Cooley’s Reel is so popular at sessions around the world that it is sometimes played in different keys/modes (esp. Bdor and Ddor) just for a diversion. There are those, of course, who place it just inside their “too popular” category, and those that place it just outside. As I actually lack that category in my repertoire, I can play it many times in a session without embarrassment or remorse. Apparently, it was once called “The Tulla Reel” and “Luttrell’s Pass,” but became closely associated with master accordion player Joe Cooley (1924-1973) — as it was one of his favs it is still called “Cooley’s Favorite” now and then. Though, as I discuss below, it is sometimes held to be composed by Joe Cooley, it is a bit more likely that it acquired his name as an homage, and so may also be called “Joe Cooley’s Fancy.”
Later, though only anachronistically, it was played on-board the H.M.S. Bounty in the Roger Donaldson movie The Bounty (1984), with Mel Gibson, Daniel Day-Lewis and Anthony Hopkins. The tune was performed by none other than Barry Dansfield, playing the part of a blind fiddler Michael Byrne, and for some reason sporting some fine Harry Potter glasses long before Harry Potter glasses were cool.
As for authorship, there are a number of accounts. There are two that seem most plausible, though one more-so than the other. In Fintan Vallely’s Companion to Irish Traditional Music (1998) he writes that Seamus Cooley (Joe’s brother) says that he and Joe heard an old concertina player play a tune that they later couldn’t remember, and that “Cooley’s Reel” is the result of their reconstruction of that tune. That originally forgotten tune may have been the now lost “Leahy’s Reel.” However, the folklorist Allan Jardine interviewed Galway accordionist Joe Mills in the 1970s, and thereafter maintained that Mills composed the tune in the late 1930’s. Importantly, Mills and Cooley were both members of the Aughrim Slopes Band, and Jardine asserts that Joe Cooley, about eighteen at that time, was so enamored with the tune that he “quickly learned it, and played it sometimes 2 and 3 times per night.” Whichever story is correct, it is true that he played it so often that as a result it became associated with him by pretty much everbody. You used to hear this tune played with “The Wise Maid” or “The Maid Behind The Bar,” but these days it is finding its way into some new sets.
If you want this tune in ABC, click Cooley’s Reel
Cooley’s Reel, med-slow tempo (zouk)
Cooley’s Reel, med tempo (mandolin)
Cooley’s Reel, med-fast tempo (fiddle)