This elder Irish musician keeps his instruments tucked away in his pocket and is prone to extravagant claims. At one point he boasted of being 112 years old, and like a good Irish lad, said drinking whisky was the reason for his good health. He earned the nickname of the "Whistling Welder" for his musical adventures while at work on the Tyneside shipyards, where he used to boast that he could fire red-hot rivets out of his piccolo. All such nonsense aside, Doonan is a whiz on his tin whistle and piccolo and is considered one of the Godfathers of Irish music for his regular participation in various bands and memorable recording sessions such as the small-instrument summit The Lark in the Clear Air, released in the early '70s on Topic.
Both Doonan's father and grandfather were fiddlers, and as a boy, he picked up this instrument as well as learning flute, mandolin, and piano. Slowly he gravitated toward preferring the slim silver flute, and in 1946, formed a traditional celli band with five fiddles, three concert flutes, and drums. His father was one of the fiddlers, and Doonan has continued to be involved in family bands throughout his career. He would later form the Doonan Family Band which featured his two sons: Mick Doonan on piccolo and Kevin Doonan on fiddle. This band has recorded two albums, Fenwick's Window and Manna From Hebburn. Doonan switched from flute to piccolo when he felt the smaller, higher instrument would be better at cutting through all the other players in the band, the same reason jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders switched from flute to piccolo as well. But whereas Sanders lost his piccolo in a bar and never got another, Doonan has continued displaying his virtuosity on the little instrument on releases such as the live recording At the Feis, released on the Lark in Clear Air label. He was the 1964 All Ireland winner in the flute competition. He has also appeared on recordings by the Irish guitarist and singer Archie Fisher.