Few know about these top quality gems from the 1940s
“Apart from his family and a few surviving acquaintances, very few people seem to know of Bill Stapleton’s Irish Recording Company in the late 1940s.
Few people know of his five-star quality recordings of the best musicians, a missing page in the recording of traditional music of more than 70 years ago. Few people knew of its existence. That’s what Harry Bradshaw, a leading figure in sound engineering and broadcasting at home and abroad, told me recently.
He did, however, do a good job of getting RTÉ broadcaster John Bowman to mark the birth of Stapleton, who was born 100 years ago this month.
As a teaser of sorts, Bowman ended his Sunday morning archive program on February 28 with one of Stapleton’s earliest recordings, that of famed uilleann piper Séamus Ennis singing The Bonny Boy Is Young, with piano accompaniment. There would be more the following week and the following week as Bowman played Stapleton’s recordings from the late 1940s, restored and remastered by Bradshaw.
“The Séamus we hear The Bonny Boy sing,” Bradshaw said, “is almost a baritone of the type you might hear at an Edwardian or other party.”
He told Bowman what may well be the first recording of a young Val Doonican and what may be the very first recording of piper Willie Clancy. And there were many other Stapleton recordings of traditional musicians that remained hidden for almost 70 years.
Bradshaw researched Stapleton’s life and career: “He was born in Kilkenny and the family moved to Dublin when he was very young and he grew up in Inchicore. He did not excel in school and in his own written accounts he said he passed his Inter Cert and knew he was not going to be so lucky with his Leaving Cert. So he went to study radio at Kevin Street Technical School and excelled in electronics, found his niche and passed his various City and Guilds exams.
He came out with his qualifications at the wrong time because the war had just started. There were no job prospects so he joined the army and was seconded to the Air Corps where he was made a captain.
But he had this idea that he would get involved in the recording industry; a business that did not exist in Ireland at that time. There was state broadcaster Radio Éireann and all recordings made in the country were by EMI/HMV of Hayes in Middlesex in the UK. So he was heading into a field that was far from certain, building a business from scratch.
After the war, Stapleton created the Irish Recording Company, acquired premises in Moore Street to be closer to Radio Éireann in the GPO and was in business in the summer of 1947. He bought a portable disc burner in the United States: ” He got the most amazing sound quality out of equipment that was pretty basic by today’s standards,” Bradshaw said. He did business for Radio Éireann making commercial recordings, but also traveled the country making recordings.
During this time he invited a Cavan accordionist called Terry Lane to come in and make a record. Lane had previously recorded several 78s for HMV and was regularly heard on Radio Éireann. Lane insisted that his daughter Eileen accompany him on the piano. Stapleton agreed and they recorded four or five sides, the first of several recordings where Eileen played piano. Over time, she became the record label sidekick, and in 1950 they were married.
In 1997, the famous fiddler, Seán McGuire, spoke to Irish Music Magazine: “In 1948, while playing with the Malachy Sweeney band, I was introduced to Captain Bill Stapleton who wanted to start the first record label Irish tradition, the Irish Recording Company. . I recorded several pieces for him in Dublin with his wife, Eileen Lane, on the piano. He never released them but they arrived, without my knowledge, in the United States.
Bradshaw said Stapleton sent some of his recordings to the United States to find a distributor, but unbeknownst to him or the artists, those recordings were released on American labels.
“Stapleton felt his label idea was over after his recordings were pirated,” Bradshaw said. “He felt his reputation as an officer and a gentleman was in shambles because people would jump to the wrong conclusion. When the label he had started to record traditional music collapsed, Stapleton continued to run his studios. In the late 1950s he moved to London where the next thing was television. He then established Silverpine Studios in Bray.
Before leaving, he packed up most of the things he had collected and, for safekeeping, gave the material to collector and author Breandán Breathnach, one of the best-known activists of Irish traditional music in the 20th century.
In the mid-1980s, Breathnach presented Bradshaw with two boxes of acetate master records given to him over 30 years earlier. He said he gave the batch to the sound engineer to do with it as he saw fit.
The end result is that Bradshaw has remastered Stapleton’s violin and uilleann pipes recordings in the late 1940s and they will be released on CD later in 2021 by Cairdeas na bhFidléirí (violins) and Na Píobairí Uilleann (pipes).
Among those to be heard are fiddlers Aggie White, Denis Murphy and John Kelly, and uilleann pipers Leo Rowsome, Felix Doran and Willie Clancy (uilleann pipes). These CDs will be a fitting tribute to the remarkable Bill Stapleton, and Irish recording pioneer.