that, if bombed by the Japanese, the cylinders would become shrapnel and tear the whole house apart, so she took them outside and burned them,” Stapleton says. “So in all the history books it says the Dunn cylinders were lost in Milwaukee when the daughter burned them. That’s what everybody thought until 2003, when Dr. David Dunn, a retired pediatrician from Children's Hospital, walked into the building carrying a suitcase with the cylinders.”

“The importance of the O’Neill cylinders is that he was recording the experience of all the Irish immigrants,” explains archives assistant Jeff Ksiazek. “For a long time, the recordings on the cylinders and the music in the books didn’t match up. The best analogy is to imagine that the Beatles just wrote out all their music in a manuscript book and never recorded. Imagine 80 years later you find a recording of them. That’s really what we have here.”

For more information: 414-476-8999/ 1532 Wauwatosa Ave./ www.irishmusicarchive.com.


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